Oxford AASC:

African American National Biography

Introduction to African American Lives

African American Lives tells many stories and yet one. Its six hundred and eleven biographies span more than four centuries, presenting the lives of men and women whose backgrounds and achievements are as varied as their talents, skills, and knowledge. Taken together these lives of distinction attest to the integral character of African Americans to the life of this nation-to their abiding influence on American culture and institutions. African American Lives presents this history through a mosaic of individuals, some known throughout the world and others all but forgotten. We chose to include both familiar and unfamiliar names in the belief that history is more than the coherent account of important national events and social movements and that it is more than great ideas and works of art. The contours and content of history are shaped by people's lives, their personal choices and circumstances, individual uniqueness and creativity. Large events and small ones are brought about by ordinary people, for even the greatest of us is but an individual, while the least of us-as can be seen frequently in African American Lives-may have a profound effect on the course of world events.

African American Lives is the first publication of a much larger project, the African American National Biography, produced jointly by Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and Oxford University Press. The project is modeled after the superb twenty-five volume American National Biography (1999), published by Oxford in collaboration with the American Council of Learned Societies-indeed, 257 entries in the current volume are reprinted from ANB. Taking African American Lives as its core, the African American National Biography will expand to eight volumes containing approximately 6,000 biographies and will thus illuminate the broad sweep of African American biography more fully than ever before, giving us an even greater appreciation of the roles played by African Americans in history.

The study of history itself has changed considerably since the 1970s when Rayford Logan and Michael R. Winston edited the Dictionary of American Negro Biography (1982), the first scholarly and comprehensive biographical reference work on African Americans. At the time of the DANB's publication, African American women's history as well as the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements had just begun to emerge as vibrant fields of study. Attention to popular culture has provided greater insight into the lived experience of people who did not necessarily leave a written record. In the past three decades, historical methodology came increasingly to look upon new types of evidence, such as slave testimony and oral interviews, and to adopt interpretive frameworks that focused on indigenous movements, specifically the agency and social activism of local people rather than national leaders. The many changes in scholarship have brought to light an abundance of names remembered only by generations long gone.

Choosing some six hundred biographies to reflect so much history in a single volume proved a daunting task in itself. Our goal was to include not simply the greatest, the most deserving, or the most famous African Americans, but a selection that is representative of the broad range of African American experience. To accomplish this, we sifted through a database of over 11,000 names, solicited the advice of experts in many fields, and found ourselves in innumerable fascinating conversations. If the result of that process, as printed in this book, provokes further discussion among readers as to who should or should not be included, then it has served an important function already, because lively debate is an important tool for achieving understanding.

Reading through these biographies, one gets a sense of the interplay of the lives and careers of the subjects and of the breadth and depth of history behind their actions and ideas. As an example, let us follow through African American Lives the web of interconnections stemming from a single event-one that took place on 1 December 1955. Rosa Parks is rightly famed for refusing to give up her seat that day to a white rider on a bus in Alabama, but she did this neither on a whim nor alone. She was a protée of the NAACP field secretary Ella Baker, and like Septima Clark, she had trained carefully to be an effective activist at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Subsequent to her arrest, she worked with Jo Ann Robinson, E. D. Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others to organize the Montgomery bus boycott. Parks's refusal to give up her seat was itself no innovation, but rather drew upon a long history of similar protest. In 1947 Bayard Rustin was dragged from the front of a bus in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang; a few years earlier, before breaking the color barrier in major league baseball, Jackie Robinson was court-martialed-and acquitted-after refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus. Benjamin Jefferson Davis Jr. was arrested in the early 1920s for sitting in the Jim Crow section of an Atlanta trolley car. The legality of the "separate but equal" doctrine itself was established by the infamous Supreme Court decision stemming from the arrest of Homer Plessy, who sat deliberately in a "whites only" railway coach in Louisiana in 1892 to challenge that principle. And there were similar protests before that: the career of Ida B. Wells-Barnett as both an activist and a journalist began in 1883 when she refused to leave a first-class ladies' car on the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway; the Reconstruction congressman Robert Brown Elliott lobbied successfully for a bill to ban discrimination in public transportation in the 1870s; twice, in 1868 and 1866, Mary Ellen Pleasant sued a San Francisco streetcar company for not allowing her to ride; in 1866 in Philadelphia George Moses Horton protested with a poem entitled "Forbidden to Ride on the Street Cars"; in 1864 Sojourner Truth won in court the right to ride the streetcars in Washington, D.C. In 1855 James W. C. Pennington successfully challenged a New York City law prohibiting African Americans from riding inside a horse-drawn car. When Sarah Parker Remond was ejected from her seat in a place of public entertainment in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1853, she sued for reparations and won. There have been many others, but, as far as we know, the pioneer of such action was David Ruggles, who refused to give up his seat in a New Bedford, Massachusetts, railway car in 1841, only a year after the railway was established there. Of such connections is African American history made.

