A trailblazer among black women in the business world wants to help make sure that the stories of other pioneering women like her are not forgotten.
The HistoryMakers, an oral archive that’s recorded the stories of more than 3,300 African Americans, launched The WomanMakers initiative with a $1 million gift from Ursula Burns, the former head of Xerox.
“We have to value our own stories,” Burns said in a phone interview about the project that will focus on African American women. “We have to teach ourselves to actually value ourselves in our society.”
Burns, 61, was chair and CEO of Xerox from 2009 to 2016. She spent her entire career at the company, working her way up from an internship in 1980 and, upon becoming CEO, was the first black women to head a Fortune 500 company. Burns left Xerox after the company was split in two.
The initiative was kicked off at a Jan. 31 luncheon in New York City, where Burns presented Julieanna Richardson, who founded The HistoryMakers in 1999, with the monetary gift in honor of her late husband, Lloyd Bean.
“We have so much potential to leave a historical record that will not have any chance to being erased, that is what is exceedingly important to me,” Richardson said about the initiative.
The launch included a number of women on the advisory committee for The WomenMakers initiative, who will help determine the 180 women whose stories will be recorded thanks to Burns’ gift.
Those on the committee are high-profile figures including Anna Deavere Smith, Bethann Hardison, and Anita Hill.
In the 20 years since its official launch, The HistoryMakers has recorded the stories of black pioneers in a number of fields including Hank Aaron, Maya Angelou and Colin Powell.
But even as an organization founded and led by a black woman, Richardson said there are still more men’s stories in the archives than women’s — about 800 more.
“When you look at different periods of time, even the modern-day civil rights movement, often the story of women’s roles is not well-recorded or told,” she said.
Women, Richardson said, were often the ones keeping the archives, but, “we aren’t keeping their histories at the same time.”
Telling their stories and showcasing their achievements is important, especially in these fraught partisan times, Burns said.
“These endemic, unbelievably prejudicial discussions we’re having today about things we should no longer be talking about, the value and the worth of a human being that people think they can derive from the color of their skin,” she said.
“I am really animated about this time because all of this work that has been undertaken before I got here that enabled me to get here, they’re chipping away and eroding that and I just can’t allow that to happen without some attempt to make people understand there’s so much more to the story.”