Here and Now: Remembering Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes

On this episode of Here and Now, remembering Mary Wilson, who was the founding member of the singing group The Supremes. Her friend Dionne Warwick spoke about Wilson's legacy.

Video Transcript

- Here and Now. The program featuring the news and interests of the African-American community. Here's your host, Sandra Bookman.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Coming up, remembering Mary Wilson, founding member of the Supremes. Her friend, Dionne Warwick, talks about Wilson's legacy. Also ahead, a digital repository for the African-American experience, how the HistoryMakers is preserving the legacy of Black people in America, plus the virtual summit with that important message: Black Health Matters. The youth poet laureate program that propelled Amanda Gorman into the national spotlight. And, the New Federal Theatre's Black History Month lineup. That's all ahead, on Here and Now. [MUSIC - THE SUPREMES, "WHEN THE LOVELIGHT STARTS SHINING THROUGH HIS EYES"] [MUSIC - THE SUPREMES, "SOMEDAY WE'LL BE TOGETHER"]

SANDRA BOOKMAN: The Supremes. Motown's leading group in the 1960s, and considered the best female group of all time. With three number one albums on the Billboard chart and 12 number one hits, including favorites like "Baby Love", "You Can't Hurry Love", and "Come See About Me". Just recently, Supremes founding member Mary Wilson died suddenly at age 76. Yet another legend lost.

This afternoon we are remembering this musical Trailblazer with one of her longtime friends, legendary singer herself, Dionne Warwick. It is so nice to see you again.

DIONNE WARWICK: And you as well, darling, thank you for inviting me here. [INAUDIBLE]

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And we're happy to see that you are looking beautiful, and are as healthy as ever.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yes, I'm taking care of myself.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Especially during these times, right?

DIONNE WARWICK: Especially, yes.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: So, talk to us a little bit about this friendship with Mary Wilson. How long were you guys friends?

DIONNE WARWICK: Oh my goodness, you're gonna age me now.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Look, I'm aging myself every day, so. We've been friends since the beginning of our careers. So we're talking well into the 50 year mark. And I remember very well touring with them, with the Supremes, hanging out as girlfriends do, you sharing, the ups and downs. And the last thing that Mary and I did was in England as a matter of fact, she-- she, Roberta Flack, and myself. And we had the best time. I mean, we laughed aplenty. You know , it's the kind of gal Mary was. Full of laughter, which is my [? ammo, ?] I love to laugh. So, you know, I remember her fondly.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And it also must be nice to spend time with people who know exactly what you've been through, how you got there, you know, what it takes to stay there. There's got to be a shorthand-- have these shorthand between you guys.

