Herbert Eugene Randall Jr. was touring the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in 1955 when he became entranced by the photography exhibit “Family of Man,” 503 photos meant to capture the essence of human existence. Surrounded by the images, the young man was instantly intrigued.
From that point on, Mr. Randall dedicated his life to photography—from navigating darkrooms to working as the photography coordinator for the New York City Board of Education. An accomplished, and published, photographer, Mr. Randall’s work has found its way into The HistoryMakers project, the nation’s largest African-American video oral history collection, which was inducted into the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in June.
“I was just very impressed with photography, and I thought that maybe that was something that I might like to try,” Mr. Randall said last week during a telephone interview from his Southampton home. “So that is how it sort of began, and I have done everything in photography since then.”
Born in Riverhead, Mr. Randall moved to the Bronx as a young boy but visited the East End frequently, eventually moving onto the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton. He is an equal-opportunity photographer, he explained, never limiting himself to just landscapes or portraits.
One of the most influential experiences of his life came in the summer of 1964, when he covered the civil rights movement in Hattiesburg, Mississippi—a risky undertaking for a young black man. His work there, which was funded by a John Hay Whitney Fellowship for Creative Photography, was complied in a 2001 book, “Faces of Freedom Summer,” co-authored with Bobs M. Tusa.
Up until 1997, most of the photographer’s 1,800 negatives had never been seen. Mr. Tusa, an archivist at the University of Southern Mississippi, was collecting material on the civil rights movement when Mr. Randall donated his collection. The book, published in 2001, features more than 100 of Mr. Randall’s black-and-white photographs, capturing the freedom schools, community centers, voter registration efforts, and nonviolent volunteers and activists, including the late American folk singer Pete Seeger.
It was Mr. Randall’s work in Mississippi that was included in The HistoryMakers. “I was honored,” the 77-year-old said. “The thing is, when I initially went and saw my first exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art all those years ago, I was so impressed, but I never realized that I would have photographs in those collections one day myself, too.”
The HistoryMakers is comprised of 2,600 taped interviews with African-American men and women from across the country—including President Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, B.B. King and Senator Edward Brooke—covering a wide range of topics, from science and politics to sports, music and entertainment.
“The HistoryMakers represents the single largest archival project of its kind since the Works Progress Administration’s initiative to document the experiences of former slaves in the 1930s,” HistoryMakers founder and executive director Julieanna Richardson said in a release. “This relationship with the Library of Congress represents a momentous occasion for our organization. With the Library of Congress serving as our permanent repository, we are assured of its preservation and safekeeping for generations to come.”
The entire project is now being stored at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia.
“The HistoryMakers archive provides invaluable first-person accounts of both well-known and unsung African-Americans, detailing their hopes, dreams and accomplishments, often in the face of adversity,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a release. “This culturally important collection is a rich and diverse resource for scholars, teachers, students and documentarians seeking a more complete record of our nation’s history and its people.”
For more information on The HistoryMakers project, visit thehistorymakers.com.