Like those named above, many of the subjects in African American Lives can be described as activists, but this book is not merely a collection of biographies of civil rights workers and politicians. African American Lives covers the full panoply of life for almost five centuries. In 1528, Esteban, the first African known to have stepped onto the North American continent, began his epic journeys across the South and Southwest, eventually becoming a Zuni deity after his death. African American history has continued ever since, and to represent that history in this book you will find at least the following:

  • writers and journalists
  • activists
  • slaves
  • politicians, government workers, judges, and lawyers
  • musicians
  • ministers, preachers, rabbis, and other religious workers
  • educators
  • athletes and sports figures
  • actors, performers, directors, and filmmakers
  • doctors, nurses, and medical workers
  • artists and photographers
  • business people and entrepreneurs
  • military personnel
  • scientists
  • philanthropists
  • dancers
  • frontiersmen, pioneers, and cowboys
  • inventors
  • explorers
  • aviators and astronauts
  • legendary figures
  • elephant hunter

If these numbers, incomplete as they are, add up to more than 611 (they actually add up to 918), that is because people are not easily classifiable and thus many must be included in more than one category. We all live varied, complex lives, and the subjects in African American Lives reflect that complexity to the fullest.

We have chosen to include in African American Lives the biographies of living subjects as well as dead. Many biographical dictionaries include only deceased subjects, and that certainly makes the writing, editing, and updating easier. However, much of importance has taken place in the past century, and the historical record would be seriously skewed if many undeniably significant people were left out of African American Lives simply because they are still alive. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Eldridge Cleaver are gone, but James Meredith, Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, and many others are still with us. The story of the struggle for civil rights in the latter half of the twentieth century is best appreciated through the lives of all of these and more. Alvin Ailey, too, has died, but Katherine Dunham, Arthur Mitchell, and Bill T. Jones have not; taken together, their careers brightly illuminate our understanding of the African American contribution to modern dance. Jimi Hendrix is dead, though many of those who paved the way for his success live on; perhaps we need mention only B. B. King, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley.

Every attempt has been made in African American Lives to include relevant family information. Typically, the first paragraph gives birth and death dates, the names and occupations of the parents, if these are known, and information about the subject's early life and education. The course of African American history, especially in earlier periods, has been such that in many cases dates, parentage, and family connections are difficult to determine. In order to make such connections explicit, the mother's maiden name has been given, where possible, so as to identify both sides of the family. This use of the maiden name is not meant to imply anything about the parents' marital status.

Cross-references throughout African American Lives make it easier to trace the web of contemporaneous and historical relationships that give structure to African American history. The first time anyone whose biography appears in African American Lives is named in the text of another biography, the name is printed in small capitals. For example, the biography of Malcolm X includes references to Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Fannie Lou Hamer, Coretta Scott King, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., James Baldwin, Louis Farrakhan, Ossie Davis, Alex Haley, and Spike Lee. If any of these cross-references piques your interest or curiosity, you can simply turn to that entry to find out more about the person.

However, you do not necessarily need to know the name of a particular person in order to explore African American Lives. An index of subjects classified by category or area of renown will help you to find, for example, slaves and abolitionists, explorers and adventurers, civil rights workers, preachers and other religious figures, writers and journalists, artists and actors, dancers and musicians. A thematic index allows you to look up organizations, places of importance, and other significant topics. There you will find references to the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SCLC, the Black Arts Movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the maritime underground railroad, and even the M Street School/Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, in Washington, D.C., where more than twenty of the subjects in African American Lives taught or were educated.

The biographies in African American Lives are also supplemented by several appendices. There are listings of all African American members of Congress and federal judges. There are also lists of winners of the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and all African American recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, the National Medal of Arts, the National Humanities Medal, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Names in boldface type in these appendices identify those for whom there is a biography in the book.

We are pleased to make available in a single volume these biographies of people who have significantly shaped our history. Some of them, like Jim Beckwourth and Mae Jemison, literally blazed trails to new frontiers. Others, like Moses Roper, Ellen and William Craft, and Henry Box Brown, found new pathways to freedom. Their successors labored long and hard to broaden those pathways, to pave them and make them smoother, as we see in the lives of Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Gabrielle Kirk McDonald. Many others have taught us, lifted our spirits, entertained us, and even amazed us with their skills as educators, writers, artists, dancers, and athletes. We hope that African American Lives will serve as more than just a reference book-that it will provide its readers with the same insights, understanding, and pleasures that we have gained from editing it.

-Henry Louis Gates Jr.
-Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham