Black Excellence, In Their Own Words: The HistoryMakers Archive Is Now Available at Wellesley

Izzy Torkornoo ’23 and Liseli Fitzpatrick speak to each other while sitting on the stairs of Harambee House.
Image credit: Gabbie Nicolosi ’23
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

When Izzy Torkornoo ’23, an Africana studies and education studies double major from New York City, was named a 2022–2023 student ambassador for The HistoryMakers Digital Archive, one of the first things she did was look up all the Wellesley graduates featured in the archive itself, the nation’s largest African American oral history collection and the first of its kind. “I could not wait to learn about the Black alums who paved the way for me,” said Torkornoo. (Scroll to the end for Torkornoo’s list of Wellesley HistoryMakers).

The HistoryMakers archive has video interviews with noteworthy African Americans, such as Barack Obama, John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, and Eartha Kitt, as well as biographies of Black leaders in education, science, activism, the arts, and more. Founded in 1999 by lawyer Julieanna Richardson, the archive contains over 11,000 hours of stories, making up more than 3,300 video interviews and recordings of 80 special events.

Torkornoo is excited that members of the Wellesley community can now access the archive through Library & Technology Services, just as they do with the information databases JSTOR and WorldCat. Liseli Fitzpatrick, a lecturer in Africana studies at Wellesley who specializes in Africana cosmologies and sacred ontologies, worked with research and instruction librarians Karen Storz and Sarah Moazeni to make this possible.

Fitzpatrick is also involved with the archive this year: She has been awarded a 2022–2023 Faculty Innovations in Pedagogy and Teaching Fellowship through The HistoryMakers. Additionally, she mentors Torkornoo, whom she describes as “effervescent,” overseeing and guiding her ambassadorship as her HistoryMakers faculty advisor at Wellesley and also serving as her Africana studies major advisor.

“The core objectives of The HistoryMakers Digital Archive align with my embodied and impassioned calling to ‘right’ the misrepresented and unmentioned stories of African peoples using Afrocentric pedagogies in fostering an honest, colorful, textured, and equitable world,” Fitzpatrick wrote in an email. She explained that throughout history, the revolutionary contributions and varied lived experiences of African peoples were deliberately maligned and marginalized through the deleterious passages of slavery, colonialism, and their fallouts within Western-predicated societies.

“Most of the written records about Africa and depictions of African peoples within Western institutions of learning and media have been authored and produced by European enslavers, colonizers, and their progeny. According to the African proverb, ‘Until lions tell their own stories, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,’”she wrote. “From the dawn and cradle of creation, African peoples have innovatively contributed to world evolution in all spheres of life, and have been the first speakers of the word. The HistoryMakers digital oral repository has, therefore, richly provided me and my students with the most urgent and robust tools to expand and diversify the curriculum from within the walls of the institution.”

Fitzpatrick has integrated use of The HistoryMakers archive into all of her courses, and it is a central component of AFR 341: Africans of the Diaspora this year “as a primary source and resource for amplifying the voices and centering the dynamic lives of African peoples told by African peoples themselves.” Throughout the course, she said, “students will learn how to effectively search and cite the oral archive, and actively engage in emancipatory, empowering, and decolonizing work.”

As a student ambassador, Torkornoo’s role is to teach her classmates, faculty, and staff how to use the archive. “I cannot believe that we’ve been afforded this opportunity to have the largest digital archive of African American oral histories as part of something we can access at Wellesley,” she said, “and I’m just ready for it, as a Black person, as a Black student, as a nerd who loves learning, as a first-generation Ghanaian American who comes from a long tradition of oral storytellers, and as someone who is passionate about global Black studies, Black people, and my own multicultural Black identity.”

Torkornoo said the multilayered archive can benefit every department, every course, and every person on campus. For example, she said, a physics professor could share a video with the perspective of a Black physicist with a class, or big sports fans (such as herself) could dig for information about their favorite African American athletes. “You’re bringing in people’s stories in their own words, in their own language,” said Torkornoo. “A question is asked to them, and you get to listen to the people express themselves in the way they want to be heard.”

Fitzpatrick and Torkornoo will work together to make the Wellesley community aware that this incredible resource is now available to them. “It is our trust that members within the College community and beyond would incorporate this invaluable database in and outside their physical classrooms and curricula, and into their lived consciousness,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “To deepen and broaden our sense of world history and cultural sensibilities in the co-creation of a more enlightened, breathable, and inclusive planet. Certainly, inclusive excellence begins with inclusive education.”

A few of the Wellesley alums Torkornoo found in The HistoryMakers archive (Wellesley email address required):

  • Adelaide Sanford ’50, education administrator, teacher, and former vice chancellor of the State University of New York’s Board of Regents.

  • Miriam DeCosta-Willis ’56, the first African American faculty member at Memphis State University and former chair of the Department of Romance languages at Howard University.

  • Shirlee Haizlip ’59, the first African American to serve as general manager of a CBS Television affiliate.

  • Dr. Vivian Pinn ’63, the first African American woman to chair a department of pathology in the U.S., while at Howard University College of Medicine, and founding director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and as the associate director for research on women’s health at NIH.

  • Callie Crossley ’73, host of WGBH’s Under the Radar with Callie Crossley and a former producer for ABC’s 20/20 news magazine program.

  • Teri Agins ’75, a fashion reporter for the Wall Street Journal for over 20 years.

  • Patricia Mell ’75, the first woman and first African American dean of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

  • Laura Murphy ’76, director of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., office.

  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney ’79, a neurobiologist who became the 22nd president of Trinity College in Connecticut in 2014.

  • Desiree Rogers ’81, CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, overseeing publication of Ebony and Jet magazines, and the first African American White House social secretary, under President Obama.

  • Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founder of Spelman College Women’s Research and Resource Center, who completed a fifth year of study at Wellesley, and Florence Ladd, Wellesley’s dean of students from 1979 to 1984, are also in the archives!