Man on a history mission

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2012 - 8:42 AM

Twin Cities native Benjamin Mchie has gone to enormous lengths to make every day Black History Day through his popular website, African American Registry.

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Benjamin Mchie talked to students during a presentation to a Patrick Henry High School 9th-grade class as part of National African American Parent Involvement Day.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Fairly early in their six-decade friendship, Marc Mauseth noticed something about Benjamin Mchie. "Benjie has always had a somewhat unusual combination of being very creative yet at the same time almost obsessive-compulsive with details," Mauseth said.

That as much as anything explains the voluminous and luminous nature of Mchie's African American Registry (www.aaregistry.org). The hours that Mchie has poured into what he calls "more of a calling than a career" pop off the Web page, in the form of thousands of historical nuggets and hundreds of engaging videos.

"I'm sort of chief cook and bottle washer," said Mchie, a Minneapolitan by birth and residence, with a chuckle.

Of course, a website that draws more than 80,000 unique visitors a month from more than 150 countries and territories requires a bit more than that -- something along the lines of that creative-obsessive combo.

So while his work behind the microphone in radio and behind the camera in television provided his artistic chops, Mchie's family's history helped propel him on this mission.

"My mother in 1982 contributed to a book called 'Every Woman Has a Story,'" said Mchie, 61. The chapter she wrote was called "Don't Ever Let the Sun Set on Your Anger."

He also had learned that his mother's uncle, John Elijah Ford, was the first black person to graduate from the Chicago Theological Seminary, and that his father's older sister, Frances Mchie, had integrated the University of Minnesota's nursing school in 1929. "They wrote her a letter turning her down. They told her she would be much happier at the Kansas City General Hospital."

Thanks to some political connections, Frances Mchie, then 18, read the letter to the Minnesota State Legislature, "and within two weeks she was admitted," her nephew said proudly. "And she has a permanent display in the nursing-school library."

Who was that guy?

Seven decades after that fateful event, Mchie got his calling. "In 1999 I was watching the news one night," Mchie said, "and Dan Rather came on and said, 'Civil rights stalwart dies in Alabama.' So I thought it'd be somebody I'd know.

"Turns out I'd never heard of him. His name was Frank Johnson, a judge. And I'm looking at the Julian Bonds and Andrew Youngs of the world saying 'Without his legal expertise there wouldn't have been a civil rights movement.' So I started thinking it would be great if we could do something every day so that people would know more about us in other months besides February."

Mchie, a trim man who frequents LA Fitness "trying to keep what I've got," launched the site and tirelessly input birthdays and bios. (Feb. 16, by the way, is the birth date of two black actors -- James Baskett, the first human to appear live in a Disney movie, and LeVar Burton, who touched millions as Kunta Kinte in the miniseries "Roots" -- and white abolitionist Henry Wilson.)

Mchie, whose stylish glasses magnify deep-set, soulful eyes, continued working as a videographer and spent most of his other waking hours toiling away at the registry, eventually adding a daily newsletter that currently goes to 3,000 subscribers.

Mauseth, who now lives in Tubac, Ariz., said he had "helped since the inception as a sounding board," and a few interns and volunteers have pitched in. Funding has come from sales of a wall calendar and "Go Fish" card game, and the nonprofit is seeking foundation support.

After inputting a raft of historical tidbits, Mchie decided he "wanted to add the mortar to the factual bricks, and that's where the video comes in. It normalizes the history and focuses the heritage."

Now the site's front-and-center "Black Box" page has more high-def videos than there are days in the year, Mchie proudly noted, featuring everyone from Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Keb' Mo' to "elders and kids, not all known." While shooting the videos, "I tell people it's not a test. We're just looking for your truth."

Multimedia background

Mchie grew up in a working-class neighborhood, near 40th and Clinton in south Minneapolis. He and Mauseth spent their free hours playing football, basketball and especially baseball; ice skating, dancing and even participating in an urban 4-H Club.

"When we were walking back and forth to school, we would throw snowballs at vehicles," Mauseth recalled. "But only at trucks, buses or women drivers, never at a young man because he'd stop and chase you."

Mchie became enamored of theater in high school, often in plays directed by Mauseth's mother. "When he was a disc jockey in his 20s, I used to tease Benjie that he needed to give credit to my mother because she taught us diction."

Years before he would launch a website aimed at "trying to sell the humanity of a disenfranchised people," Mchie was standing up for racial causes. He was one of the plaintiffs in a 1969 lawsuit that integrated the Minneapolis Fire Department, and in 1981 he left his job as a KQRS disc jockey after he said his new boss told him "You sound too black."

For the past 30 years he has been an independent camera operator for local TV stations, ESPN and other outlets. And for the past dozen of those years, he has strived, through the AA registry, "to bring the mountain to Mohammed."

Because of that effort, he's especially busy in the six weeks between Martin Luther King Day and the end of February, but his mission, like his website, is to spread America's black history throughout the calendar.

"We train teachers to use our material every day, not just Black History Month," Mchie said. "Our goal is to look at creating a year-round affirmation of the black experience."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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  • Benjamin Mchie

  • BENJAMIN MCHIE

    Parents: Beneta Edwards Mchie grew up in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, graduated from Hamline in 1935, worked as a librarian and served on Gov. Elmer L. Anderson's Religious Values Committee. John Mchie Sr. worked for the post office 30-plus years and owned a real estate company.

    Education: Graduated from Minneapolis Central High in 1966 and Long Beach State with a degree in speech communication in 1974.

    A (slowly) growing boy: As a high school senior, Mchie was 5 feet 2 and wrestled in the 95-pound weight class.

    Family: Single. One son, Jon.

    Hobbies: "I ride my bicycle a lot when the weather's right. I used to enjoy tennis, but my knees aren't that good. I enjoy reading a lot. E-books are taking up more of my time."

    Semi-ambidextrous: Mchie shoots pool and uses the computer mouse left-handed, but does everything else right-handed.

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