DIONNE WARWICK: Exactly. You know, you know, we didn't have to say anything, we just looked at each other. You know, oh dear-- that kind of thing. No, she was a very, very special person. Very special to me, as was her family, her children. In fact, we spoke to Turkessa this morning to see how she was faring, and she's hanging in there, as she says.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Look, you say Supremes to just about anyone that's Black, especially Black people of a certain age, and, you know, we all get a smile on our face and you immediately start feeling good.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I remember singing, as a little girl, "Stop! In the Name of Love" in a talent show. I think I got a picture somewhere with the big hair and, because I, like all little girls at the time, wanted to be a Supreme.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Of course.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah Talk to me a little bit about their, you think, their impact on music, and what it meant to have these three young, Black women, so glamorous, there entertaining us.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah. During our era, the '60s, when we all got kind of started, they were the girl group of the time. You know, they set standards. And they were the glamor pusses, you know, they went through all of that Motown had to offer them with the presentation. How they looked, how they acted, how they spoke, how they walked. All those things, they had a charm school, basically, that they went through at Motown, which was wonderful to see. You know, I had wonderful mentors as well, and they taught me very well. So it was a pleasure to be around them and to just to hang out, especially Mary. And I had to point that out because Mary was the, like I said, the one that laughed all the time. You know, I loved Florence as well. And Diana was another type of lady. You know, she kind of kept to herself most of the time. So she was not really a part of the conversations that Mary and I would have, on occasion, or the lunches that we would go to, the breakfasts that we would meet at. Now, the Supremes generally, they-- they really set the standard, they really did.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You know, I know that break up was hard on her. And one of the things I always admired about her is that she kept it moving in so many ways. Talk to me a little bit about about that. You know, it does take a special kind of person to land on their feet and say, this is what I'm doing. I'm going to keep this ship moving and when it's not moving anymore, I'm gonna change the direction.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah. She just-- Mary, first of all, was a very strong person. And, you know, she took the knocks, like we all did. And landed on both feet, which I loved about her. She never had anything derogative to say about anyone or anything. You know, when things were not going exactly the way that they really should-- we've all experienced that-- you just kind of took it with a grain of salt. You know, oh, okay, so, the microphone doesn't work, so I'll go over here and sing with Florence, or I'll just jump in Diana's mic, you know. But it was just a case of her being able to be a grownup about it all, you know, and that takes a very special kind of personality. And that's what she had. She had that, go after it, get to it, and and stick to it. And that's right down to the very end of her life. She was doing exactly that. She was an innovator, she [? knew ?] there's more to do, there's more to do. And she was going after whatever that more to do was.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I love the fact that what was it, about a year or two ago? And she was on "Dancing with the Stars".

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah, which we laughed a lot about.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I talked to her about that, and why she decided she wanted to do that.

DIONNE WARWICK: Well, everybody else did it, why can't I?

SANDRA BOOKMAN: No, it was fun and it was nice. She seemed like she had a great time doing it, as well.

DIONNE WARWICK: We talked about that, too.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I know that there's one of the things that's happening, there's going to be, I think, a CD released with a lot of their greatest hits. How do you think she feels about that? And I know there was some conversation about the fact that the way Florence Ballard was going to be featured on the CD, some folks were not happy about.

DIONNE WARWICK: You know Florence is a part of the original group and should be represented. And I think Mary would have felt little bit crazy, if she were not a part of that particular CD that's being-- this is the first I'm hearing about it-- that I think is something-- if they're going to do something authentic, then Florence belongs there. Whoever it is that doesn't feel that way, you know, that's the way they feel.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: How do you think that she wants to be remembered?

DIONNE WARWICK: Oh, wow. As-- first of all, a Supreme, because that's the way she felt. One who loved life, one who considered herself a part of life. Fun gal, you know? Just-- I love to have fun. And she did. And I think that's how we all who knew her would remember her, and will remember her.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And good people.

DIONNE WARWICK: Oh, yeah she's definitely that.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You know, we have you here. I have to ask you what you've been working on. I know that the pandemic has curtailed a lot of events and activities, but you've done some things virtually?

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah I've done a couple of things, you know. I've not done anything with regards to recording or anything like that. That I do in the studio, so virtually, I think that's where my heart is, with regards to what I give people. But I've been quite active on Twitter, with [? you ?]

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Yes, you've been real active on Twitter, haven't you?

DIONNE WARWICK: It's been absolutely wonderful. I had the opportunity to meet some of the new talent, being appraised of. And, actually, the young man that everybody's been questioning about, Chance the Rapper, now it's become Dionne the Singer. And also with The Weeknd--

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You name dropper, you.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yes I am! Taylor Swift. I've had the opportunity to interface with some of the-- babies, I call them, because that's who they are to me.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: But have shown much respect, have they not?

DIONNE WARWICK: Oh, yes, they have. They've been absolutely wonderful. It's been a real giggle with all of us, you know. And Chance and I are going into studio as soon as possible. We're going to be doing something together, which I'm thrilled about.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I think that's fabulous.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yeah I'm really happy about it. We've had super conversations, and he's very excited about it, which makes me feel very good, because I am too. And in so doing The Weeknd and I will also be doing something together.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I, honestly, I think it's really terrific. I think, you know, good music never dies.

