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The HistoryMakers Digital Archive: A Great Way to Teach

The HistoryMakers e1589803022222By Karen V. Hansen

Professor & Director of the Women’s Studies Research Center Brandeis University

In 1971, as a sixteen year old white girl, I walked into Doug Walker’s U.S. Black History classroom, and immediately noticed a poster of Jesus that hung by the door. Sunnyvale High School was a public school in California, so the image was not meant to inspire devotion but rather to provoke a question.

Mr. Walker asked us, “Was Jesus white?

This imagined likeness of Jesus was popularly displayed in white churches and homes. We had seen it before. We knew who it was without a label. He had long, wavy, almost blonde hair, with a concerned expression, compassionate blue eyes, and pale skin. “How do we come to think that Jesus was white?” Mr. Walker asked, “Where was he born?” Bethlehem in Judea. The Middle East. “How did this image of Jesus get created? Who paints it? Who circulates it? Why do we accept it?” I had never thought about it before.

Twenty-five years old when he began at Sunnyvale High School in 1970, Doug Walker took the stance of a teacher, someone to imbue knowledge. A tall African American man with warm brown eyes, Walker came to the school to teach U.S. Black History. Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, he was the son of a school teacher and an Air Force officer. His stock in trade was provoking curiosity, posing critical questions, and inspiring mutual respect. Walker took an inclusive approach: “We’re going to get there because you’re going to figure this out.” He did not talk down to students; he invited us to inquire. His philosophy revolved around teaching students their own history and that of other groups, and creating an environment where we could ask difficult questions. Doug Walker started teaching U.S Black History at Sunnyvale High School only two years after the first Black Studies program in the country was established at San Francisco State in response to a student strike.[1]

Student strike at San Francisco State College, 1968
The year was 1968 and Sunnyvale High was a working-class, racially integrated school, located on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Most parents, including my own, had little formal education, and many worked in the canneries, on the assembly line in the microchip factories, or at the nearby Moffett Field military base.
Sunnyvale High School, 1966

When Mr. Walker joined the faculty, less than 2 percent of Sunnyvale High School’s student body was African American, more than a quarter were first- or second-generation Mexican Americans, and another 6 to 9 percent were of Asian Pacific heritage. Students spoke twenty-two languages at home, including Spanish, Portuguese, Samoan, Dutch, Tagalog, Russian, and Chinese—both Mandarin and Cantonese. In describing his class, Mr. Walker often said he had “the United Nations there. It was beautiful.” Entering a predominantly Anglo and Chicano world, he recognized that “a lot of kids there just . . . hadn’t been around too many Black people. Hey, I was there, and they found out a lot.” The fact that Doug Walker grew up in the South and intended to teach students about the personal impact of segregation and prejudice, powerfully affected the learning process. That classroom experience taught me the importance of history and the power of social structures, including law.

Now a historical sociologist looking back, I set out to figure out how Sunnyvale High made its way through in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period of heightened racial conflict, while attracting charismatic, effective educators like Mr. Walker. As I sought to create a portrait of Sunnyvale High, I began gathering oral histories of its students, teachers, and administrators.[2] In the tradition of Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, I have aimed to convey the “holistic, complex, contextual” perspectives of people and “capture the culture” of the school, its values, and “essential features.”[3] Centrally, that culture was shaped by teachers like Doug Walker. So I reached out and contacted Mr. Walker, among others, to interview him.


At the same moment, Provost Lisa Lynch brought The HistoryMakers Digital Archive to Brandeis University where I am on faculty. I recognized its potential for my research on my former integrated high school. Provost Lynch offered a teaching innovation grant to faculty who were interested in incorporating The HistoryMakers Digital Archive into their syllabus. Intrigued, I applied to redesign my graduate seminar, “Gender, Class and Race.” My mission in the re-conceived syllabus was to illuminate theoretical intersectionalities by rooting them in African Americans’ concrete challenges and triumphs. I reasoned that The HistoryMakers Digital Archive would allow my students to examine oral history as a method, including assessing authenticity, memory, trauma, contradictions, and silences. They would also understand the production of oral history by examining issues such as subject recruitment, the role of the interviewer, influence of the setting, and the impact of transcription.

I incorporated The HistoryMakers Digital Archive into my syllabus through: learning goals; weekly readings; guest speakers (including Julieanna Richardson via Skype); and assignments. The first required listening to and analyzing an oral history. The second gave students the option of deepening their research on a particular HistoryMaker. Importantly, Brandeis hired an Instructional Design Specialist, Laura Messner, who supported the class by teaching all of us the features of searching and using The HistoryMakers.

Above L to R: Na’im Akbar, Robert Bullard, and Elizabeth Catlett
Below L to R: Karen DeWitt, Sgt. Maj. Michele Jones, and Serena Strother Wilson

Students’ final papers focused on a vast range of HistoryMakers, including:

  • Na’im Akbar, Psychology professor
  • Robert Bullard, Environmental activist
  • Elizabeth Catlett, Printmaker and sculptor
  • Karen DeWitt, Newspaper reporter
  • Sgt. Maj. Michele Jones, Non-commissioned officer
  • Serena Strother Wilson, Quilt maker and story teller

Students assessed the merits and limitations of working with oral histories as social scientists and made recommendations to The HistoryMakers. In evaluating the course, they found it enlightening, engaging, and challenging. One student commented, “The incorporation of The HistoryMakers Digital Archive was a really important and brilliant part of the course.”

