Making history accessible to all

Julieanna Richardson’s The HistoryMakers project preserves first-hand stories of the African-American experience.

Julieanna Richardson

Richardson shares her experiences with The HistoryMakers at a conference.

Richardson in a production at Interlochen Arts Academy

Richardson (right) performs in Restoration Comedies at Interlochen Arts Academy.

Growing up in a small, mostly-white Ohio town, Julieanna Richardson (IAA 71-72) rarely heard stories about people like her.

“I didn’t know, as a young black person, that we blacks have our own history,” she said in a recent interview with Crescendo magazine.

Decades later, Richardson is helping other African-Americans reconnect with their heritage through the world’s largest collection of African-American oral histories. Known as The HistoryMakers, Richardson’s database contains video interviews with more than 3,100 black artists, activists, educators, politicians, scientists, athletes, and more. It is available in more than 70 colleges and universities and, since 2014, occupies a permanent home in the Library of Congress.

The HistoryMakers story begins with Richardson’s own journey. As a youth with a passion for the theatre, Richardson encountered a peer who had gone to Interlochen Arts Camp. “When I heard her talk about it, I thought, ‘It doesn’t get any better than that!’” Richardson said. Richardson auditioned, and spent her senior year of high school as a theatre major at Interlochen Arts Academy.

“That single year on campus was amazing,” Richardson said. “Not only was I able to practice my craft for four hours a day, but the academics were exceedingly strong and the classes were small. I came into Interlochen academically strong, and Interlochen made me even stronger.”

Following her graduation, Richardson enrolled at Brandeis University as a double-major in theatre and American studies—an unintentional foreshadowing of her future project. “HistoryMakers is about storytelling, the arts, and American studies,” she said. “Who would have known at the time?”

At Brandeis, the strength of her training at Interlochen became evident. “During my freshman year, I was the only undergraduate to be cast in a play,” she said. “I was later cast in a production that ended up touring in London. I attribute that success to the fact that I came in with significant training in theatre.”

But it was Richardson’s second major in American studies that would prove pivotal. During her sophomore year, Richardson was assigned to conduct oral interviews about the Harlem Renaissance—and discovered the richness of black history for the first time.

“One of the first people I interviewed was Leigh Whipper, who was the first black actor to be a member of the Actors’ Equity Association,” Richardson said. “One interview led to another. The stories I heard gave me a sense of place in the American lexicon.”

Two years later, Richardson graduated from Brandeis and, at her father’s encouragement, enrolled at Harvard Law School. There, she reunited with a familiar face. “One of my best friends at Interlochen was a woman named Marsha Cohan,” Richardson said. “I called her the day I got accepted to Harvard, and found out she also got accepted! We’re still friends to this day.”

After Harvard, Richardson relocated to Chicago and began working at a corporate law firm, but her heart wasn’t in it. “I never really wanted to practice law,” Richardson confessed. “My father wanted to be a lawyer, so that’s what he wanted me to be. It was never really my dream.”

After a short stint as a cable administrator for the City of Chicago, Richardson found herself without a job. At a crossroads, she raised $1 million and started a home shopping channel. “That stage of my life was actually very important to my journey, even though it seems so random,” she said. “Although I had done theatre, I didn’t know anything about what directors and producers do on a television set. That’s what the home shopping channel taught me.”

Richardson’s home shopping channel was successful, and she soon found herself managing several channels. Within a few years, however, Comcast reclaimed the channels and Richardson was again unemployed. “I was sitting at my dining room table, angry and not sure what to do, and in that moment, those stories from the Harlem Renaissance came back to me,” she said.

Richardson decided to use her unemployment as an opportunity to continue her oral history project—regardless of whether or not it would pay the bills. “I’ve never been a nine-to-five kind of gal: I’m a person who needs to live a life full of passion,” she said. “I wasn’t motivated by trying to make a living. I was motivated by making a difference and leaving a legacy.”

Thus, in 1999, The HistoryMakers was born. Over the next two decades, Richardson and her team would travel to 41 different cities across the United States to interview a diverse group of black luminaries, from 109-year-old World War II riveter Louisiana Hines to 29-year-old ballerina Ayisha McMillan Cravotta. Among Richardson’s favorite interviewees are dancer Katharine Dunham, entertainers Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, actor James Earl Jones, and cowboy Alonzo Pettie.

“It’s amazing to sit down and have people recount their lives to you,” she said. “You learn so much about yourself and the world around you. We have wonderful stories of family life, culture, and coming of age. Each interview fills in some of the missing pieces.”

Over the decades, despite the twists and turns of her career, Richardson never lost her love of theatre. At Harvard, she directed a student performance that featured future stage and screen star Courtney Vance. While practicing law, she joined the Chicago-based collective Lawyers for the Arts. And in May 2018, Richardson returned to Interlochen Arts Academy as a guest of the Theatre Division, bringing The HistoryMakers with her.

“At the end of the first day, I gave the students an assignment,” Richardson said. “I told them, ‘I want you to go into the archives, and I want you to dramatize either a story or a theme you find in there.’ There were these two young women who searched under ‘mental illness’ and found an interview with Herbie Hancock in which he talked about his mother being bipolar. They wrote the most explicitly beautiful work based on the quote ‘I lived in a house where the floors were made of eggshells.’”

“That’s what’s so special about Interlochen and the talent here. It just goes to show you what you can do as an artist: You can have a fabulous artistic career or you can be a supporter of the arts. Or the arts can actualize, like they have in my life. Interlochen is a transformative place, and I will always be in its debt.”