DIONNE WARWICK: Absolutely right.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And Dionne Warwick is Dionne Warwick.

DIONNE WARWICK: Yes she is.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And if you don't know, you better ask somebody. Well, it's been wonderful first of all, knowing that these youngsters know who I am, and they appreciate who I am. And I haven't really been able to give them something that, especially on this social media stuff, that they have not gotten before. You know, straight up honesty, but with a smile. Always with a smile. So they know I'm not poking at them derogatively, that it's all with a smile and with the grain of salt, you can take what I say if you want to. I suggest you do.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: All right. There's the Dionne Warwick we know and love. I love talking to you. Thank you so much for talking with us today about your friend, Mary Wilson.

DIONNE WARWICK: My pleasure. May she rest in peace which I'm sure she is. You know, she's greeting a lot of her ancestors and she's in a better place. I'm sure she's up there with God saying, look at all those fools down there, they got to deal with this craziness.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You are probably right. And we're going to keep an eye out for this new music. You and Chance the Rapper. I got a feeling it's going to be great.

DIONNE WARWICK: It is absolutely going to be that.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: OK. So hey, remember us when you get with Chance.

DIONNE WARWICK: Without a doubt. Your [INAUDIBLE]. I'm going to have a chance-- make sure we all get together, that's the chance we're gonna take.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Thank you so much.

DIONNE WARWICK: My pleasure darling, you take good care of yourself.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You too.

- Sandra Bookman and Here and Now will be right back.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: According to the CDC, African-Americans are living longer, despite well-documented health disparities. In fact, between 1995 and 2015, the death rate decreased by 25%. Community programs promoting healthier lifestyles deserve some of the credit for this decline. Here to tell us more about this month's virtual Winter Health Summit is the president and founder of Black Health Matters, Roslyn Daniels. Nice to see you again.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Good to see you.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: I got to believe in this crazy year that we've been going through, the crazy last year, you have been especially busy.

ROSLYN DANIELS: It really has been kind of like the convergence of everything going on. We've been steadfast in our mission to educate and uplift African-Americans about health, and then the pandemic hit. And so now, people are much more serious and more people are looking to build plans, promotion, whether it be non-profit organizations, our fraternities and sororities, our churches, people really want to get involved. And so, from that perspective, we can see our road forward.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Yeah, I mean, that doesn't surprise me. And I think that's really encouraging to hear you say that. If you could quickly, just talk to the audience about what Black Health Matters is, why you founded this.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Yes. So, we actually launched almost nine years ago, one year prior to the Black Lives Matter movement. And our goal was to basically take what was given to us, which was the fact that the the Affordable Care Act was passed. Prior to the ACA, we really felt that African-Americans were less aspirational about their health. But now, with the ACA, they felt that they saw a road forward, and that they could start to be more demonstrative and demanding about things relating to their health. Because there really was a paucity of materials and resources out there to aid African-Americans with this new vision, we decided to launch to be that roadmap. So we consider ourselves to be the North Star for help for African-Americans.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And how-- As that North star, what are you able to provide for folks?

ROSLYN DANIELS: We have one of the largest evidence based resources of content in the country, or in the world. Our editors are able to write about health and wellness from an evidence, medical based perspective. So you're not really going to read about stars and celebrities on our site, you're really going to talk about-- we're going to talk about managing diabetes, what happens when you have a rare disease, things that you need to look for to help you manage heart disease. So that's why you would come to us. For resources and information, in an environment that's self reflective. So you'll see people like us that look like you, that might eat the same kinds of foods that you do, that have the same types of activities, and that's our foundation from which to talk about health and wellness.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Which means when this pandemic hit and so many other people had to go virtual, you guys were really, kind of, ahead of the game in a lot of ways.