The HistoryMakers has created a way for my students to have virtual conversations with educators like Doug Walker. Coming full circle, I am able use the Digital Archive’s oral history interviews to conduct research on integrated schools and teach my students history through the lives of those who share their stories of joy and struggle.

HistoryMakers in Sunnyvale, California

Carver Gayton and N. John Douglas

Little did we at The HistoryMakers know that Sunnyvale, California is mentioned as much as it is in The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. After having this article submitted to us by Brandeis professor Karen V. Hansen, we searched for other references to Sunnyvale, California in our Digital Archive, and found that it was home to several of our HistoryMakers in science, technology, and media. For example, CEO of Personal Achievement Radio N. John Douglas (1938 – ) describes working for Lockheed Research Laboratories in Sunnyvale: “… there were maybe 70 scientists and I remember there were three of us that there African American and it could have been because that was the year [1962] they were starting to recruit minorities.”[4] Several years later in 1967, Carver Gayton (1938 – ) who was the first Black F.B.I. agent from the State of Washington, joined Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale as a special security representative.

Lockheed Martin production plant in Sunnyvale, California c.1970s

In the 1970s, Legand Burge, Jr. (1949 – ), former dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Physical Sciences at Tuskegee University, told of his first assignment in the Air Force “as a satellite officer out at Sunnyvale (Onizuka) Air Force Station as part of the Space and Missile Systems Division which is part of the Secretary of the Air Force… We did the development, the creation of hardware, the design of hardware, the whole writing of the software, handling all of the various targets, making decisions on databases for the hardware, making sure that the hardware is well taken care of, the health and payload. And then shipping the collection items to the Pentagon. This was a very big, this is a very big system.”[5]

Legand Burge, Jr., Paula Hammond, and James Andrews

Chemical engineer Paula Hammond (1963 – ) described her work on the direct assembly of nanomaterials: “We developed an automated approach that sprays these systems one after the other, and we can generate the films much faster. One of my students invented this approach. We patented it, and we actually have a company he founded called, Svaya Nanotechnologies in Sunnyvale, California. It was founded in 2009, and it’s in its third round of funding right now [2012].”[6]

But for digital pioneer James Andrews (1970 – ) coming to Sunnyvale saved him. He tells his story: “… my aunt started a graphic arts communication company in Sunnyvale. And you know it was fascinating. This was at the point where you had to like typeset. This is pre-technology so she started this company… she had a partner, a business partner named Pearl Pappas who was Greek. And so when I went to live with my aunt, I thought I was just living with my aunt and she told me her business partner. But as the years went on, I began to realize my aunt was a Lesbian and that this was her lover. So I lived with two lesbians… she had realized early on that she wasn’t going to have kids. And so she raised me as her own. And it was an interesting experiment. One that ended up to be probably the best thing that happened to me. And got me out of a situation and a town that was just stifling.”[7]

The HistoryMakers would like to thank Karen V. Hansen for contributing this newsletter feature.

Professor Karen V. Hansen

Professor Karen V. Hansen combines sociology and history in her research and teaching. Her latest book, Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of the Dakota Indians, 1890-1930, has received support from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and won the 2016 Chaudhuri Book Prize from the Western Association of Women Historians. Encounter explores life on a remote Indian reservation in the early twentieth century where Scandinavians began homesteading, with the sanction of the U.S. government. In effect, they dispossessed Dakota Sioux while living as their neighbors ON the reservation. Based on oral histories with elders and analysis of landownership records, the book explores the land taking and in its wake, the coexistence of two profoundly different peoples as they sought to maintain their language, practice their culture, and honor loyalties to more than one nation.

Professor Hansen’s scholarship also focuses on contemporary families. She authored Not-So-Nuclear Families: Class, Gender, and Networks of Care, which received the William J. Goode Book Award, Honorable Mention, and was a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Award. Combining theoretical frameworks and rich empirical accounts, she has edited two anthologies with Anita Ilta Garey, At the Heart of Work and Family and Families in the U.S.

[1] (Bloom & Martin, 2013).

[2] Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997.

[3]Lightfoot 1983, p. 13; p.6.

[4] N. John Douglas (The HistoryMakers A2002.034), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 29, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 4, N. John Douglas talks about his experience at Lockheed Research Laboratories.

[5]Legand Burge, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2011.016), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 11, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 6, Legand Burge talks about his work as a satellite officer in the Air Force ROTC.

[6]Paula Hammond (The HistoryMakers A2012.218), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 9, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Paula Hammond describes her current research concerning the directed assembly of nanomaterials.

[7] James Andrews (The HistoryMakers A2012.096), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 18, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, James Andrews describes moving to Palo Alto to live with his Aunt, who became a second mother, pt. 2.

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