ON A SPRING afternoon in the mid-1930s, one of the country's most imposing historians, W. E. B. Du Bois, and one of its most promising, Rayford Logan, excitedly awaited in the former's Atlanta University office (champagne iced for the occasion) a telephone call from the Phelps-Stokes Fund relaying the decision of its board to underwrite Du Bois' multi-volume "Encyclopedia of the Negro" project. They were to be disappointed. On page 662 of the Encyclopedia of Black America is a 1963 photo taken in Ghana of Du Bois at the end of his life, a majestic institution assited by his spiritedly sectarian, younger wife, sorting materials for a coup d'etat- doomed, global version of his 1930s project, the "Encyclopedia Africana." Rayford Logan, emeritus professor at Howard University, is currently correcting proofs of his long-awaited "Dictionary of American Negro Biography," cadet offspring of an inspiration nearly a half-century old.

The 921-page, double-columned Encyclopedia of Black America ("Afro-America" was rejected after due consideration) is not the monumental compedium of the African race at home and abroad envisaged by Du Bois, but it is vastly better than anything else available. As recently as 20 years ago, reference works were still being compared to the Britannica's magisterial 11th edition, the supposed great exception of limitations of accuracy, comprehensiveness, and profoundity inherent int he encyclopedia species. Allowances made for size, the Encyclopedia of Black America comes gratifyingly close to 11th-edition class and to justifying the claim of being the "first encyclopedic volume on black America" in which the "whole panorama of Afro-American history is surveyed . . . through a combination of exhaustive factual information and insightful interpretive commentary." Over the better part of a decade, editor W. Augustus Low, professor of history at the Unversity of Maryland's Baltimore campus, and associate editor Virgil A. Clift, emeritus professor of education at New York University, assembled, with the assistance of 33 principal consultants, 89 contributors who prepared 125 major and 200 minor article constituting approximately two-thirds of the encyclopedia's bulk, the remainder devoted to biographical entries and cross reference. Eleven "clusters" of two or more distinct but related articles -- thematic entries -- ranging from Africa through Education and Newspapers to Slavery, make up 30 percent of the total.

Reviewing the venturesome new Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, a well-known political scientist wrote that revived interest in ethnicity required such a reference volume, if only to aid students with their term papers. With the recent publication of the Encyclopedia of Southern History, the Harvard ethnic groups volume, and now the offering of professors Low and Clift, there should be a marked upswing in the quality of American Studies term papers; as well, the potential exists for gradual enrichment of the general literate public's knowledge of cultures historically well outside or not quite comfortable within the American mainstream. Very likely, a surprisingly large number of academic specialists will profit from ready access to the Encyclopedia of Black America, especially to the best of its clusters (African Legacy, Civil Disorders, Music, and Slavery), which are models of the encyclopedia genre. The clustes are punctuated by comprehensive bibliographic references, legitimizing the editorial boast that, "taken collectively, they would constitute a formidable, highly selective and qualitive library of Afro-Americans."

The encyclopedia's major article on Athletes is outstanding, that on Archives flawed by several omissions (the Library of Congress) but very useful, those on Employment and Newspapers incisive and abundantly factual, the depressing Family, Housing, and Income articles rigorously analytical, balanced and bristling with up-to-date data. (The Housing entry's comparative examination of the history of black and white low-and middle-income capital accumulation is particularly illuminating.) The Social Classes article objectively reviews and assesses such divisive intraracial factors as pigment, pedigree, adoption of inappropriate white and conduct and values, and social advancement through tokenism; curiously, it does not address the race/-class controversy raised most provocatively by William J. Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race, a book not listed in the references. An urgent study of incommensurable significance that remains to be written is an economic and cultural history of Afro-American production and use of cosmetics -- the hair straightening formulas, special foundation creams, skin lighteners, and the like, upon which considerable and durable Afro-American fortunes (Johnson, Poro, Walker) have been built. The encyclopedia's pioneering Cosmetology article is invaluable.

Inevitably, in any A-Z compendium (Aaron, Hank to Zigaboo) there are things to criticize. Evidence of editorial laxity: "Extent" for extend (p. vii); the name Bottoms wandering into the next entry on Bouchet, Alexander; deceased biographical subjects who live on (W. W. Cuney, Aaron Douglas, Frank Horne, and Harold Jackman) and those who are prematurely interred (J. Max Bond, alive and very well); the marriage of Jessie Redmon Fauset to Arthur Huff Fauset, her brother. Dispensable cross references (Belcher, Books). A puzzling biographical selection principle: Fleming, G. James (Baltimore educator), three times the space allotted to Fitzgerald, Ella; Grimke, Archibald and Francis, but no independent entry for their sister, Angelina; Healy, Patrick (first Afro-American PHD and Georgetown University president from 1873 to 1882), buried in the entry on his brother, James. Excellent extended biographies: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Booker T. Washington (but only brief notices for Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X). Sixteen pages are given the NAACP, but the Urgan League is awarded a column. Several major articles (Dance, Education, Harlem, Populism) disappoint, either because of inadequate information or unsophisticated analysis, or both. The otherwise splendid Historians entry ends on a strangely false note by omitting, among the younger, prominent Afro-American historians, mention of such scholars as Clay Carson, Robert Hill, Thomas Holt, Nell Painter, Albert Raboteau, and Michael Winston. Similarly, the reference list following the fine Martin Luther King entry omits the major biography on which the article is based. Finally, this reviewer would have preferred signed entries. Because of its overall high quality, such shortcomings are the more regrettable, but editors Low and Clift can be expected to remedy them in a second edition of even more impressive scholarship and comprehensiveness.