ROSLYN DANIELS: You know sometimes you're dealt lemons and you have to make lemonade. So when we were last on, thank you so much for your support of our summit and at that time we really thought we were going to be at Riverside Church, but because of the pandemic, we had to pivot to virtual and so that really has opened us up to becoming a national forum. And now our Black Health Matters summits are the leading national forum on African-American health. It's the largest and most comprehensive, and we're actually-- you know, it's from 8:30 in the morning to 5 PM in the afternoon, featuring more than 17 different sessions. So again, it's the largest, most significant health event for Black health today.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Now, this year's summit is Saturday February 27 as you said, from 8:30 to 5:30. You know, just looking through the materials, I'm so impressed about how many experts you have participating and how much content that you are able to provide virtually. I was honestly mystified how you were able to do so much. Honestly, it's almost like you're there, except it's online.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Exactly. So we're fortunate in that we have put together the Dream Team, and every year we do it. So we're up to doing three summits a year. The one that we're doing on February 27, we have amazing physicians, scientists, and advocates coming together to really uplift and empower our audience. Everyone from Angie Stone and Doctor Dre from Yo MTV raps, will talk about their journey with diabetes. And we have diverse voices. We have Dr. Ben Gupta, we have a Dr. Corday from Memorial Sloan Kettering, they are collaborating with us. And we also have a major presentation on caregiving, which is kind of the backbone of what Black women do, right? And so we are working with AARP and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority to help us develop this track that will really satisfy and inspire people who are caregiving for loved ones if they have dementia or other illnesses. So I think it's our collaboration with our community partners that makes the program so incredibly strong.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: COVID-19 obviously going to be a big factor in this year's-- COVID-19, the vaccine, a lot of interest this year.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Absolutely so we're thrilled that we have people like Marc Morial of the National Urban League, who will give his take on COVID vaccines. We have other doctors that will also talk about vaccines, and, I am thrilled to say, we will actually have the African-American nurse who was the first person in this country to take the vaccine.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Think her first name was Sandra, I think.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Yes, yes! And she's going to step forward and say, I still have four arms-- two arms, and two legs, and I'm living my life after taking the vaccine. So, by example, she'll be able to talk to us about living and why we should think about the vaccine.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: So if you would tell folks what they need to do, I think, to become-- to really take advantage of everything that Black Health Matters, and to be a part of this summit on February 27.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Come to blackhealthmatters.com to register, and on February 27, the doors will open, and you will walk into a virtual world. We have a lobby, we have a receptionist, we have chat rooms, networking lounges, you'll have an auditorium where all the presentations are going on. And we'll have a virtual exhibit hall. So that means you'll be able to talk to our partners, talk to our sponsors, and download information that will be emailed to your inbox.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: So and is there a cost?

ROSLYN DANIELS: It's absolutely free. We believe that public health and an opportunity to educate have to be free, especially in our community. So it's free and open to the public. It is always a pleasure to talk with you. Roslyn Daniels, Black Help Matters and the summit. bhmwintersummit.vfairs.com?

ROSLYN DANIELS: Yes. Or just come to blackhealthmatters.com you'll be able to register.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: All right. So nice to talk with you again, best of luck, and I know it won't be the last time.

ROSLYN DANIELS: Thank you, appreciate that.

- Sandra Bookman, and Here and Now will be right back. When the nation's first youth poet laureate and the youngest inaugural poet ever, delivered her poem, "The Hill We Climb", 22-year-old Amanda Gorman's talent and message of unity captured the world's attention.

AMANDA GORMAN: When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We've braved the belly of the beast We've learned that quiet isn't always peace And the norms and notions of what just is Isn't always just-ice And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it Somehow we do it Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished We the successors of a country and a time Where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Joining us this afternoon is the co-founder of the Youth Poet Laureate Program, Onida Coward Mayers, who has made it possible for Amanda Gorman and thousands of others to showcase their artistic talents, and be civically engaged.

