IT IS a little over a decade since Afro-American history has come into its own or, rather, come to be generally accepted as a genuine field of inquiry by those interested in American life and culture. Practitioners and students of "Negro History" go back at least to the early 19th century. Mainly, however, they were black men and women struggling to discover and preserve a black American past in the face of what the historian Carter G. Woodson termed "the mis-education of the Negro." It was, until the 1970s, a struggle against what appeared a conspiracy of white Americans to expunge the Negro from their history just as, by segregation and Jim Crow, they had from their daily lives.
The events of the 1960s thrust blacks so conspicuously on stage, made them so essential to an understanding of America, that they could not be ignored. Black history courses were for the first time, taught in northern, predominantly white schools and colleges. Historians discovered a "new field," and publishers found a new audience. Within a decade more scholarly books were published on blacks than in the preceding half century. American history ceased being a story of white men.
Awareness that one needed to know more about black Americans was easier to come by than good, reliable information. Except for those few specialists who had read most of what had been written on blacks, few Americans (white or black) could identify four or five notable blacks who lived before 1900. It would be generous to think we would do better in the first half of this century. Finding precise information about even recognizable personalities has required a nearly heroic effort, except for those living near special research libraries like the Schomburg in New York and the Moorland-Spingarn at Howard University. That is why the Dictionary of American Negro Biography is not merely an excellent reference source, it is a major publishing event.
Standard reference sources, of course, have increasingly included blacks. The Dictionary of American Biography through its last supplement in 1974 lists 120 names of blacks. Notable American Women, 1607-1950 has articles on 41 black women. These numbers, while small, are not unreasonable, given the assumptions of these sources. They set out to include outstanding men and women who have made a clear mark on national society. The need, for instance, to compile a dictionary of American women points to the basic insufficiency of "outstanding" as a general criterion. When the Dictionary of American Biography was begun in the 1920s, no one would have doubted that it would list mainly white males. As we have shifted our view of what is important to know from our past, we have learned to include more: women, blacks and others.
Since, in matters of race, America has been a caste society--separate class structures divided by the impermeable line of race--many who would be "outstanding" or "notable" among blacks would never come into the general view. A number of blacks in the past have attempted to identify and bring such persons into public view. Most of these early efforts were motivated by an understandable desire to celebrate the race's achievements. Those who were first, those who invented something, those who achieved some success, those who had been recognized by whites were applauded and presented as models for blacks, examples of the race's potentialities.
The Dictionary of American Negro Biography is very different and marks another kind of coming of age of Afro-American history. The more than 700 entries of men and women were chosen for historical significance rather than notions of achievement. The "great" names are there--Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune--but there are many "lesser" figures (many unknown to even the expert), and not all of the entries would be considered "credits to the race" as they used to say. There are teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, poets, revolutionaries and so on. But there are also mountain men, cowboys, hustlers (gamblers and outlaws of the West), rodeo performers too. Indeed, some of the most fascinating essays are on characters like the cowboy Nat Love ("Deadwood Dick"), the frontier outlaw Dick Glass, and the rodeo performer and originator of "bulldogging" Bill Pickett.
The volume will be a monument to Rayford Logan, one of the great Afro-American historians, who died earlier this year. Logan and Michael R. Winston, who is director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, edited this work with great intelligence and skill. Contributors to the project include the very best scholars. The essays are uniformly well written, clear, precise, and accurate. Each gives bibliographical references. Well-known historians like John Hope Franklin, specialists like Eileen Southern, biographers like Peggy Lamson, Fawn Brodie, Louis Harlan and Arnold Rampersad contribute essays of very high quality. So, it can be said in general.
The Dictionary includes no one who was living after January 1, 1970. Ironically, that excludes from this volume a historical figure like Paul Robeson while it includes seemingly contemporary personalities like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Other than necessarily arbitrary omissions, I was unable to think of anyone who should have been included but was not.
As a result of the social changes of the past decade, black Americans will become more, rather than less, central to American life, history, and culture. That should indicate that this Dictionary of American Negro Biography is an auspicious and exemplary beginning to what will be a continuing scholarly enterprise.