Adding Her Story to History
Preserving the history of Black women pioneers
By Kathryn De Shields
Maya Angelou. Katherine Johnson. Oprah Winfrey. Madam C.J. Walker. Dr. Mae Jemison.
All these women are well known as Black pioneers in their respective fields. But, what about the countless other doctors, artists, teachers, scientists, civic leaders, military personnel and executives who are not known household names?
Take Ursula Burns, for example.
From 2009 to 2016, Burns served as chair and CEO of Xerox. She started as an intern at the company in 1980 and worked her way up to CEO. To date, the only other Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company is Mary Winston, who served as an interim CEO at Bed Bath & Beyond in 2019.
As a trailblazer in the business world, Burns is concerned that the stories of women like her will be forgotten, buried or lost. That’s why she looked to the online project, The HistoryMakers, which she describes as “a more inclusive chronicle of American history,” to find a way to highlight stories that would focus on the achievements of Black women.
Founded in 1999 by Julieanna Richardson, The HistoryMakers archives African-American stories. To date, the collection houses more than 3,300 video interviews (more than 10,000 hours of content) with African Americans, spanning locales, industries, and areas of expertise. These interviews, also known as “biographies,” are sorted into 15 industry-based categories. According to its website, The HistoryMakers “...is now the single largest collection of African American first-person video oral history testimony in the world.”
“I wanted to create the largest repository in the world about the Black experience, and I wanted to do that with people talking about their own stories...,” Richardson said during an interview at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. “When you look at this side of the Black community, you see an amazing, amazing people. I don’t think we know enough about ourselves.”
On Jan. 31, 2020, at the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, Burns presented Richardson with a $1 million gift to launch the WomanMakersinitiative. The initiative will focus on adding more interviews with pioneering Black women to the HistoryMakers digital archive. An advisory committee of Black women leaders and executives across multiple industries will help select 180 trailblazing Black women to interview as part of the initiative.
“We have to value our own stories,” Burns said in an interview with ABC News about the WomanMakers initiative. “We have to teach ourselves to actually value ourselves in our society.”