Purdue dean among Angelou, Obama as HistoryMaker

Mark J.T. Smith, dean of Purdue's graduate school, is a part of the HistoryMakers series, a massive African-American oral history project.
Mark J.T. Smith, dean of Purdue's graduate school, is a part of the HistoryMakers series, a massive African-American oral history project.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Dean of Purdue’s graduate school, Mark J.T. Smith, is now officially a HistoryMaker. The HistoryMakers organization, which is assembling the country’s largest African-American oral history collection, has included Smith among the thousands of interviews it has done with accomplished African-Americans, among them Barack Obama and the late poet and educator Maya Angelou.

The project, which began in 2000, aims to interview 5,000 people. So far the group has conducted more than 2,600 interviews all across the United States, talking with both heralded and overlooked contributors in areas of science, history, politics, art and athletics, among others.

“I knew nothing at all about the HistoryMakers program,” said Smith, who has been at Purdue for almost 12 years. “When I was approached, I was honestly quite flattered because my name being associated with history was just mind boggling to me.”

The HistoryMakers has received increased attention after it was announced June 24 that the collection will be placed in the Library of Congress. The announcement was a dream come true for Julieanna Richardson, the project’s founder and executive director.

“The group was founded to document the African-American experience in a massive way,” Richardson said. “We wanted to show the breadth and depth of the African-American experience. That was our goal and still is our goal.”

Smith is an accomplished electrical and computer engineer. He has authored more than 40 academic papers and co-authored four textbooks. In 2003, he was promoted to head Purdue’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and was the first African-American to hold the position. He became the dean of the graduate school in 2009.

Before he gained renown in the engineering field, Smith was an Olympic athlete. He competed on the 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic fencing teams and won two national championships in 1981 and 1983. Exposure to movie characters like Zorro was what first inspired him to try the sport.

“That was the only exposure anyone had to fencing,” Smith said in his HistoryMakers interview in 2013. “That’s exactly what I was thinking. It just seemed like a really cool thing and I wanted to do it.”

Smith excelled in high school in New York City as well as in college at MIT. He said he’s most proud of his national championships, especially the one in 1983, “to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke.”

When asked about his inclusion in the oral history series, Smith said he hasn’t made history, but is humbled to join the prestigious group. Richardson said he was included for both his outstanding contributions to engineering as well as his athletic achievements.

HistoryMakers interviews are free-flowing and very comprehensive. Participants, chosen through a rigorous selection process according to Richardson, are asked a variety of questions. Regardless of their background or accomplishments, each one is asked about their favorite foods and colors and many are pressed to answer in-depth inquiries about their childhood and ancestry.

“You know going down memory lane is really a lot of fun, and you don’t do it unless there’s some reason to do it,” said Smith.

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