A Letter from Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Editor in Chief of the African American National Biography
As a child I grew up in a household devoted to black history. My father worked closely with Carter G. Woodson, the man known to us today as the Father of Black History. He and other historians who visited my childhood home in the 1940s and 1950s devoted their scholarship and teaching to disproving the lie that the Negro has no history or no history worthy of respect. Today, very few educated people would subscribe to the belief that African Americans played no significant historical role in community and national life. Yet, despite all the scholarly findings since Woodson's time, I continue to marvel at how much more there is to discover.
In 2001 my Harvard colleague and co-editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and I embarked upon an unprecedented journey of historical discovery. We sought not only to present biographical information on familiar and prominent historical figures, but to unearth the lives of thousands of little known and, in many cases, completely unknown figures in black history. What better way, we asked ourselves, to explore the depth and breadth of the African American experience than through biography? What better way to gain new insight into a far more rich and complex past than by looking at the individuals of African descent who contributed to the making of this nation's past? The African American National Biography now exists in published form with nearly 4,100 entries, written by scholars, graduate students, and freelance writers. In its online form, the AANB will eventually contain 6,000 biographical entries.
As a historian, I came to this project recognizing that the tremendous methodological changes in the study of history since Carter Woodson's time lent themselves well to the production of such an ambitious project as the AANB. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s scholars came increasingly to look not only at the manuscript papers and archives of great men and their organizations, but at sources related to new historical actors: slaves, women, laborers. The new sources came in the form of slave testimony, census data, pamphlet literature, church records, freedpeople's letters to the federal government, local women's clubs, and a host of other records hitherto overlooked. The use of these sources and such new methods as oral history has brought to light names and stories once prominent, but now forgotten.
The AANB brings to its readers a fuller picture of black community and national life by its sheer massive compilation of the famous and the infamous, the likely and unlikely heroes, the remembered and the forgotten in history. However, for me this scholarly and academic endeavor has afforded something very personal. My heart fills with joy every time I come upon an entry of a name that I could only previously associate with a place. It is like discovering an old friend after years apart, or meeting a wonderful relative whom you never knew existed in your family. Such was the case when I discovered the entry on Melnea Cass. Living in the Boston area, I often find myself driving or walking on Melnea Cass Boulevard. However, it was only upon reading her biography in AANB that I discovered the person and life behind the street's name. She was born in Virginia in 1896. Her mother died when she was only eight years old, and she was sent to Boston to live with relatives. As a young woman, she worked as a domestic servant. Because of racial discrimination, she was denied the opportunity to work in the city's department stores. Around the time of the First World War she joined the local branch of the NAACP and until her death in 1978 actively fought for racial equality. Now when I find myself on Melnea Cass Boulevard, I'll always remember the life of this great woman.
I wonder if the children and adults who live on this street know about the person whose proud name is part of their own home address. I am also curious as to whether our children know the inspirational lives behind the names of the schools they attend. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I early on learned that public schools often bore the name of important white educators of national reputation and also of presidents such as Roosevelt, Wilson, and Coolidge. Yet there were also schools named after illustrious black people, such as the educator Lucy Diggs Slowe (I attended Slowe Elementary School), the first black federal judge Robert Terrell, the astronomer Benjamin Banneker, the Reconstruction-era politician Francis Cardozo, and the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. In Harlem sits the Garrett Morgan School, which takes its name from the famous black inventor born in the late 1870s. Morgan invented the protective mask for firefighters, and the mask carried his name. The mask was also used by the army. I must confess that it was not until I studied black history in college that I learned about the contributions of most of these persons. I wonder if the students who attend these schools today realize what a proud heritage they can lay claim to. Every school in America should own the AANB.
The civil rights lawyer and judge Constance Baker Motley once stated about her long struggle for justice in America: "Something which we think is impossible now, is not impossible in another decade." In many ways her words capture, as well, the bold and unprecedented challenge that Henry Louis Gates Jr. and I undertook in creating a database of thousands of African American biographies. When I compare the daunting task of Carter Woodson, as he embarked nearly a century ago, to win respect for black history, the words of Constance Baker Motley ring in my ears because they so eloquently capture the spirit of what has now become possible—the publication of the African American National Biography.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
Editor in Chief
African American National Biography