Telling the Stories of African American Elders

Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, center, took part in the National Visionary Leadership Project rountable on the 1921 Tulsa race riots.
Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, center, took part in the National Visionary Leadership Project rountable on the 1921 Tulsa race riots. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007

At age 92, John Hope Franklin vividly remembers the day in 1921 when white residents of Tulsa lashed out against the city's thriving black middle class in a race riot that remains one of the bloodiest chapters in U.S. history.

Franklin's father had moved to Tulsa from another Oklahoma town just six months earlier to find a better job to support his family, who had expected to join him.

"We were all ready to go and have a new life, and that's when the race riot engulfed Tulsa," Franklin told veteran journalist Renee Poussaint in a videotaped interview that is part of a national oral history project designed to capture and preserve the stories of African American pioneers.

Last week, Franklin, a noted historian, joined the effort's co-founders, Poussaint and philanthropist Camille O. Cosby, in Washington to celebrate the fifth anniversary of their National Visionary Leadership Project. The celebration at the project's Northwest headquarters Jan. 31 included an announcement that the Library of Congress will serve as the official archive for the more than 200 videotaped interviews conducted so far with African American elders, both famous and obscure, including some who have died since recording their stories.

"For me, it is not only the need to capture our history, it is the need to transmit that history to our young people and get them involved in capturing the history, understanding the history and applying it to their lives and problems today," said Poussaint, a former ABC news correspondent.

The well-known pioneers who have been interviewed so far include: authors Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison; musicians Ray Charles, B.B. King and Quincy Jones; actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier; politicians Shirley Chisholm, Charles B. Rangel and L. Douglas Wilder; civil rights leaders Coretta Scott King, Joseph Lowery, Myrlie Evers-Williams and Andrew Young; athlete Bill Russell; and photographer Gordon Parks.

Poussaint and Cosby also hosted a roundtable discussion that gave an audience full of schoolchildren a chance to hear from actress Phylicia Rashad; Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women; and Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Cosby talked about traveling to Tulsa to interview the black survivors of the 1921 riot, which was sparked by a rumor that a black man had attacked a white woman. About 300 people died -- most of them black -- and the bustling black-owned business strip, known as "Black Wall Street," was destroyed.

"It was very emotional for me to sit across the table from these people," Cosby said. "These are elders who still didn't get their justice."

The discussion soon shifted to the problems that young African Americans face today.

"If we had more people in our lives like everybody in this room, we would be better," said Brittany Johnson, a sophomore at Laurel High School. "The only thing they talk about in school is slavery. We need to know about our past."

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) sat quietly in the back of the room for most of the forum, but then she spoke: "I don't want us to forget the family is the most important thing in society. We need to talk about what we do to strengthen family."

One person absent from the program was Cosby's husband, Bill Cosby, who was across town in the pulpit of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington for an event entitled "Saving Our Children."

For more than two years, the popular comedian has been on a mission, challenging African Americans and their churches to look internally first to solve some of their greatest challenges. Some critics have charged that his stinging remarks have unfairly targeted the poor and faith communities.

"Let me clear some things up," Bill Cosby began, before explaining to the crowd of more than 2,500 people that his criticisms were not intended to hurt or demonize but to raise awareness. "I'm trying to tell you what I see."

He said the issues affecting young people are too great for him to be quiet. He also urged church members to go beyond the four walls of the sanctuary to spread the gospel.

"I'm looking for a David in your neighborhood," he said, referring to the biblical leader who as a child brought down a giant with a slingshot.

To view a videotape of the National Visionary Leadership Project's roundtable discussion last week, go tohttp://www.visionaryproject.org.


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