What a pleasure to meet you, and we have to say, thank you for introducing all of us to Amanda Gorman.

ONIDA MAYERS: Thank you for having me on the program, Sandra, I'm very happy to be here with you, and happy to talk about the Youth Poet Laureate Program and Amanda Gorman, the brilliance of Amanda Gorman.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Let me just ask how you felt when you saw her on that stage on inauguration day.

ONIDA MAYERS: A level of pride, for sure. There was goosebumps. There was just an oozing of-- sitting on the edge of my seat, taking in her every word, as I always have when I listened to her perform and her poems, but she had taken our little program to the largest civic stage in America.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And then, she took it to-- well not necessarily a bigger stage, but the Super Bowl.

ONIDA MAYERS: Why not? We've been going everywhere, right? Why not the Super Bowl, right? So we're really excited to see it there, and how she put her twist on it there as well. I mean, here, you know our program was on the Intrepid, Air Sea Museum, 92nd Street by City Hall. So why not the Super Bowl?

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Tell us a little bit, if you will tell the audience a little bit about-- this started out as the NYC Youth Poet Laureate Program. The motivation behind even creating this program.

ONIDA MAYERS: Right. So, I was the agency head for the New York City Voter Assistance Commission. And my charge was to get all New Yorkers voting, and get them registered. And one of that population was also the youth. And I wanted to use a vehicle that the youth used to communicate with each other, which was spoken word and poetry. So I was able to, you know, I was dreaming of an opportunity where I would have them do something that spoke all to voting. And that's how I was led to urban word NYC the not for profit. And that's what they do. They work with students and their spoken word and poetry. And it was a perfect marriage for us for the city government and them.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Why-- so, what is it that you felt that, you know, poetry would be able to do in terms of helping young people be more civically engaged?

ONIDA MAYERS: Right. Well, you know, I was-- and I'll tell you frankly-- I was sitting in, I think, the cafeteria at John Jay College. And I heard these young people performing a spoken word and poetry and and giving you their whole life story. And, really, what voting is really ties back to who you are and what your experiences are, and what is important for you, and how you elevate that on Election Day. So, making that match for them is what we intended to do. And it was so much, we can teach them how to vote. But it was, well, why are you voting? And their experiences told them why they were voting. And they had amazing experiences, both them and their families and friends.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And, in fact, Amanda was-- what, was she she was the 2017 winner of the Poet Laureate Competition?

ONIDA MAYERS: So, the way it happened New York City, as always we're first, right? So we launched the first youth poet laureate program where the winner was called the youth poet laureate. And then, after several years of doing it here in New York, it started to pop up in cities and states around the country. The program then became national through Urban Word NYC, and they held a poetry slam in Los Angeles, where she became the first one there for Los Angeles. And then, all of the poet laureates across the country competed to get the top title of the National Youth Poet Laureate of which she was the first. And I'm so proud to say I participated as a judge in that competition.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And, you know, you have-- obviously Amanda Gorman's success and our pride in her has sort of precipitated this conversation. But it's your, just this, this passion you have for making sure you help people exercise their right to vote. Talk to me a little bit about Shield the Vote.

ONIDA MAYERS: Oh, yes I'd love to! You know, Shield the Vote was a 45 day campaign that I came up with. I am a, you know, voting activist for sure. Nonpartisan voting activist.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And it matters.

ONIDA MAYERS: And yes, thank you so much. And so, you know, what I saw as a void in a very important election season in 2020, was that we were dealing with the pandemic, people didn't know what to trust, people wanted to go out and vote but they were also fearful of their lives, and the CDC was saying that it would be even worse on election day because there would be so many crowds. My thought was, well, could I get face shields and to distribute them to anyone and everyone who wanted to go out but was fearful of being protected. So I'm very happy that partnering with-- we had partners all over the country, we were able to distribute 10,000 free face shields to anyone who wanted to go out and vote on Election Day or during the early voting period. And that was called Shield the Vote.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: So you did-- you continued. I love the way that-- I love your enthusiasm, but I love the way that you figure out what needs to be done around voting, and you make it possible to get people out there to exercise their civic duty. How can anyone listening to this conversation get involved with Urban Word is the organization that you partnered with, and the Youth Laureate Program.

