- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

NEW YORK Joe Black died just days before he was to have made a digital recording of his life story as the first black pitcher to win a World Series game. Black was 78 at the time of his death this past May. He won the opening game of the 1952 World Series against the New York Yankees 4-2.
The sad timing of his passing was not lost on Camille Cosby and Renee Poussaint, who started the National Visionary Leadership Project to help preserve the voice of a generation of legendary and pioneering black Americans now 70 or older.
There's a sense that if another opportunity doesn't come along, much will be lost, says Miss Poussaint, an Emmy Award-winning Washington journalist who was to have interviewed Mr. Black.
She and Mrs. Cosby, an organizer and backer of several educational organizations for black youngsters and the wife of entertainer Bill Cosby, thought it was important to have the life stories of older Americans told in their own words rather than have those histories interpreted and passed on by others.
"That's what we want, to protect the truth of each elder's history," Mrs. Cosby says.
The project records the voices of celebrities such as poet Maya Angelou and actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as well as influential but less-known community leaders.
Mrs. Cosby and Miss Poussaint hope to complete 60 interviews 30 from each group each year for five years. The histories are posted on the Washington-based organization's Web site (www.visionaryproject.com) and become part of the archives. The women eventually hope to reach a wider, national audience through television and CD-ROM.
The interviews are an opportunity to talk about history with the people who have lived it, some who often haven't had their stories told.
"American history is not a fraud, but is flawed because so much of such importance is left out, in particular as it related to our struggle," says Mr. Davis, 85. "We need to change it, we need to correct it, and one of the better ways of doing that is to ask those who were participants to tell their stories."
Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, where Miss Poussaint is a fellow, says the project's work is vital.
"For scholars, it's priceless because you don't have to infer, you don't have to patch together evidence. You have people talking in their own voice about what they did, about why they did it. It actually helps to form a cultural record."

The project also continues a tradition of personal oral histories that dates back to slave autobiographies, says Harold Forsythe, assistant professor of history and director of Black Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
All the interview subjects lived through the Jim Crow era when segregation was legal in the South, in some border states and even in parts of the North.
"Race was the thing that defined them the most," Miss Poussaint says. "It was something that affected everything in their lives, from where they were born, what kind of jobs their mother and father could have, where they went to school."
Mrs. Cosby's interest in oral histories dates back to 1994, when she produced a play and movie based on "Having Our Say," a book about two centenarian sisters, Bessie and Sarah Delany. She was encouraged by the positive response to both.
"I realized how valuable it is for the elders to be given attention in an American culture in which young people are moving away from the elders, not paying as much attention," Mrs. Cosby says. "When I was a child, I loved to sit with my grandparents."
Miss Dee, 79, whose stage, film and TV career has included numerous projects with husband Ossie Davis, says the project offered "a platform to ring alarm bells and do what we're supposed to do as seniors, which is look after the children."
Mrs. Cosby, president of the organization, has provided all the funding for the project, which has an annual budget of $1.5 million. It has the support of several institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.
Miss Poussaint, who also hosts "The Reading Club" on Howard University Television's PBS Channel 32, is the organization's executive director. She came onboard after working on a documentary about a meeting between historian John Hope Franklin and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
She says the film made her realize that what was needed was "an ongoing institution, whose focus is collecting and preserving the wisdom and making it accessible to the public and involving young people."
When young people do listen to the generations that came before them, they learn valuable lessons, she says. "It gives them an opportunity to say, 'If they did it, maybe I can do it.'"
Though the participants are all black, the histories they relate are meant to be heard by all, Mrs. Cosby says.
"The stories of these African Americans are the stories of American history," she says.

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