For the past 18 years, The HistoryMakers, a national non-profit dedicated to chronicling the personal and professional lives of prominent and unsung African-Americans, has been producing compelling televised interviews that chart journeys and reveal unknown facts about Black leaders across a spectrum of industries. Singer/actor Harry Belafonte, record executive and Motown founder Berry Gordy, music producer and composer Quincy Jones, and former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns are just a few of the people who’ve been featured.
Aired nationally on PBS, the show is typically broadcast once or twice a year; this Saturday, as a tribute to Black History Month, An Evening with Ken Chenault makes its debut. Viewers will hear about Ken Chenault from media mogul Oprah Winfrey, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, businessman Warren Buffett, NBA legends and Hall of Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr., and many others.
The former CEO and Chairman of American Express from 2001 to 2018, Chenault is the third African American CEO to have led a Fortune 500 company.
“Ken has not been very vocal, so this is a rare chance to learn about his career and his life; it will be very interesting from both perspectives,” Julieanna Richardson, founder and president of The HistoryMakers told me in a recent interview. “People will learn about the rich history of his family in North Carolina; his father who ranked the highest score at the time for the New York Dental Exam; and the distinguished people he attended Harvard Law School with including noted attorney and law professor Charles Ogletree, top lawyer Ted Wells and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier. He is both a nurturer of other Black CEOs, and a fervent leader. Ken Chenault will go down in history as one of the greatest business leaders of all time.”
Chenault retired from American Express in 2018, and proceeded to join the boards of directors of Airbnb and Facebook.
Richardson, a lawyer by training who says she chose to use her law degree in a different way than Chenault, says the story will also touch on his experiences with 9-11 Attacks, the financial crisis of 2008 and his relationship with American business magnate Warren Buffett.
Launched in 2001, The HistoryMakers was born out of Richardson’s desire to pick up where the slave narratives left off. “There had been no attempts to record 20th century Black history. My motivation was that the United States didn’t know anything about my history. When I found it in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, that was transformative,” she shares.
She continues, “Growing The HistoryMakers has been one challenge after the other, but we’ve grown to be the nation’s largest African American video and history archives. Housed permanently at the Library of Congress, we’ve interviewed 3,200 people in 400 cities and towns. As I speak, our crew is out in L.A. interviewing people. Fundraising is a challenge as well as getting people to understand our concept is a challenge, but I think people are now in awe of what we’ve been able to do. Our digital archives were created by Carnegie Mellon two years ago, and today, our work can be seen in almost 50 universities around the country.”
Catch An Evening with Ken Chenault this Saturday at 1 p.m. on PBS.