A New, and Vast, Frame of Reference
Ambitious Compilation of Biographies Will Bring to Light The Often-Overlooked Stories of Thousands of African Americans

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


"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."

'Do You Think You Can Fill It Up?'

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

Reached by phone in California -- where he's on sabbatical at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences -- Gates credits his inspiration to two sources in particular.

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, among other things, 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 went looking for Smith among the many thousands of entries in the premier American biographical dictionary, Oxford's American National Biography.

He wasn't there.

Nor was a second name Gates was looking for, classical scholar William Scarborough. 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.

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. Some were already famous; others, like Smith and Scarborough, were more obscure but nonetheless established historical figures. But many -- brought to light by burgeoning research efforts in African American history over the past quarter century -- remained virtually unknown outside the academy.

Gates and Higginbotham set out to turn that database into what Gates calls "the grandest history of the African American people ever written" by telling "the life stories of the actual human beings who created African American history."

The editors had many basic questions to resolve.

Would they include people like Stanly, the black slaveowner, who were notable for largely negative reasons?

Short answer: sometimes.

How would they decide the nettlesome question of who, precisely, was African American?

Usually, Higginbotham says, they included those who defined themselves as black.

What about living people? Other biographical dictionaries mostly have refrained from including them. Higginbotham had reservations about violating this practice, but Gates talked her into it.

"So much of importance in African American history occurred in the 20th century," he says. And for student users, it seemed especially important to include the Colin Powells and the LL Cool J's.

Members of the staff Gates and Higginbotham 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, and which Gates later adapted for a PBS documentary.

A good start, it might seem.

Not long after African American Lives was completed, however, its editors began to fear that the larger project would never get done.

'A Cellphone in Each Ear'

Historian Donald Yacovone, who joined the Du Bois Institute staff a year and a half ago, has a story he tells about his job interview at Skip Gates's house. He's telling it, this day, in the light-filled offices of the institute, a couple of blocks off Harvard Square, with his Du Bois colleague Tom Wolejko sitting in.

"He was having leg surgery," Yacovone says, "so he had this medieval contraption on his leg to lengthen it. He's sitting in this Barcalounger, legs are up, okay? He's got a laptop and he's doing e-mail. He's got a television, watching the finals of soccer matches. He's got a cellphone in each ear, he's interviewing me and -- "

"Is that true?" Wolejko asks?

"Absolutely," Yacovone says. "I love telling that story. It tells you something about Skip's energy."

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, as yet untitled. 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."

Gates is also working on a Web-based project in partnership with The Washington Post Co. and its online magazine, Slate. He declined to talk about this for publication. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg would say only that there should be an announcement soon.

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.

"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, late in 2004, to help jump-start the project. Tuttle describes the Gates modus operandi as setting "audacious goals," then getting people to "work like hell and come close."

For whatever reason, the coming close part wasn't happening.

When Tuttle signed on, 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.

And why not? "It isn't really an academic project," Tuttle says. "It's a publishing project."

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

Some layoffs came with the reorganization, Tuttle says, "and that was painful." But the enterprise had traction again.

'Alice of Dunk's Ferry'

Talk to enough people who've worked on the project and you'll find they have one thing in common: They keep mentioning names.

Take Steven Niven, who has been on staff from the beginning and who replaced Tuttle as executive editor in 2006. Before shifting primarily into editing, Niven says, he spent a blissful nine months doing nothing but writing biographies himself. Among the 124 he finally ended up doing were volleyball ace Flo Hyman and longtime White House chief butler Alonzo Fields.

Niven mentions Medal of Honor winner Vernon Baker as well as Frankie Baker of "Frankie and Johnny" fame. He talks up Joe Gaetjens, the soccer player whose goal beat England, 1-0, in the 1950 World Cup. He tells the story of Charles Caldwell, who spent five years in the Mississippi senate before being assassinated in 1875, noting that "we also wanted to show the barriers to achievement."

The hardest stories for him to write, he says, were those of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley -- the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963.

Yacovone enthuses about Antioch Law School founder Jean Camper Cahn. Aiello is fascinated by Susie Baker King Taylor, the only black woman to write a Civil War memoir -- though her entry was completed too late to make the print edition.

As for Gates: He can't stop talking about a Pennsylvania ferry fare collector and legendary storyteller whose life spanned the entire 18th century and who was still riding her horse from Bucks County into Philadelphia at the age of 96.

Without the Biography, he says, "who in the world would have remembered Alice of Dunk's Ferry?"

Unknown figures from centuries past are hard to research, and many names in the database still await biographers. The living come with more information attached but 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 Powell? Both were shoo-ins for inclusion, but both have had their legacies of achievement destabilized by the Iraq war. Both of their biographies, Yacovone says, have been recently revised.

What happens when Deval Patrick suddenly becomes governor of Massachusetts? Well, an entry is hustled up. What about Barack Obama, who, on the day Yacovone is interviewed, has just won the Iowa caucuses and is surging in the polls?

On the one hand, Yacovone points out that if Obama gets elected president, there won't be that much need to update his entry. People will know.

On the other hand, the beauty of a biographical dictionary produced in 2008 is that it can be updated online. In fact the online edition solves so many problems that one has to ask:

Why is there a print edition at all?

'You Can Have Your Cake . . .'

Oxford's Aiello has a simple answer to that question. "At the time we launched it," he says, "the marketplace still wanted print."

You can order the print version right now for $795. The online version is proceeding more slowly and won't include all 4,100 entries for another 10 months or so. It is part of a collection of online reference tools called the Oxford African American Studies Center, available by subscription.

Aiello is not sure, however, that a second print edition will ever appear. The online product comes with too many benefits.

There's the lack of manufacturing cost, of course, and the by-now-familiar virtue of being able to link between entries.

There's the ease of making revisions. An online work can reflect new scholarship quickly and it makes including living people a much less hazardous proposition.

There's the infinite space available. The Du Bois Institute's database now contains upward of 15,000 names. In theory, all could be included.

Finally, putting this and similar works online has the potential to 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?

The beauty of working in an online biographical universe, Gates explains, is that "you can have your cake and eat it, too." Before long, users will 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.

Whether they're talking online or print, Higginbotham and Gates both express enormous satisfaction with the historical rescue efforts.

"I'm exhilarated," Gates says. "These people are amazing." If someone had enough time, it would be great "just to start with A and read to the end."

You won't catch him sitting down to do that himself, however. And it's not just because he's thinking ahead to his African biography project, which should daunt him -- all those languages! all that history! -- but doesn't appear to.

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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