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How The HistoryMakers strives to share the African-American experience

This weekend, many PBS stations will air “An Evening with Ken Chenault,” a special about the man who was chairman and CEO of American Express for 17 years. It was created by The HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based oral history project collecting the stories of African-Americans from all around the world. Jeffrey Brown previews the special with HistoryMakers founder Julieanna L. Richardson.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country this weekend, many PBS stations will air a Black History Month special, "An Evening with Ken Chenault," the African-American who was chairman and CEO of American Express for 17 years.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with a preview.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Making history accessible and available to all is the goal of The HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based oral history project collecting the stories of African-Americans from all around the world.

    Accessible online free of charge, the collection includes a range of people, some famous, some not so, President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, actors Marla Gibbs and Ruby Dee, captains of industry like communications moguls Cathy Hughes and Earl Graves, and many others have shared their stories.

    Julieanna Richardson is the organization's founder, and joins me now.

    Welcome to you.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    It's a pleasure to be here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tell us first a little bit about the idea behind HistoryMakers. How do you think about it?

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    The goal was really to create the nation's largest African-American video oral history archive.

    There had been virtually no attempt to record the black experience with the first voice since the WPA Slave Narratives. There were 2,300 former slaves interviewed in the 1930s as part of the WPA project.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, I named some of the people, well-known names, but how do you pick?

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    We're looking for leaders in many ways, but we really look through people's lives to help tell a more complete history of the African-American experience, and now we have done 3,200 interviews.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Thirty-two hundred?

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Thirty-two hundred interviews in 413 cities and towns across the United States and some abroad.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So you have one coming up airing on PBS.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Yes, we're so pleased about that one.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's with businessman Ken Chenault.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Tell us about that one.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Ken Chenault, a lot of people don't know his story, though he has been the well-known leader of American Express, the CEO. He went to Harvard Law School and was really wanting to practice law.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And rose to quite a business career.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Oh, quite a business career.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We have got a short clip. Let's take a look.

  • Ken Chenault:

    What company has tried to focus on is reinvention and transformation. And I feel I played my part while I was there, but I think what's also important was the commitment that the company had to service, which really resonated to me, because we only did well if we served people well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What have you learned after so many of these conversations and profiles?

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    We have learned that the African-American experience is very diverse, a lot more complicated than we know, a lot of things that people don't know of.

    Like, we were recently in Alaska, and people were laughing, like, what about black Alaskans? It's too cold up there. But the black Alaska story goes back to the mid-1800s.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    And so we have — I would say that the 20th century is really profoundly impactful.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One personal note I want to add for our audience is, my colleague and Gwen Ifill was the longtime host for many years.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    We owe a lot to Gwen, and we miss her still to this day. She was our angel in many ways, and interviewed for us people like Eartha Kitt and Diahann Carroll.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I remember well her telling me about it all the time.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It meant a lot to her.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    I think our project is increasingly important, in terms of being able to show value.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, The HistoryMakers.

    Julieanna Richardson, thank you very much.

  • Julieanna Richardson:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How nice to remember Gwen, that series so important to her.

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