Library Acquires African-American Oral History Video Collection

The HistoryMakers Archive Documents Black America’s Legacy

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 6/24/2014, 11:27 a.m.
The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, announced today the donation of a video archive of thousands of hours of ...
The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington

The Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, announced today the donation of a video archive of thousands of hours of interviews—The HistoryMakers—that captures African-American life, history and culture as well as the struggles and achievements of the black experience.

“The HistoryMakers archive provides invaluable first-person accounts of both well-known and unsung African-Americans, detailing their hopes, dreams and accomplishments—often in the face of adversity,” said Billington. “This culturally important collection is a rich and diverse resource for scholars, teachers, students and documentarians seeking a more complete record of our nation’s history and its people.”

“The HistoryMakers represents the single largest archival project of its kind since the Works Progress Administration’s initiative to document the experiences of former slaves in the 1930s,” said Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers. “This relationship with the Library of Congress represents a momentous occasion for our organization. With the Library of Congress serving as our permanent repository, we are assured of its preservation and safekeeping for generations to come.”

The collection includes 9,000 hours of content that includes 14,000 analog tapes, 3,000 DVDs, 6,000 born-digital files, 70,000 paper documents and digital files and more than 30,000 digital photographs. The HistoryMakers has provided the Library with digital files of all of the analog tapes.

The collection comprises 2,600 videotaped interviews with African-Americans in 39 states, averaging three to six hours in length. The videos are grouped by 15 different subject areas ranging from science, politics and the military to sports, music and entertainment. For example, the ScienceMakers category currently features 211 top black scientists—about six percent of the interviews—in the fields of chemistry, engineering, physics, biology, electronics, anthropology, aerospace, mathematics and genetics, among other scientific professions. The percentages of interviews for the other categories break down as follows: ArtMakers (7 percent), BusinessMakers (12 percent), CivicMakers (13 percent), EducationMakers (17 percent), EntertainmentMakers (3 percent), LawMakers (6 percent), MediaMakers (10 percent), MedicalMakers (4 percent), MilitaryMakers (3 percent), MusicMakers (6 percent), PoliticalMakers (7 percent), ReligionMakers (3 percent), SportsMakers (2 percent) and StyleMakers (1 percent).

“The collection is one of the most well-documented and organized audiovisual collections that the Library of Congress has every acquired,” said Mike Mashon, head of the Library’s Moving Image Section. “It is also one of the first born-digital collections accepted into our nation’s repository.”

Oral histories are continually being added to the growing archive. The oldest person interviewed was Louisiana Hines, who passed away in 2013 at 114. She was one of the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” workers during War World II. One of the youngest is a prima ballerina, Ayisha McMillan, who was 29 at the time of her interview. Some of the other lesser-known participants who have shared their life stories are:

Arthur Burton, Sr.—one of the last surviving Pullman Porters who worked 20 days a month, averaging two hours of sleep a night at half the pay of factory workers.

Amazon Brooks—voted in her first election in 1920, the first year that women were granted the right to vote.

Ann Cooper—President-elect Barack Obama noted that her life exemplified the struggle and hope of the American-American experience in the 20th and 21st centuries.