Oral history archive seeks S.C. partner HistoryMakers more than halfway to its goal of 5,000 interviews

Denise Grimes, an interviewer with The HistoryMakers project, talks with Herman Blake, a former university president and scholar in residence at the Medical University of South Carolina. The HistoryMakers/Provided

What do Civil Rights leader Julian Bond, Texas cowboy Alonzo Pettie, the late blacksmith Philip Simmons, musician B.B. King, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Charleston funeral home director Herbert Fielding have in common?

All have been videotaped telling their life stories to The HistoryMakers project, the nation's largest archive of African-American oral histories.

Founded in 1999 by Chicago historian Julieanna Richardson, the HistoryMakers archive already contains interviews with more than 2,600 people.

Her work was sidelined for a few years by Great Recession but has been recently revived. This summer, it received an important stamp of approval, when the Library of Congress agreed to serve as its permanent home - a step that both validates the HistoryMakers' value and ensures that its archive will be preserved.

But Richardson said she feels as if she has only begun to scratch the surface - and she is looking for partners in South Carolina willing to help.

The roots of Richardson's groundbreaking project can be traced to a single day in an Ohio classroom, when a teacher asked students to talk about their family backgrounds.

"Everybody was raising their hands, saying, 'I'm part German.' 'I'm part French.' Everything was just peeling off their tongues," she said, adding that she realized how little she knew about her own. "I was feeling very chagrined."

Richardson went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and became an entrepreneur before conceiving this project, incorporating the HistoryMakers nonprofit institute and videotaping her first interviews in February 2000.

Her goal was to record not only the stories of well-known figures, such as Civil Rights pioneer Julian Bond, but also those of people like Carl Davis, a record producer who helped create a unique Chicago sound. Davis retired to Summerville, where he died in 2012.

During the interviews, which last an average of three to four hours, her subjects talk about more than their singular accomplishments. They talk about their families, neighborhoods, churches and other influences.

"A lot of times, we know where people are, but we know don't know what it took to get there. That is a lot of the value of the collection," she said. "There's value from different streets and towns and schools and communities that make people."

While her Chicago-based nonprofit has been helped with generous donations, such as free tickets on American Airlines, she said she would like to do more interviews here.

"When you think about the history of South Carolina and its importance in the African-American community, we've not even really touched the surface," she said. "My family, in fact, their origins are in South Carolina. It was a point of entry for slavery."

Richardson said she would like to find a South Carolina institution interested in helping to record these stories.

J. Herman Blake, scholar in residence at the Medical University of South Carolina, said he would love to talk to Richardson about that.

Blake, who has been interviewed for the project himself, has used oral teaching in his own classrooms and said the HistoryMakers project is extremely valuable.

"So much of the history -and the contributions of the general public, if I can use that term - is not known and understood," he said. "I think it's valuable to do in every community, not just African Americans."

South Carolina has about 3 percent of the nation's African-American population, but its residents currently represent less than 1 percent of the HistoryMakers archive to date.

Richardson said it was challenging at first to create a list of suitable subjects.

"We were often asking people, 'If we were coming into this community, who should we interview?'"

But as the project advanced, that process has become clearer as her team focuses on the scope of history, not simply on who is making news or promoting something at the moment. "Now we have a list, but we're always looking for new people," she added.

Her small team, which has never included more than a half dozen videographers and interviewers, has recorded politicians, business leaders, scientists, educators, artists and others, amassing more than 9,000 hours of oral history in more than 80 cities and towns and two countries.

She already has surpassed the approximately 2,300 oral interviews that the Works Progress Administration conducted of former slaves from 1936-38.

"My goal was to conduct 5,000 interviews," she said. "I want everyone to help me reach my goal because this was what was important to me. I wanted to double the slave narratives."

"People ask me all the time, 'Would you stop there (at 5,000)?' No," she said, "but we're not there yet, and we don't want to get lazy."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.