ONIDA MAYERS: Yes, well, I would encourage them to go to urbanwordnyc.org and they have prompts there, if you would like to compete, if you would like to learn, if you'd like to explore poetry. So you can do that through Urban Word. And clearly, if people still want to help out others with shielding their vote and, you know, our mantra is, protect yourself, protect the vote, wear a face sheidl you when you vote, that they could go to shieldthevote.com as well.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Anita Coward Mayers, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon.

ONIDA MAYERS: Thank you. And thank you for having me.

- Sandra Bookman and Here and Now will be right back.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: The history makers is the country's largest African-American video oral history archive. This one of a kind collection is permanently housed at the Library of Congress, but there are concerns that more needs to be done to document and preserve the records of the African-American experience. Here to tell us more is the founder and president of The HistoryMakers Julieanna Richardson. So nice to meet you.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: So nice to meet you and be on your show. I really appreciate the opportunity.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: No, we are happy to have a chance to talk to you about this project, because it's one of those things you, you hear about it, and you see about, and you go, [? man, ?] this is a no brainer, we should have been doing this 200 years ago! Talk to me about what led you to develop The HistoryMakers.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: Well, I often tell the story that, you know, it started when I was young and I just didn't know anything about Black people and the history. I mean, it wasn't taught. I don't know if it's that much different even today, as we speak. But, you know everybody raised their hand in class, they all seem to know the [? side, ?] but, you know, they were saying they were part German, part French. And I was raised in a small town in Ohio and so I blurted out, I mean I said that I was, I don't know, Negro or African, you know and I added in Native American and then, I also, I didn't want to be left out, so I added in French, and I knew I had lied and I felt like the teacher I lied. And that's where actually New York comes into the story, because I was like, I, you know, in my sophomore year at Brandeis University. I was put in touch with the famous librarian Jean Hudson and I was listening to a song called "I'm Just Wild About Harry" from the 1921 production of Shuffle on Broadway. And, and it was like I just found myself. So that's really-- it must've had a great impact on me to, you know, in my mid 40s, decide that's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And once you went about putting this project together, talk to me a little bit about, in your estimation, you know, what your mission is here, with The HistoryMakers.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: I want to give the black community their place in history. And I want to make sure that we leave a documentary record. As we speak, we are-- Especially as it relates to the 20th century. And, you know, we just lost Hank Aaron and people are leaving here. We just lost Cicely Tyson. They're leaving here in rapid succession, and there's not a lot of documentation out there about, you know, our communities, what we've done. And that needs to really change, and especially given the times that we see, you know, that we're in right now. We've interviewed almost 3,400 people in 413 cities and towns across the United States.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: So is it your hope-- you mentioned the folks that we lost recently, you know, famous names, people who certainly made an impact on our culture and in society here. Is it your hope that these history makers-- that having this-- oral records makes sure that our story as African-Americans gets told, and told properly by the people who lived it and did it?

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: That's right. So people don't have to guess. You don't have to guess about what someone looks like. You don't have to guess about the context in which they may have made a statement. You know, so things will not be taken out of context. You won't have to guess about communities that raised them or, really, how far back people's history goes. So, that's what I think it's extremely important now. And I would say that, you know, there's there's lots of discussions going on. You know, it's not really taught in our US schools. There's a focus, there's been a focus on monuments now. But I also think that if we would focus more on really documenting our material culture, that it would make a huge difference.

