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Preserving Black History: The HistoryMakers

It all started with an interview with Tuskegee Airman Colonel William R. Thompson.

A black and white photo shows three airmen seated in a military truck in conversation.

Seated in the cockpit of his P-51, Benjamin O. Davis Jr. confers with William R. Thompson (center) and another squadron officer. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

When Julieanna Richardson, a lawyer, journalist, and founder of Chicago-based oral history organization The HistoryMakers (Opens in a new tab), sat down with Colonel Thompson to record his story (Opens in a new tab) in 2001, he asked Julieanna a simple, but remarkable question.

“Do you know about the ‘Golden 13,’ the first African American officers in the Navy?” he asked.

Julieanna shook her head and replied, “No, sir.”

Colonel Thompson paused. “There are only four living, and one of them is upstairs. He wants to speak with you.”

That was the moment Julieanna knew that the small set of interviews that made up The HistoryMakers could grow to become an invaluable collection of unheard Black voices documenting American history.

The HistoryMakers houses the largest collection of Black oral histories since the WPA Slave Narratives. To date, they have preserved the personal stories of over 3,000 well-known and ordinary Black Americans from all walks of life—and made them accessible to the public. Their collection includes interviews with trailblazers in sports, science, media, and civic engagement; Chicago legends like Barbara Bowman (Opens in a new tab) and John Rogers (Opens in a new tab); and even then-State Senator Barack Obama (Opens in a new tab).

Then-Senator Barack Obama sits behind a desk looking off camera, holding a pen, with a photo of Harold Washington on the wall behind him.

Here at the Obama Foundation, collections like The HistoryMakers serve as an inspiration for the types of voices we’re currently highlighting on our digital channels, and the stories that will be told at the Obama Presidential Center. When we open our doors, visitors will learn about activists, leaders, and everyday people who pushed for change throughout our history, and ultimately made the Obamas’ story possible. By honoring their legacies, our hope is to inspire everyone to create change of their own.

You can learn more about The HistoryMakers, and their work celebrating and recording Black history for future generations at (Opens in a new tab).