HistoryMaker Jesse White visits Lincoln Park High School in Chicago as part of the 2014 Back to School Day. (Courtesy Lincoln Park High School)
HistoryMaker Nikki Giovanni poses for photos with students as part of Back to School Day. (Courtesy The HistoryMakers)
HistoryMaker Nikki Giovanni poses for photos with students as part of Back to School Day. (Courtesy The HistoryMakers)

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – This Friday, more than 400 Black role models will visit students at schools in 67 cities across 32 states as part of The HistoryMakers Back to School Day. The annual day of service brings Black leaders from as many industries as possible to speak with middle and high school students about their lives and career paths.

This year’s Back to School Day HistoryMakers include Tom Burrell, founder of the largest Black-owned marketing firm in the country, actor Lou Gossett Jr., Ernest Green of Little Rock Nine fame, author and chair of the Foundation for the National Archives, A’lelia Bundles, and many more.

“What we’re really wanting to do is…to start bringing this into schools. Kids are still struggling with role models, who to look up to, finding a path,” said Julieanne Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers. “The program is way more impactful than I could have imagined, because what I didn’t understand at the time was that the schools could not reach out and touch the people that we were bringing in on their own. And they’re looking for things to motivate their students.”

The HistoryMakers bills itself as the largest African American video oral history collection. For the first time, thanks to a $1.6 million grant, its digital archive will be donated to any Chicago public school that wants access, plus teacher training to make the most of the resource. The archive will be complete in 2017; but it is currently available and includes hundreds of interviews, adding up to more than 2,000 hours of firsthand accounts from people such as President Barack Obama, Julian Bond, and Diahann Carroll. Access to the archive usually requires a $30-per-month membership with The HistoryMakers.

“Our digital archive is just groundbreaking, because at the click of fingertips, we’ll be able to put all this information in an online resource that the world has yet to see,” said Richardson. “We really want our digital archives in every school in the United States because there’s so little known about the Black experience. We are in a time now where we still hear ‘Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer,’ as if no other Black people existed.”

According to Richardson, the schools they work with that already use the database find it to be a great supplement to their classrooms.

“The digital archive is good for language arts, social studies, STEM – we have 211 of the nation’s top scientists on the digital archive,” she said. “One of the schools was using it to teach vocabulary in context. At another school, a drama teacher was using it to teach accents.”

Now in its 16th year, The HistoryMakers conducts research on accomplished Black professionals and records interviews for posterity. This is the sixth year for The HistoryMakers Back to School Day. The visits often extend beyond this annual event, and relationships develop between The HistoryMakers and the schools they visit.

“[Journalist] John X. Miller in North Carolina has been going back to the school every month,” Richardson said. “Our HistoryMakers have actually helped fund schools or students. One of our scientists took one of the kids under mentorship, and now that young man is going to be going to college.”

Richardson’s group is based in Chicago, but collaborates with hundreds of schools across the country. She hopes to continue to grow both the archive and Back to School Day, and offer guidance to as many Black youth as possible.

“We all need role models, we all need to see people who stood for something. I’m an integration and affirmative action child, and I benefited from that,” she said. “But for me to be seeing young people who are doing worse than I could’ve ever imagined – there’s something terribly wrong. I really believe that the Black community needs to get back involved with itself in this way, for our kids.”

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