We refer-- we've lost we've even gone further than the oral history interviews. And the reason that I recently have been focused-- and I would say the last four years-- is that I started to become aware that you know the people that we've interviewed-- because we interviewed both well-known and unsung in New York I think you upwards of 400 interviews across disciplines that we probably haven't done in New York just just yet. And so we're working to change that not doing interviews now, during COVID. But, you know, what became clear to me was that the other things, the people's letters and photographs and reports and all the things that people carry with them throughout their lives, those were being thrown away upon someone's death and dying. And with that goes a lot large swaths of, you know, our history. Often sometimes, within families, people really didn't know if we were interviewing two family members, people didn't know the significance or all the history of the person who was their relative in their contribution. So that's what our focus is.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: So I know you've had some success. I think was it Jessye Norman and Angela Davis that you managed to make sure that their papers have been preserved, correct?

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: That's right. Jessye Norman, I met the librarian of Congress at her apartment. This is probably just months before she passed. And we were able to get her papers to the Library of Congress. They were spread between you know, three places, I think even a home in London. And then Angela Davis, we were able to get her papers to the Schlesigner Library at Harvard University. Also, you know, we're working on now Charles Ogletree. I'm a graduate of Harvard Law School and his papers were getting ready to be thrown away. And so we've got those secured and-- and there's, I think there are a lot of instances of things like that. But even that work is too slow. I've been recently talking about the need for a modern day Works Project administration just centered around the Black experience. Because if we don't do things in the right way within the next 5 to 10 years, we're going to lose huge amounts. And so in that way, you know, I think it's a crisis. And, you know, I've had recent conversations with people like Howard Dodson and Cliff Muhammad, who both were, you know, heads of the Schomburg library. I've been in partnership with places like the Schlesigner Library and University of Virginia, University of Illinois, to really help move things through Brandeis University, which is my alumnus. And also repositories. Howard University Norman Spingarn has, like an amazing collection. Fisk University, Tuskegee. There are, I mean, if most Black people saw what were in those collections, they would cry joy.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Let me ask you, for people listening to this interview today, what can we all do to try to help with this effort?

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: I think that there-- I mean, money is always an issue. You know, this is going to take a lot of effort. But I think a lot of partnerships and collaborations. We don't need to do things that have already been done. You know, there's the-- I have the highest regard for the Schomburg library in New York. That was my motivation starting and, I mean, they just got the papers of Harry Belafonte in that collection as, you know, really our crown jewel as a nation. You know, there are other parts of New York Public Library where things are being done. Arthur Mitchell, when he died, his papers went to Columbia University. So, it doesn't really matter. It just really matters that we have a coordinated effort. But we would love it, you know, contributions we accept all the time. But we also appreciate people who can direct us. And where we should be focusing our efforts and where the hidden histories are. But I can tell you, based on a recent celebration of our 20th, that there-- we're in a bad shape right now as a community. But I believe, I believe that if we really act with intent and have the support of the philanthropic community and individuals. And I, you know, I have to acknowledge, you know, there have been people, you know, Darren Walker, Elizabeth Alexander, you know, at at the [? Mellon, ?] at the Ford Foundation, you know, people like Bill and Carol Sutton Lewis and also Frank Thomas, who used to be head of the Ford Foundation. Also, we just received a $1 million gift from Ursula Burns to correct the disparity in women in our collection. And also another $1 million gift from Ken Frazier and his wife Andrea Frazier. And so, we're really, we're really trying to make things work. Our work is singular, we are housed permanently at the Library of Congress, so people are new to us and haven't heard of us. Our website is, you know, a place that you can find lots of things about Black people.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And that's thehistorymakers.org.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: That's right. thehistorymakers.org. And the other thing that's exciting is New York Public Library has just licensed our digital archive. So all the interviews that are at the Library of Congress are all now available to everyone with the library code, free of charge. You can go searching in there and find all the amazing things that are there.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Julieanna Richardson, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon, and thank you for your continued hard work on this project, really documenting, making sure that our history is here for those who come after us to to take a look at. And I hope in many instances be very proud of.

