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Julieanna Richardson ‘76 Chosen as Commencement Speaker

By Emily Sorkin Smith

Section: News

April 1, 2016

Historian and founder of HistoryMakers Julieanna Richardson ’76 will give the commencement speech at this year’s graduation ceremony. Richardson, along with four other people, will be given an honorary degree at commencement.

Richardson founded the nonprofit HistoryMakers, which preserves the accounts of African Americans through oral histories. HistoryMakers is, according to their website, America’s largest collection of African American oral histories. They have in their archives oral histories from Barack Obama, Quincy Jones and several members of the Tuskegee Airman.

Past honorary degree recipients have sparked controversy within the Brandeis community. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch politician very critical of Islam, was invited to Brandeis to receive an honorary degree in 2014. After faculty members and students protested her selection, the university retracted their invitation.

The process for selecting honorary degree recipients requires that individuals be nominated and approved by the full Board of Trustees. The university president then selects the awardees from the list of approved nominees. Past awardees include Harry Belafonte, David Ben Gurion and Jamaica Kincaid.

Richardson graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Theater Arts and American Studies before attending Harvard Law School. While at Brandeis, she completed an independent research project on the Harlem Renaissance, her first exposure to the power of oral histories in relaying important narratives. Richardson worked as a corporate lawyer and cable news executive before starting HistoryMakers.

Also receiving awards are MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, grandson of Louis Brandeis, Frank Brandeis Gilbert, Academy Award Nominee Agnieszka Holland and abstract artist Jack Whitten.

Dresselhaus, who has worked to encourage women to study science and engineering, has also won the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her research focuses on nanotechnology and carbon nanostructures.

Brandeis Gilbert has worked with cities to preserve historic spaces and strengthen the laws that protect them. He is a member of the Supreme Court Bar, which requires that lawyers be qualified to practice in the highest court of their state.

As the first woman chair of the European Film Academy, Holland’s influence in the world of filmmaking has spread beyond Europe. She was involved in the production of “The Wire,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “House of Cards.”

Jack Whitten, an African American artist whose abstract pieces have been featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art, will also be receiving an award. Whitten attended Tuskegee University and after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Whitten spent two years of his career creating a work in commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which he was only blocks away from.

Seniors graduating this spring are currently in the process of voting for the student commencement speaker, which requires that students submit speeches to the rest of the class. Student Union President Nyah Macklin ’16 is one of 10 finalists, from which seniors may vote for three.

Richardson will receive her honorary degree at the Commencement Ceremony in March, where she will also deliver the commencement speech.

“Julieanna Richardson is a distinguished alum of Brandeis University, a leader in her field and much honored for her life’s work,” wrote Interim Vice President of Communication Judy Glasser in an email to The Brandeis Hoot.

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