National Visionary Leadership Project

An organization in Washington, DC, is teaching young people about black history in an interesting way. The National Visionary Leadership Project tells history in the words of those who lived it. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. The National Visionary Leadership Project is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

The National Visionary Leadership Project tells about the lives and celebrates the success of older influential African Americans. They share their life stories on video recordings that help bring history to life. Organizers say the project offers much more than can be learned from simply a voice recording or words in a book.

In oral histories, people tell about their lives. These are one of the oldest forms used to document events and provide an important link to our knowledge of the past.

The National Visionary Leadership Project includes the voices of famous people, such as poet Maya Angelou. It also includes other influential but less known community leaders. Many of these African Americans have never told their stories. The project calls these important people "visionaries." Their voices will serve as a cultural record for young African Americans.

Some of these people are known in the United States and around the world. Others are known mainly in their local communities. All the visionaries are seventy years old or older. They are from business, the arts, law, politics, and education.

Camille Cosby started the National Visionary Leadership Project. She is an educator and wife of television comedian Bill Cosby. She says it is important for people to tell these stories in their own words, instead of having other people tell them. She says this will protect the truth of their histories.

Ms. Cosby says she became interested in living histories when she produced a play and a movie. They were based on a book about the lives of two African American sisters who were one-hundred years old. Ms. Cosby said she learned how valuable it is for older people to be honored in American culture. She says many young Americans do not communicate with older people. She says she loved to sit and talk with her grandparents when she was a child. Camille Cosby says now she is sitting down and talking with people who have influenced her life.

Ms. Cosby provided the one-and-one-half-million dollar yearly budget for the project. Other organizations also support the project. They include the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.

The organizers hope to complete video recordings of sixty people every year for five years. The videotaped interviews are on the organization's Internet Web site, w-w-w dot visionaryproject dot com. That is w-w-w dot v-i-s-i-o-n-a-r-y-p-r-o-j-e-c-t dot com. Ms. Cosby says although all of the visionaries are black, the histories they tell are meant to be heard by all people. She says their stories are part of American history.

The organizers of the project interviewed most of the visionaries. They also asked thirty students from historically black colleges to talk to interesting older people in their own communities. The organizers wanted the people to be honest and open about their lives.

For example, politician Shirley Chisholm talks about her difficulties when she entered politics. She says her greatest opposition came from men.

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: "They gave me a hard time – because they said one thing about Shirley Chisholm: 'She is too darn outspoken – and she is always raising questions – she never keeps quiet.'"

Some of the visionaries told little-known facts about themselves. For example, political activist Andrew Young says he was a bad student. Yet he became a congressman, the American Ambassador to the United Nations and the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.

ANDREW YOUNG: "I didn't do well in school and I didn't get along with teachers – I was always talking back and asking questions – challenging authority – all of those things that contributed to my leadership ability made me a bad student."

One of the most celebrated visionaries is Maya Angelou. Ms. Angelou is an internationally praised poet, writer and educator. She travels around the world speaking and reading her poetry. Her books about her life and poetry collections are widely read and continue to influence many people. She has received many awards for her work. Ms. Angelou tells why it is important for children to know their past.

MAYA ANGELOU: "It is very clear …he, she, who does not learn from his or her history is doomed to repeat it; and repeat it and repeat it, ad nauseum…this is why this project -- why I said yes…absolutely yes, yes…I am a very good fountain of information. Humility says someone was here before me and I am here and I have something to do. I too have my responsibilities. And there will be someone coming behind me who I must prepare the way for."

Lee Archer is one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black fighter pilots who fought during World War Two in the United States Army Air Corps. Their success helped lead to the decision by President Harry Truman in nineteen-forty-eight to end racial separation in the military.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen began in nineteen-forty-one, when the United States Army was racially separated. Blacks were barred from the Army Air Corps and other special units. Pressure and legal action from civil rights groups forced the War Department to train blacks as officers and pilots in the Army Air Corps.

Their training began after Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Tuskegee, Alabama. Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. She met flight trainer Charles "Chief" Anderson there. She asked him, "Can Negroes really fly airplanes?" He said, "Yes. Would you like to take an airplane ride?" Mrs. Roosevelt accepted.

Her security officials ordered her not to go on the plane. But she went anyway. The security officials told the president, but he said there was nothing he could do to stop her. Tuskegee Airman Lee Archer says Mrs. Roosevelt's flight changed history.

LEE ARCHER: "She informed her husband that there is a possibility that you made a mistake – that African Americans can fly. And then he ordered the chief of the Army Air Corps and the chief of the Army to have a program in which they would select a group of young black men to see if they could learn to fly. And so she informed him that if you do this, you could garner the colored vote."

Many of the Tuskegee Airmen later became judges, politicians, religious leaders, educators and community leaders. They also began programs to help young people do well in school and get them interested in flying.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have been actors, activists and husband-and-wife for more than fifty years. They have worked together on many projects for the stage, movies, television and radio. They have been praised for their work together and as individuals.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were close friends with many of America's great leaders and thinkers, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior. They also were leading activists during the civil rights period. Through it all, Ossie Davis says they never made work more important than family.

OSSIE DAVIS AND RUBY DEE: " ... We were smart enough always whenever possible to take the family with us wherever we went, so they would never have to wonder what mommy and daddy were doing out there…they went with us. I worked in Mexico, the whole family came; I did another film in Rome, the whole family came; Ruby went to Hollywood to do 'Raisin in the Sun,' the movie, whole family moved out."

Ruby Dee says she strongly supports efforts for children to hear the stories of older people. She says it is important that children learn how much they have experienced.

Reporter Renee Poussaint is the executive director of the National Visionary Leadership Project. She says so much important information about African Americans is not included in American history. She says young people learn valuable lessons when they listen to the generations that came before them.

This program was written and produced by Cynthia Kirk. Our audio engineer was Jim Harmon. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.