Oxford AASC:

Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass


In 1903 the great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the great problem of the twentieth century would be the "color line." Unfortunately, he was right. The twentieth century was one in which disputes over and discussions about race, ethnicity, and diversity often took center stage in the United States and abroad. As the volumes here show, however, the observation of Du Bois cannot be limited to the twentieth century. From the earliest settlement of America to the present, relations between Africans and Europeans—and then later African Americans and white Americans—have been central to U.S. history.

In many ways there are two African American histories: an internal history that charts how black communities developed over time, and an external history that shows how the interaction of blacks and whites has shaped the larger national history as well as the internal history of African Americans. In order to offer a comprehensive window into both of these histories Oxford University Press has developed a series of two encyclopedias: the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass and the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century (forthcoming).

The encyclopedias have been developed at the same time by the same group of editors. This first three-volume set covers the period from the earliest settlement of what became the United States until the death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. The second set begins with the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s and ends with the present day. The editors and press have chosen to end the first set with the death of Douglass because he was the most important African American of his age, and perhaps the most significant figure in all of African American history. For nearly half a century Fred Douglass, as he was often called, was the de facto leader of black America. He was a towering figure in the antislavery movement, an adviser to President Lincoln, and a key player in postwar politics. In many ways he was the symbol of his age: a former slave who became a writer and a public speaker with an international reputation; a fugitive slave whose escape from bondage made him subject to seizure under federal law, yet who became the Marshal of the District of Columbia; an African American who as a citizen became a diplomat and thus an official representative of his nation. His death marked the end of an era for African Americans—an era that began with most blacks being held as slaves and ended with all African Americans as free citizens.

Ironically, Douglass's death also marks the beginning of a new era overshadowed by attacks on black freedom and black rights-an era of pervasive segregation, poverty, and second-class citizenship. The year that Douglass died, Booker T. Washington gave his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech, in which he conceded that blacks would no longer, at least for the foreseeable future, be able to participate in politics in a meaningful way. Perceptions of Washington's role as a black leader have undergone a significant transformation since the early 1970s. Though he was once called an "Uncle Tom," most scholars today understand that he was politically shrewd, and politically powerful, despite his "compromise" speech. Even as he proclaimed to southern whites that he was uninterested in politics, he was working behind the scenes to enhance black political and economic power. But however we view Washington's political maneuvering, by the time Douglass died it is clear that the mantle of black leadership had shifted to Washington and that black life in America had clearly changed as most white politicians, with the support of most white Americans, maneuvered to put new limits on the everyday circumstances and lifelong aspirations of African Americans. A year after Douglass's death the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the concept of separate but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

Because Douglass's death coincides with the advent of the age of segregation, we have chosen to end the first set with the year 1895. Doing so responds to divisions natural to the chronology of black history in the United States. We think this makes more sense than imposing a more typical and arbitrary end point, such as 1900, the beginning of the twentieth century, or even 1898, the year America entered the international political arena with its victory in the Spanish-American War. Some entries carry on their discussion for a few years beyond Douglass's death because history never falls neatly into compartmentalized events made up of precise developments. For example, though discussion of topics in this encyclopedia cuts off at 1895, many entries in this volume use census figures from 1900 as well as 1890 to explain developments in African American history.

The chronological organization of these two sets will allow readers to see and compare both the evolution of African American history and continuity within that history from one era to another. In fact, more than eighty topics can be found as entries in both sets-for example, entries on the military, literature, the performing and fine arts, on health and medicine, on science and technology, entrepreneurship and racial uplift, politics and political participation, childhood, the family, marriage, women, gender, and sexuality. Moreover, in the present set, many topics are treated as composite entries in order to accommodate the vast changes from 1619, when the first blacks arrived in Virginia, to 1895 when African Americans began a new fight for freedom from segregation, poverty, and political powerlessness-one that would shape American history throughout the twentieth century, and which affects all Americans to this day. By organizing large topics as composite entries we provide a way for the reader to focus on particular time periods, such as the colonial period, the antebellum era, or the post-Civil War and Reconstruction era. At the same time, this treatment allows the reader to look at these issues across the nearly three centuries covered in the encyclopedia.

There are nearly seven hundred entries and subentries in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, arranged in alphabetical order. Composite entries gather together discussions of similar or related topics under one headword. For example, under the entry "Slave Narratives" the reader will find three subentries: "The Slave Narrative in America from the Colonial Period to the Civil War," "Interpreting Slave Narratives," and "African British Slave Narratives." A headnote detailing the various subentries introduces each composite entry.

