A New, and Vast, Frame of Reference

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

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.

Right now, Higginbotham is trying to underscore how many fascinating lives the Biography will help rescue from relative or absolute historical obscurity: people like 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 . . . "

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 ended up disguising 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 W. 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."

Black history has been important to Higginbotham, who was born in 1945, for most of her life. Now chair of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies, she says she knew from the age of 5 that she would be a historian. As a child in her parents' house in Washington, at 17th and Decatur NW, she met Logan and other pioneers of the field such as John Hope Franklin and Carter G. Woodson, whom her father, a school principal, helped out at the Association 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."


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