By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Question number one: What famous Chicago journalist was kidnapped from a television studio and nearly died after being shot in the head twice?
The answer is Merri Dee (C). She survived the tragic event that unfolded one evening in 1971. She was not expected to survive and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson administered her last rites twice.
It’s Black History Month and the stories of Black achievers is blooming with renewed interest as the immensely popular Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington continues to draw huge crowds from across the country.
At the Harold Washington Library and other Chicago Public Library branches throughout the city, many new readers and history buffs will discover some interesting stories as they use an unfamiliar tool when researching facts about famous and influential Blacks: the HistoryMakers’ video and oral archive digital database.
The story of Merri Dee is just one of many thousands readers will discover as part of a new collaboration between the Chicago Public Library and the HistoryMakers, a national organization whose massive database on Black achievers is the largest video and oral history archive system in the world. The system is free, although HistoryMakers does accept donations since it’s a nonprofit corporation.
The world’s second largest library, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., was given the HistoryMakers’ archives on analog tapes, DVD’s and documents in 2014, but the digital database that contains thousands of interview and information about Black America now has the potential to reach a wider audience of readers in Chicago, historically the bedrock of Black achievement in media, sports, music, entertainment, science and business.
The HistoryMakers captured this success and preserved it for generations to come. Created in 1999, HistoryMakers is based in the South Loop. Its vast database includes interviews with more than 1,700 Blacks who gained fame and success by climbing the pinnacles in their fields. They include actress Whoopi Goldberg, Cedric the Entertainer, Ebony and Jet Founder John H. Johnson, Mogul Quincy Johnson, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and General Colin Powell. About 500 of the interviews are with Blacks who are from Chicago, like Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Many of these successful Black pioneers were rarely interviewed when they were alive, but their achievements, stories and personalities are well-preserved in the HistoryMakers’ oral history database, which includes over 6,000 hours with more than 74,000 stories of triumph and struggles.
While many of the subjects are famous, readers will also learn about successful Blacks who were not as well known. They include scientists, business executives and decorated military figures who became unsung heroes. Now, readers at the Chicago Public Library will learn about successful Blacks who were not just football players and entertainers.
To access the digital files at the Chicago Public Library, readers must have a library card and login credentials. So far, users cannot access the HistoryMaker database from their own computer, but officials are working on that option.
Excitement about the partnership with the public library filled a room on the 9th floor of the Harold Washington Library on February 3. Here the HistoryMakers’ founder and CEO Julieanna Richardson showed how library readers can use the HistoryMakers archive to a packed room of prominent Blacks, library executives and community leaders.
“This morning felt like it was special,” Richardson said. “I think this project could not have been in any other city.”
Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, who spoke on behalf of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, praised the collaboration.
“It’s one thing to keep one’s history, but it’s another thing to tell it and share it.”