The HistoryMakers – Your New Favorite Digital Archive

I have a confession: I love history. As often as some think about the Roman Empire, I’m thinking about my favorite topic of historical research: baseball. I’m always trying to learn something new, something interesting, something that shapes my understanding of the people involved in baseball history. I want to know what it was like to be there. You know, the kind of history you only get firsthand from someone who was there. Which is how I’ve already invested a few hours exploring the newest resource offered to the library patrons of Allegheny County: The History Makers, the Digital Repository for the Black Experience.

The HistoryMakers is a non-profit organization that created their digital archive in order to document and preserve the history of African Americans — their lives in their own words. The process began in 2000, which means they were able to interview a lot of African Americans who had experienced life in 20th century United States and beyond. There are tons of interviews with videos, photos, and text transcripts. Some faces you’ll recognize, like Barack Obama, who was interviewed in 2001 when he was still working his earlier gig as a U.S. senator.

And if you’re ready to feel old, they feature a picture of him prior to the post-Presidency grey hair.

The exciting thing is, many of the faces and stories in this digital archive will be new to you, even if you have special historical interests! Let’s take a quick deep dive to illustrate my point. Where are my baseball historians at? …I said where are my-

Ah, geez. Someone shoved you into a locker again.

Everyone knows Hank Aaron, right? With a career WAR of 143.1, he’s easily in the conversation for the greatest baseball player of all time. And you may also impress your peers by name dropping Ernie Banks. In his biography section on The HistoryMakers, they contextualize his impressive prime from 1955 to 1960 with the fact that he: “…hit more homers than anyone in the majors, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and he finished his career with five seasons of forty or more home runs. In 1959 he became the first player in National League history to win consecutive Most Valuable Player trophies, a year removed from setting an NL record for homers by a shortstop with forty-seven.” Here’s a snippet of Ernie Banks’ Baseball Reference page for all my stats nerds out there:

That 1958 stat-line is what we stats nerds like to call “a pretty big deal”.

As cool as it is to dissect Ernie Banks’ career numbers on Baseball Reference, it misses the key element that is provided by The HistoryMakers — his story. And we aren’t learning about him from some dramatized biopic or secondhand documentary. Ernie Banks himself is telling us about his life on and off the field.

But your historical knowledge of baseball players of that era is incomplete without Dennis Biddle, who may not have his own Baseball Reference page, but holds the record as the youngest person to play in the Negro Leagues when he was just 17 years old. He got picked up by the Chicago Cubs in 1955 (for historical reference, only 47 years into their 108 year World Series drought), but unfortunately broke his ankle on the first day of spring training and never got to play in the MLB. So, he went back to school and became a social worker, positively impacting the lives of countless underprivileged youth and juvenile offenders. In 1996, he founded Yesterday’s Negro Leagues Baseball Players LLC which preserves the history of African American baseball players pre-integration.

The unique value of this resource is that it provides a plethora of primary source information directly from African Americans — entire life stories that we wouldn’t even have without The HistoryMakers.

What’s great is that my example doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. There is so much more to explore on these individuals and many others on The HistoryMakers. All you need is your Allegheny County Library card.

Derek – South Park Township Library

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