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Black History Reports Reach an Ever-Growing Audience

In the coming weeks, as the names Louis Latimer, C.J. Walker and “Joe” drift into America’s living rooms, Currie Ballard says he’ll feel he’s made progress toward repaying a debt.

On Father’s Day, Ballard stood in the Pioneers of Salters African Methodist Episcopal Church in Langston, Okla., and offered public praise to the mentors who had helped him to survive and transcend his fatherless childhood in South-Central Los Angeles: A diligent stepfather, an education-minded grandfather and informal surrogates at the Southern Area Boys Club on 120th Street.

Those men, Ballard said, taught him self-respect at a time when the only African American images the media offered were “Amos ‘n’ Andy” or “The Jack Benny Show’s” Rochester.

Now 39 and the resident historian at Langston University, Ballard told his church’s small congregation that one way he repays his mentors is through the “Ebony Chronicles” histories of black Americans he produces for Oklahoma’s PBS affiliate.

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In the five months since my family visited Ballard as part of our 21,000-mile, 28-part “American Family” series for The Times, Ballard’s effort to tell the stories of important but neglected black figures has broadened considerably.

In September, Ballard’s half-hour feature on black photographer Flip Schulke won the Emmy Award for best historical documentary. And Saturday, “CBS Saturday Morning” broadcast the first segment in a new “Forgotten Heritage” series, which features Ballard’s reports on black history.

Ballard’s first three-minute piece, from Irvington, N.Y., will focus on Walker, whose hair care products made her “the first woman millionaire in America.”

Other segments, Ballard says, will take him to Livermore, Calif., where he will profile Latimer, a black scientist who improved Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, and to Texas, where he will report on a black slave named Joe who was, Ballard says, the sole American survivor of the siege on the Alamo--a forgotten eyewitness whose accounts helped write history.

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