History has not been good to Onesimus.
As smallpox raged across Boston in 1721, the prominent Boston minister Cotton Mather suggested "ye Method of Inoculation" that he had learned from Onesimus, his former slave: Deliberately infect healthy people to boost their immunity.
Although the first mass inoculation in America probably saved thousands of lives, a white Englishman born 28 years after the Boston outbreak, Edward Jenner, is remembered today as the pioneer of mass vaccination.
Many black historical figures such as Onesimus cling to the margins of history, or have disappeared altogether. Now, two Harvard University scholars, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, have begun an ambitious undertaking: restoring forgotten or little-known black Americans to their place in history.
The African American National Biography project's first volume, "African American Lives," was published last month. The massive compendium, which contains biographies of what Gates calls the "all-time greatest hits" of black American history, will be dwarfed by the expected 10 volumes that are planned to follow it. The series will contain about 10,000 biographies in all, in what Gates says is the largest African American research project to date.
"African American Lives" begins with slugger Hank Aaron and ends with civil rights activist Whitney Moore Young Jr. Between are about 600 biographies, some of them household names such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Cosby and Condoleezza Rice. Many other names have been revived from attics, dusty archives and history's hidden pages.
"You can't restore what has been truly lost. You have to find it first, preserve it and then put it in the mainstream," said Gates, 53, chairman of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies, and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. "It's our attempt to reverse centuries of neglect -- sometimes advertent, sometimes inadvertent."
Among the lesser-known figures in the book is Mary Elizabeth Bowser. A slave in the home of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president during the Civil War, she spied on top rebel leaders and sent the information north to the Union Army. When suspicion fell on her in the war's waning days, one of her last acts before she fled to the north was to unsuccessfully try to burn down the Confederate White House.
Another is Cesar, a former slave whose treatments for snakebite and other poisons garnered him widespread praise in the 17th century, 150 years before medical schools began accepting black students. Another is Nat Love, a cowboy in Texas and Arizona who claimed to be the model for the legendary "Deadwood Dick" of dime novel fame. He died in 1921.
There's Toni Stone, a female baseball player who played for the Negro Leagues. Signed as a novelty player to bring in fans, she kept pace with male players and, in 1953, singled off legendary pitcher Satchel Paige in an exhibition game. She died in 1996 at age 75.
Gates said he recently secured funds to have the books put in every public school library in Boston, New Orleans, Seattle and Washington, and is hoping to get the works into schools in other cities. His hope is that teachers will use the books to show that black heroes aren't only found among sports rosters and on rap labels.
"Sooner or later, we hope that we'll be able to create a new range of role models other than hip-hop stars and people living the gangster life and embracing the bling-bling," he said.
Allen Smith, a professor at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library Science, said many reference works have "a lot of holes" concerning black history, and his students have had difficulty researching black history.
"We need it," he said, referring to the biography project. "Every generation should produce its own reference works. . . . This generation is, and that's good."
The project began after Gates completed the massive "Africana" project, an encyclopedia of black history and experience throughout the world. People began writing to Gates describing family members and community leaders who had earned little recognition.
Existing biographical indexes, such as the American National Biography, give short shrift to blacks, Gates said, so he went to the ANB's publisher, Oxford University Press, and proposed the African American National Biography. Oxford agreed.
There are unusual aspects to the project. The editors accept nominations from the public, in much the same way that the Oxford English Dictionary takes suggestions for new uses and definitions of words.
And the African American Biography includes living people. The reason, Gates said, is that black history moves swiftly. He cited accomplishments such as talk show host Oprah Winfrey's making the Forbes magazine list as the first female African American billionaire, Colin Powell's appointment as the nation's first black secretary of state and Tiger Woods's phenomenal success in professional golf.
"How are you going to publish a biographical dictionary and not include all these people? The demands on our tradition are different, so we came up with a different set of rules," Gates said.
Janet Sims-Wood, vice president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Washington, applauds the effort. Black history is often passed down through families, but doesn't always find its way into the history books, she said.
"We would especially like to get young people educated about the contributions of black people, and projects like this are one way to do that," she said.