JULIEANNA RICHARDSON: Thank you thank you for having me.

- Sandra Bookman and Here and Now will be right back.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: In celebration of Black History Month, the New Federal Theatre is streaming a retrospective reading series of some of its most notable plays. Joining us this afternoon to tell us more is artistic director Elizabeth van Dyke. So nice to see you.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for always giving us space, I appreciate that.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Hey. You know, you guys are a big deal, and you know that, you know that. You say New Federal Theater and we say we're in.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Oh, bless you, and thank you! That's the truth.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Talk to me a little bit about why you guys decided to do this retrospective series.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Well, March 12th, we lock down like the rest-- like most of New York City, like the entire country. And we-- what are we going to do? We're locked down almost a year later. So everything now is being done on the digital platform. So we begin to produce projects on this platform and it just seemed, since it is our 50th year. 50th year on February 20-- ah, in a couple of days will be our 51st year-- what a better time to do a retrospective, since most of the things that we have to do now are readings and on the digital platform.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And why these particular works?

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Right now it is Black History Month. Where we celebrate ourselves, we celebrate our history, where we've come from, what we've overcome, our heroes that opened the doors and paved the way for us today. And so there are two plays, "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost", which is about Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, just at the crossroads of their relationship, so that's very appropriate. And then "The Meeting" by Jeff Stetson. "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost" is by Laurence Holder. And, "The Meeting" is a meeting between Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. And it is absolutely brilliant, we're in the midst of it now, you could see it this evening at 7:00 and tomorrow the 21st-- or the 22nd-- at 7:00 also. And then the third play in the series is called "Widows". It takes place during apartheid in South Africa, and it's about women and the cost of apartheid injustice. And so those plays are historical and very appropriate for now.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: They're designed to make you think.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Make you think, yeah.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: To make you think. You know, it's always a struggle for artists. And the pandemic has proven that in a way that I think a lot of us can't believe. Talk to me a little bit about just, the struggle to keep moving forward, to keep doing what you've been doing as you pointed out for five decades now at the New Federal Theater during this pandemic. You've managed to to pivot to doing showcasing work virtually. What other things are you having to do to try to keep theater alive?

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: It's so interesting that we're in the midst of a pandemic that has stopped us in our tracks. But in stopping us in our tracks, it has given us time. Time for reflection, time for introspection, time to transform and make change. Ironically enough, we are-- we've adapted to this digital platform so well that we are introducing work, revisiting work, and putting it out there. We are instituting new projects-- we've just, on March 15, we will launch a virtual training program for stage managers and technicians so that they can learn this new platform, learn how to maneuver it, learn how to edit in it, that was an initiative that came out of this. We're looking at new works so that when we do get back to the theater we have work that we can birth, new work when we actually get there. So we inviting the writers to send your work. Send it, we're looking for wonderful plays about more than four people. We're initiating conversations, having rapping with the artist, we're just trying to adapt and be as creative as we can possibly be.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Yeah, taking advantage of what we've all been given. So newfederaltheatre.com is where we'll be able to see "Widows" as well as "The Meeting", correct?

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Yes, yes.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: And I think one of the important things to point out here to everybody is that these retrospective readings are also free.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Yes, they're free. We are in a pandemic. If you can donate, we appreciate it. You know, art, not for profit organizations always need money.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: You always need the help to continue the important work of the New Federal Theatre. Elizabeth Van Dyke, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon, and I hope we will be able to see you in person sooner than later.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Sooner than later. Thank you so much, bless you, bless you. Thank you.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Thank you.

ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: And again.

- Sandra Bookman and Here and Now we'll be right back.

SANDRA BOOKMAN: Thank you for joining us on Here and Now. If you missed any portion of today's show, you can watch at abc7ny.com. If you'd like to comment or share your story, email us at abc7ny, or follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I'm Sandra Bookman, enjoy the rest of your day.