The HistoryMakers tells the story of 2,700+ African-Americans

The HistoryMakers is an online African-American oral video archive. With more than 9,000 hours of searchable interviews and stories from more than 2,700 African-American individuals in the nation, it is the largest of its kind in the world. It was initiated by Julieanna Richardson, the executive director of The HistoryMakers, who started collecting interviews in 1999.

The content of the project is diverse: it relates to the fields of science, education, entertainment, art, history, and many others. It is available for students and scholars at subscribing institutions; interviews are available to the public at the Library of Congress, which is The HistoryMakers’ official repository. Carnegie Mellon University was granted access to the archive as recognition for the university’s contribution in making the project. According to Richardson, “Carnegie Mellon University can single-handedly take credit for opening this collection for research and study ... I can’t say enough about Carnegie Mellon.”

The HistoryMakers is a major work in recording the history of African-Americans. According to Richardson, “Everybody who has seen the work has been blown away.” Professor Trotter from Carnegie Mellon University’s History Department became acquainted with the project in 2008. In an interview conducted with The Tartan, Trotter stated, “we sometimes overlook our recent history when we are thinking about the future. In the underground, even as we are speaking, there are outstanding individuals doing incredible things, and we ought to be about recording both the older generation as well as the newer generation.” According to Trotter, the oral history record of lives of people in the late 20th century will offer extraordinary insight and legacy for the study of history as well as for future generations.

Erika Linke, Associate Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s school library, upon which the archive is endowed, states “I loved HistoryMakers from the first time I used it. Resources like HistoryMakers connect us with the past by hearing people in their own words, to see their expression and demeanor. We can read words but to hear the voice and to see an individual speak is special. Valuable today but in future, it will become a vital record.”

One important feature of The HistoryMakers is that it is searchable electronically by an index name. In the archive, each video is briefly presented as segments with transcripts; work done by Carnegie Mellon University enables users to directly jump to corresponding video references that are mentioned in the transcription.

Trotter states “In the past, historians would need to listen to hours of tapes to identify particular topics or themes.” Trotter stated that this searchable feature is a dimension of the project that wasn’t thought of as possible when the project started. Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center got involved in the project and helped to produce the technology that made these interviews searchable. He said that this feature is an “amazing innovation,” in that it “not only allows you to search for a particular topic” in a way that the archive is a tool that can be used by anyone on any subject instantly, “but also allows you to analyze it through various lenses,” such as through regional differences, time differences, gender differences, and so on. “You can get into a lot of different variations on the African American experience,” Trotter stated.

This dimension of the project “does underscore that technology is transforming the research that we do,” Trotter said. “Digital humanity is becoming a big field ... It’s just good to have African American wrapped in it among those projects that are employing these tools.” He believes that technology will unpack graduate training, teaching, and many other aspects of the study of history.

According to a university press release, in April, $725,000 was awarded to Brandeis University by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for it to work with The HistoryMakers and Carnegie Mellon University, to modernize the digital archive. “Previous funding has come from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Science Foundation.”

As for the future and development of The HistoryMakers, Michael Christel, who is a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon working on digital humanities projects and games, says they aim to make the site responsive for mobile devices in February 2017. Also, they want to engage more students with the resources of The HistoryMakers and “make it more visible through the experiences the ETC can offer.”

Professor Trotter stated that “The HistoryMakers project, as it stands, is national. You can look at people from all areas of the country, which means that you have only a few representatives from each area.” His goal is to integrate the local oral history projects into the national body of oral histories. According to him, right now they have over 180 interviews with local Pittsburgh African-American people in their history project, which is a great resource for this national archive: in this way Pittsburgh is represented more fully. He believes that if this could be done across the country, it would enrich teaching, research, and even social services in history.

The CAUSE Remembering African Americans in Pittsburgh Oral History Project was originally directed by Benjamin Houston, who is a senior lecturer in modern U.S. history in Newcastle University in the UK. Professor Trotter says that they are “still collaborating on projects that brings programs at Newcastle and at CMU together.”