It is almost a million words long and took two editors and 267 contributors more than 12 years to complete.
Its characters range from chemists to cattle rustlers, from rebellious slaves to naval officers, and from college presidents to a clockmaker.
It is "The Dictionary of American Negro Biography" coedited by Michael R. Winston, who wrote that he wants to "preserve a part of American history and to show black people were there."
Winston, 42, has just taken a new job that he sees as part of the same enterprise: applying universal standards of scholarship to focus on the concerns of blacks. Recently he was named vice president for academic affairs at Howard University.
"The world of ideas is open and it transcends racial categories," Winston said. "We've gotten away from that some in our society, which I think is our loss."
The seeds of Winston's philosophy are apparent in his attitude toward the university where he has spent most of the last 25 years of his life.
"Howard is an interracial, cosmopolitan institution," he said. "And Howard is a center of black thought and of the highest aspirations of black people. My own view is that these things have got to coexist. Once one pole overwhelms the other, you start running into dead ends."
The biographical dictionary contains concise scholarly sketches of 636 American blacks. They were picked, Winston said, for their significance, not for their fame.
Major figures are there, of course: W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes. So are hundreds of others: Maggie Walker, the first American woman to head a bank; Patrick Healy, the first Negro Jesuit who served as president of Georgetown University from 1874 to 1882; his brother, Michael Healy, a flamboyant naval captain; Sally Hemings, "alleged slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson;" and Dick Glass, identified in the dictionary as a "frontier outlaw."
"This is not all heroes and heroines," Winston said. "There are crooks in there, too. This is not just racial pride. This is part of the history of the United States that many people realize has been neglected."
The 11 entries that Winston wrote himself include the philosopher and critic Alain Locke, zoologist Ernest Just, and Dr. Charles B. Purvis, surgeon-general of Freedmen's Hospital who treated President James Garfield after he was shot.
Rayford W. Logan, Winston's coeditor in the project, was a history professor at Howard for almost 30 years. Logan also worked closely with DuBois, and through him the new dictionary has a long lineage. DuBois had tried to launch an even more ambitious project, an encyclopedia of blacks and their culture, but was thwarted by lack of finances and, eventually, old age.
Logan died last Nov. 4, just a month after the book's last page proofs were checked. The dictionary was not published until several months later, but, said Winston, Logan "knew we had completed the work."
About a third of the authors of the biographical entries are white, Winston said, causing some complaints from black critics.
Defending his choice of authors, Winston said: "Look, I don't believe in these kind of restrictions. I wrote my PhD thesis on 19th-century Austrians, and I'm not Austrian and I'm not 19th century. One does not have to be Russian to study Russian history. Sure, there are some advantages. There are also some blinders. . . . Scholarship is a universalistic enterprise."
Winston has been part of Howard since he was 17. He went there as an honors program freshman from Stuyvesant High School in New York City, whose students are selected through competitive examinations. He was graduated in 1962 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, whose gold key he still wears.
Winston earned his doctorate in European history from the University of California at Berkeley and he spent a year studying in Vienna. But he never left Howard for more than two years at a time. Under Logan's tutelage, he said, his interest in the history of the university developed into a broad interest in black history. What began as a hobby became a career.
With Logan, he wrote a history of American blacks and, in 1973, he became the first director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, transforming what had been a small division of the Howard University library into the world's largest collection of papers, books, manuscripts, newspapers, photographs, and recordings about blacks in the United States and around the world. Winston said that he and Logan used its growing collection to verify most of the material in the biographical dictionary.
In 10 years, the staff of the Moorland-Spingarn Center grew from 11 employes to 46. Its budget soared, Winston said, from $75,000 to$1.6 million. But in his new job, where he heads a faculty of about 1,020, the responsibilities are far greater. Winston brings to those responsibilities a strongly traditional approach.
"I'm a stick-in-the-mud fellow," he said. "I wear a pocket watch. I use a fountain pen. I still believe universities are for teaching and research. I think we get into trouble when we try to make them into other things."
Winston also is independent-minded. He often uses the word 'Negro' despite the widespread acceptance of the word 'black.'
"It's a more precise term," he explained. "Black is undifferentiated, but Negro is an American term. We're a New World people."
Last year Winston resigned from the board of the NAACP Special Contribution Fund, the tax-exempt arm of the NAACP. He said that he objected to the NAACP's lawsuit against the independent Legal Defense and Education Fund, which used the NAACP initials. Winston also complained that the NAACP has continued "to be an old-fashioned protest organization when, with the type of social change we have now, that doesn't make sense."
Winston also expressed doubts about affirmative action plans that give preference to blacks regardless of their circumstances.
"As soon as you start treating people on the basis of group classification, you have abridged something," he said. "It's important to treat people as individuals . . . . Of course, in this country some people do have group disadvantages. But every black person is not disadvantaged. Not my daughters."
Winston's wife, Judith, is assistant general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education. Their two daughters, aged 12 and 16, attend the National Cathedral School for Girls.
"My daughters should not be admitted to any program because of their race," Winston said. "But there are some kids their age who are disadvantaged because they are black.. . . The disadvantage I had at 18 I don't have now at 42. It demeans me to say I am still disadvantaged and therefore should get something more. I don't see why people are reluctant to say there are advantaged blacks, too."
Winston declined to comment directly on arguments presented by Howard University lawyers--and rejected by a federal judge--that as a predominantly black university, it can "take race in account" and give preference to blacks in hiring and promoting professors.
But he said: "I believe very strongly there should be no second-class citizens of this university or any university. I don't expect if I went to work in a white university that I would be second-class, and I don't think any whites should be treated that way here."
Although Howard has lost several discrimination suits, he added, "When you look at the total institution, you'll see it works the right way most of the time."
Even though he is a scholar of black history and works at a mostly black university, Winston said that he hopes the importance of race will decline.
"As soon as we place U.S. race relations in a broader context, we see that we're part of a more general phenomenon," Winston said. "Race in the U.S. is what religious differences were in Europe in the 16th century. Human beings have been at this for centuries . . . It is my hope that we will arrive at the point where one's racial identity is of as little significance as religious identity. Whether you are Catholic or Episcopalian, who cares? The people who do care a lot are antediluvian."