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Black historical figures get their due

Washington Post

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- “Ever heard of Ted Rhodes? There he is, right before Condoleezza Rice.”

Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham is paging through the index to the eight-volume African American National Biography. She co-edited this massive new biographical treasure chest -- to be published next month by Oxford University Press -- with her Harvard colleague Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr.

Higginbotham is trying to underscore how many fascinating lives the biography will help rescue from obscurity: people such as Rhodes, a black professional golfer who paved the way for Tiger Woods.

“Valaida Snow’s interesting,” Higginbotham says, mentioning a jazz singer who was interned in a Nazi concentration camp. “You know Major Taylor? He’s a bicyclist. . . . Margaret Smith was a midwife; she delivered over 3,000 babies in Alabama. . . . “

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Name after name, life after life:

There’s Cathay Williams, “cook, laundress, and Buffalo Soldier,” who fled her slave master during the Civil War and disguised herself as a man to enlist in the postwar U.S. Army. There’s John Carruthers Stanly, born a slave in North Carolina, who ended up owning 163 slaves himself.

And there’s Rayford Logan, Higginbotham’s old history professor at Howard University who helped create the Dictionary of American Negro Biography -- the best-known antecedent of the Gates-Higginbotham effort.

When it was published in 1982, Logan’s dictionary was by far the most professional African American biography project ever completed. It had 626 entries. This one will have 4,100, and there are plans to add thousands more to the online version. Gates calls it “the most important recovery project in the history of African American studies.”

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Black history has long been important to Higginbotham, chairwoman of Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies. As a child in her parents’ house in Washington, she met Logan and other pioneers of the field such as Carter Woodson, whom her father, a school principal, helped out at the Assn. for the Study of Negro Life and History.

After Woodson’s death in 1950, she says, her father drummed his friend’s historical credo into her:

“We must refute the lies that the Negro has no past or that the Negro has no past worth respecting.”

The African American National Biography was the brainchild of the entrepreneurial Gates. No one involved can quite imagine anyone else pulling it off.

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Reached by phone in California, Gates credits his inspiration to two sources.

One was Yale historian John Blassingame, who introduced him to the outpouring of quirky black biographical dictionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Largely efforts to refute the most damaging lie of all about black people -- that they were intellectually inferior to whites -- these works tended toward hagiography but preserved many names that might otherwise have been lost.

The other inspiration, Gates says, was one of his heroes, “the smartest black intellectual in the first half of the 19th century.” James McCune Smith was the first professionally trained black physician in the United States, the nation’s first black candidate for political office and an influential abolitionist. Seven years ago, Gates looked for Smith in the premier American biographical dictionary, Oxford’s American National Biography.

He wasn’t there. Nor were most of the names on a list of maybe 25 prominent blacks Higginbotham assembled after Gates told her of the gaps he was finding.

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Gates called Casper Grathwohl, who headed Oxford’s reference division, and told him he needed to publish a stand-alone African American reference work.

“Do you think you can fill it up?” Gates recalls Grathwohl asking.

Not a problem.

An initial database, compiled at the Gates-run W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, ran to more than 12,000 names. Many, brought to light by burgeoning research efforts in African American history over the last quarter century, remained virtually unknown outside the academy.

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Gates and Higginbotham set out to turn that database into what Gates calls “the grandest history of the African American people ever written.”

Members of the staff they assembled began work in 2002, based in the Du Bois Institute. By 2004, they had produced a handsome 600-entry volume called African American Lives that served as a kind of advertisement for the full biography. But soon after this, the editors began to fear that the larger project would never get done.

Indeed, Gates is a man who, asked what he’s working on now, has trouble recalling the full list. His sabbatical project is “a book on race and the Enlightenment.” Another book, “In Search of Our Roots,” will be out in April. He’s just gotten approval from Oxford University Press for a huge African biography project. There’s a PBS show airing next month, the second to be based on African American Lives. Oh, and he’s forgotten to mention “the big project I’m gearing up to do”: an eight-hour PBS series on the history of the African American people -- “the whole sweep, from the slave trade to Barack Obama.”

In short, Gates is hardly a typical academic. He is uncomfortable with the slower rhythms of university scholarship, and some academics, in turn, are uncomfortable with him.

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“A lot of people working for Skip get a little freaked,” says Kate Tuttle, a book editor and journalist whom Gates and Higginbotham brought in to jump-start the project. When Tuttle signed on in 2004, she says, the biography was mostly a Du Bois Institute production, with little input from the publisher, and there was a feeling among the staff “that the project was impossible.” Her chief idea for retooling it was to get Oxford more involved.

A key decision, says Tuttle’s Oxford counterpart, Anthony Aiello, was to reduce the responsibilities of the Du Bois staff by recruiting 17 credentialed “subject editors” -- for education, art, slavery, civil rights and so on. The subject editors approved biographical entries in their fields, to be written mainly by some 1,700 outside contributors.

Unknown figures from centuries past are hard to research; the living, meanwhile, offer their own challenges.

What do you do, for example, with sprinter Marion Jones, who had yet to admit to using steroids when her biography was written? Or with Barry Bonds? What about Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell? Both were shoo-ins for inclusion, but both have had their legacies of achievement destabilized by the Iraq war. What happens when Deval Patrick suddenly becomes governor of Massachusetts?

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The beauty of a biographical dictionary produced in 2008 is that it can be updated online. The print version can be ordered for $795. The online version is proceeding more slowly and won’t include all 4,100 entries for nearly a year. It is part of a collection of online reference tools called the Oxford African American Studies Center, available by subscription.

Putting this and similar works online may resolve a question that the compilers of specialized biographical dictionaries are forever being asked: Aren’t they, despite their good intentions, perpetuating a form of ghettoization?

Online, Gates explains, “you can have your cake and eat it too.” Users will soon be able to search across all Oxford’s reference tools without specifying race -- but they’ll still be able to separate African American entries if they want to.

“I’m exhilarated,” Gates says. If someone had enough time, it would be great “just to start with A and read to the end.”

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You won’t catch him doing that himself, however. And it’s not just because he’s thinking ahead to his African biography project, which should daunt him. No. He’s already lighting out for new territory.

“Oxford doesn’t know it yet,” Gates says cheerfully, “but I want to do blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean.”


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