The History Makers Return To Denver
Everyone has a story to tell and everyone is significant. When families gather for reunions this summer, this must be at the forefront. If you have someone in your family that has done something particularly significant, get to know them, cherish your interactions, and preserve what they have done.
This is maybe what Paul Stewart thought when he established the first Black American West Museum in the basement of Clayton College, and then later moved it into Dr. Justina Ford’s home in 1988. Stewart had the foresight to create a space for preserving our history. He was a History Maker who was ahead of his time.
Stewart was also one the Colorado residents to be recognized by The History Makers, aChicago based organization making great strides nationally in preserving the significant and seemingly insignificant accomplishments of African-Americans across the country. Stewart’s museum rooms illustrate life of Black homesteaders, farmers,ranchers and cowboys as well as Dr. Ford’s examination room.
The History Makers recognized more than 30 Black Coloradoans for their accomplishments, and they returned to Denver for a reception hosted by Dr. Warren Washington, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and his wife, Mary, to promote the program which has compiled more than 100, 000 records of African-American lives with the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The History Makers, based in the South Loop of Chicago, goals for the digital archive include:
•A multi-dimensional nexus of stories of people and of history.
•An instantly digestible, living web, with limitless potential to grow.
•A Collection that represents the breadth of culture, and the inter-connectivity of shared experiences.
The History Makers are doing this through video oral histories and with ordinary and accomplished African- Americans across the country. There are only a few states where they have not found at least one African- American to interview and document. Wyoming and Montana are two ofthem; and ironically there have only been three participants in Mississippi.
Colorado has had 34 and The History Makers’ goal is to get 50 plus. Their aim is to grow roots in the community through collaborations with K-12 schools, colleges and universities, community institutions and organizations, and the media. The History Makers have partnered with 24 major universities and public library systems that can subscribe to the service and the collection. Colorado currently has no schools in partnership, but many recognized Colorado History Makers have been associated with Colorado higher education, among them – Dr. Rachel Noel, Dr. William King, Cleo Parker Robinson and Ricardo Patton.
Studies and experience in the classroom have shown the importance of students seeing themselves in the subject matter as they determine careers and life paths. The larger media can only accomplish so much. Gwen Ifill, brought The History Makers to PBS, but as Founder and Executive Director Julieanna Richardson told the intimate gathering at a reception, we are rapidly losing our History Makers, like Ifill, or they are no longer able to articulate their stories, as in the case of Lerone Bennett or Lani Guinier who both have Alzheimer’s. Colorado History Makers who are deceased include Stewart, Dr. Vincent Harding, Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers, Dr. Rachel Noel, and Denver’s griot, Opalanga Pugh.
The significance of these History Makers to the community is unquestioned and those who have been recognized reads like a who’s who of Black Denver. The importance of their accomplishments is in their example for future generations, but how will they learn about them? The History Makers database of interviews on their website is keyword searchablelike Google, and researchers can follow along as it scrolls through the transcripts highlighting their keywords. Five Points was used as an example in the live demonstration at the event, which yielded 71 instances in interviews.
Who is in this national database? In a world where we are enamored withsports-stars and celebrities, it is notable that these don’t even make the top 10. By the numbers, here is how the content shakes out.
Education makers 609
Civic makers 468
Media makers 388
Art makers 269
Political makers 243
Law makers 242
Music makers 216
Science makers 214
Medical makers 130
Dr. Warren Washington, the host of the event at the Cherry Creek Country Club, is one of the 214 Science makers. He facilitated the $2.3 million to The History Makers for interviewing more than 200 noteworthy scientists. He has been at NCAR since the60s, and is one of the nation’s first researchers and experts in a growing problem, climate change. A Stanford graduate, he studied at the University of Pennsylvania for his Ph.D., under a scientist who was Einstein’s driver. How many children in school know this? How many would aspire to be scientists if they knew about him or Katherine Johnson renown after the film Hidden Figures, who is also in the collection of interviews?
The History Makers enlisted numerous famous African-Americans to get their story out there. In the 10th anniversary video, Rev. Al Sharpton remarked, “Ordinary people that did extraordinary things. That is what History Makersis. If we don’t tell that story to our children, they will never know their value.”
Black people have value. And it is critical that our stories are told. “When you think about the 19th century, all Black people around the world were in an enslaved state, indentured state, or under some colony. The 20th century is the Black man’s century. It is when we made tremendous strides, but if we don’t leave the evidence that we have created, then it will be as if we did not exist,” Richardson said.
Oral history has been our tradition. History Makers like Opalanga Pugh are a testament to it. But this digital archive project, 12 years in development, has combined the best of this tradition with state of the art digital technology.
“If we don’t preserve this it’s as if it didn’t exist. We are essentially trying to write our story. So our goal was to take oral histories and combine it with state of the art technology Library ofcongress is our first step that is preservation,” Richardson said.
With the Library ofCongress, and significant partnerships with institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, The History Makers continue to make history. They have come so far since the first 17 interviews in Chicago of Pullman Porters, Tuskegee Airmen and professional baseball players.
The History Makers was first in Denver in 2001-2002 whenBlair Caldwell was just an idea. Wellington and Wilma Webb recognized the importance of preserving his story as Denver’s first African-American mayor. But there are so many other stories out there, and The History Makers want to grow roots here. Help Richardson and her team fill in the gaps. Retain and preserve documents and photographs and help them answer these questions: What should we be doing? What histories should we be telling? And what have we missed?
Editor’s note: For more information or to get involved, visit www.thehistorymakers.com