Julieanna Richardson is smiling. The History Makers founder hosted her annual spectacular this past Saturday, April 22, 2017 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Usually Julieanna’s event features an exclusive one-on-one interview with a History Maker like Harry Belafonte, Barry Gordy, Vernon Jordan, Diahann Carroll or Colin Powell. Last year Valerie Jarrett was the interviewee and the Michelle Norris was the interviewer.
Following the comprehensive, enlightening interview, a delightful sit down dinner is served. The interview is taped before a live audience and shown on PBS stations in February, for Black History Month.
This year, she presented differently. She told the stories of multiple Chicago History Makers. Valerie Jarrett chaired, along with Arnie Duncan and Deval Patrick. There was no set interview.
The ever handsome Harry Lennix and beautiful and talented Regina Taylor acted as presenters. And surprise surprise, Terisa Griffin was musical director. She was only fabulous.
The show told Chicago stories. Eric Johnson told the story of his father, George Johnson, and how Johnson Products got its start. His father went to get a bank loan of $250 for his business. He presented his business plan and was denied.
But then he went to another bank and told the banker he needed the money to take a family vacation. It was granted and that is how George Johnson got the initial financing for his ultra-successful hair care and cosmetics lines. The rest, as they say, is history.
Terri Gardner told the story of her parents, Ed and BettiAnn Gardner, and how they formed Soft Sheen Products as a family business in the basement of their home. Taped interviews were woven into the tales of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gardner and the others.
This was a real reality show on Chicago business empires. What stood out in my mind as I watched is what these companies, these giants, meant to our community.
It is doubtful if Soul Train would have become the success that it did had Johnson Products not supported it with advertising, and then that one little TV dance program doubled Johnson Products’ growth by providing name recognition and what is now known as branding.
It is also doubtful if Harold Washington would have won election as Chicago’s first Black mayor if Ed Gardner had not backed his candidacy by buying radio advertising slots for the campaign.
Touching and lovingly, The Honorable Deval Patrick, the former Governor of Massachusetts, told his Chicago story. He grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes.
He talked about a lady on 55th and Wabash, Mrs. Jones, who was a mentor when he was a boy and how as a successful adult he came home and found Ms. Jones. As he talked, I heard places and names I, too, knew as a child and wondered if we are talking about the same person in that neighborhood where my father’s business was located.
Linda Johnson Rice told of the humble beginnings of her parents John Johnson and Mrs. Eunice Johnson. Linda talked about how her father loved his mother (Linda’s grandmother) and she him because she believed in him and encouraged him. He was the editor of the school yearbook at DuSable High School. Audrey Smaltz talked about how she traveled Europe with Mrs. Eunice Johnson as they went to the top designers of the world, buying couture clothing for the Ebony Fashion Show.
In the background, Ms. Griffin provided reminiscing music via songs like Memories and The Way We Were as the Who’s Who of Black Chicago sat spellbound in their seats digesting it all.
What Happened To Our People?
We heard the stories of the slums of Chicago to the rise of Black political power. We heard the stories of how Black Chicago, particularly on the South Side, stood tall in every way – in politics and enterprise and socially.
This is the home of the nouveau Black directly from the South. These were the stories of people who worked hard with persistence and were innovative. The common backdrop of the stories was Chicago.
Of course, we heard about the young man who came from New York to Chicago to become President of the United States. But we heard the backdrop of why others came, too, and what they found, and what they developed and gave to the world.
History Makers digital archives are now available at the Library of Congress, Chicago Public Library, Harvard, Princeton, Harvard, University of Chicago and other top universities. Richardson has done a profound job in archiving a history that might well go unnoticed and unrecorded.
As you sat and watched the vignettes remembering most of the characters, you wonder what happened to our village, to our people and to our city.
As the event moved on to dinner, the table was mixed with high school students and others. Each table had a leader who was to engage conversation based on the History Makers, the present and the future.
The multigenerational conversation was awkward. The gap was wide. The kids were shy, but the conversation is one that must be had. Hopefully the kids learned and saw some people they may have heard about but didn’t know.
The evening was special. It was a real History Maker, in more ways than one.
Thanks, Ms. Richardson. Job well done.