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Arts / Culture

First Black USF Faculty Member's Story in Library of Congress

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The HistoryMakers
Henrietta Smith was the first African-American faculty member at USF.

Poet Maya Angelou, actress Ruby Dee and even President Barack Obama have something in common. They've all participated in The History Makers project--the country's largest African American collection of video interviews capturing the struggles and achievements of the black experience.Those 2,600 HistoryMakers videos have a new home--the Library of Congress.

It was 1985 when Henrietta Smith was the first African-American faculty member at the University of South Florida at the School of Library Science.  

"I guess I didn't think about the fact that I was African-American, as a matter of fact it was a long time before I even realized that," Smith said. "I mean, I never went there thinking 'oh oh, I'm the only black or I'm the first black.' It never really occurred to me that that was one of the things people noticed because I don't think anybody paid any attention to it."

Smith made her career as a library science professor and as a school librarian now, she's in the Library of Congress.

She was interviewed by the HistoryMakers--a non-profit organization based in Chicago whose mission is to get 5,000 video interviews of African Americans completed and archived. That's almost twice the interviews of the slave narratives that came from President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the only other large African American history collection. The organization started interviews in the year 2000 and 14 years later, it's recorded 2,600, all of which will be permanently archived in the Library of Congress.

That's a feat Smith finds exciting.

"When I read that I said, 'really?' When you think that this little person right here is part of the history of our whole culture, it's very exciting and very rewarding," Smith said.

Smith isn't the only one happy with the news. Founder and executive director of the HistoryMakers, Julieanna Richardson said, "because that took us a long time and it's a big deal for our organization to have a permanent repository."

As a black child, Richardson found herself questioning her own story. 

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Credit The HistoryMakers
Founder and executive director of the HistoryMakers, Julieanna Richardson.

"I go back to being 9 years old in the classroom where I was the only black student in my class and the teacher asked us [of] our family backgrounds and literally everyone raised their hands," Richardson said, "they knew 'I'm part German. I'm part French.' The question was, what was I?"

She didn't find the answer until college when she was studying the Harlem Renaissance and interviewed actress Butterfly McQueen, who played one of the servants in Gone With the Wind.

"That feeling of learning about people who had accomplished and done things really stayed with me until I was in my mid-40s and I had a career as a lawyer, and was really a crossroads in my life," Richardson said.

At that point, Richardson worked a few years in the television production business and then founded her organization in 1999.

The HistoryMakers have gathered interviews from across the country.

"When we were doing people's interviews there in Florida, people were going back over a hundred years and people knew their history," Richardson said. "But the fact is, unless this is taught and taught in the schools and broaden the reference beyond Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King [Jr.],  we are going to always have the same few names mentioned as if no one else existed and that's really what we're committed to."

When Richardson accomplishes her goal of 5,000 interviews, she hopes more African-American lives will be recognized, including her own.

"Well, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted my life to stand for something," Richardson said. " I wanted to feel that my presence on this earth had meant something and I wanted not another 9-year-old kid in his classroom feel the way that I felt that day."