The contributors have sought to write in clear language with a minimum of technical writing or scholarly jargon. A selective bibliography at the end of each article directs the reader who wishes to pursue a topic in greater detail to primary sources, the most useful works on the topic, and the most important scholarly works in field. To guide readers from one article to related discussions elsewhere in the encyclopedia, cross-references appear at the end of all articles. Blind entries direct the user from an alternate form of an entry term to the entry itself. For example the blind entry for "Slave Codes" tells the reader to look under "Black Codes and Slave Codes, Colonial." The encyclopedia includes approximately three hundred images.

Volume 3 contains a chronology of African American history from the first arrival of blacks with Spanish explorers to 1895, a topical outline of articles, the directory of contributors, and the index. Readers interested in finding all the articles on a particular subject (e.g., resistance to slavery) can consult the topical outline, which shows how articles relate to one another and to the overall design of the encyclopedia. The comprehensive index lists all the topics covered in the encyclopedia, including those that are not headwords themselves.

The three volumes that make up the first set and the four volumes that make up the second set have substantial biographies of key figures in African American history, such as Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The lengthy entries are not to be viewed as history based on the "great man" or "great woman," but rather as an acknowledgment that throughout American history these and other individuals have been central to the African American experience. However, the bulk of coverage in both sets is dedicated not to individual biographies, but to the wide range of events, activities, and issues that have shaped African American history. We hope these volumes will not only answer specific questions that users have, but also surprise anyone who might delve into them. We note facts and aspects of African American history that may surprise even some specialists. For example, most Americans believe that blacks did not hold public office until after the Civil War. Scholars may know of the few blacks like John Mercer Langston who held local office in the 1850s. But readers of these books will discover African Americans who were elected to public office in the colonial period and at least one black man who served in a state legislature in the 1830s. Most Americans have heard the phrase "the real McCoy," but few know that it refers to the authenticity of machines built by Elijah McCoy, one of the most successful black inventors and businessmen of the nineteenth century.

African American history did not develop in a vacuum, nor did it happen in isolation from the rest of American history. Thus, this encyclopedia includes entries on Americans who were not black, but who nonetheless had an impact on the development of African American history. Some were white activists, like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown, who dedicated their lives to black freedom. Others were slaveholders and opponents of black liberty, who nevertheless were significant figures in the history of African Americans.

While these volumes are about "black history," in the end they tell the story of "American" history. Every February in schools across America teachers and students focus on black history month. My hope is that these two encyclopedias will help persuade all Americans that black history cannot be taught in a month, or segregated to one month. Rather, the history African Americans is part of the history of all Americans. Wherever our ancestors came from, whatever our ethnicity or race, all Americans have been affected by slavery, segregation, and integration, by black culture and by African and African American influences on American culture. My goal is not only to educate and teach people about black history, but more importantly, to show users of these volumes how the history of America is, to a great extent, the history of race and race relations. All Americans are in a sense "African Americans" because our culture and history has been deeply affected by the experience of Africans and their descendants in what is now the United States.

At another level, the history of African Americans provides the best measure for what the American people have tried to achieve through nationhood and the rule of law. The United States began with the assertions that all Americans were "created equal" and entitled to the same rights. Much of the history of our nation has been about implementing these ideas and applying them to all Americans. As these volumes show, for most of our history we failed to live up to these ideals. Enslaved African Americans before the Civil War and segregated blacks later on were clearly not treated as equals-neither legally nor socially. They did not have the same rights as other Americans. The struggle to end slavery and to provide equal rights for all Americans has been, in many ways, the central and most enduring problem of American history. These volumes help us better understand the ongoing struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.

The creation of this encyclopedia has been a group effort. My coeditors-Diane Barnes, Graham Hodges, Gerald Horne, and Cary Wintz-worked tirelessly on this project, as did my editors at Oxford, Tony Aiello and Tim Sachs. This project began under the general direction of Karen Day, the reference publisher, and Timothy DeWerff, the director of editorial development and production, both of whom enthusiastically supported it. When Karen moved on to other opportunities, Casper Grathwohl provided creative leadership and his own enthusiastic support for the project.

We have dedicated these volumes to the "dean" of African American history, John Hope Franklin. For me, John Hope has been a friend, a mentor, and a role model. At age ninety he continues to write and speak out on the importance of understanding our history so we can make our future better. We hope this work will aid all Americans in achieving that goal. We also hope these volumes will enable Americans to have a better understanding of the history of race in our nation, and thus learn how to overcome our past in the future.

Paul Finkelman
Tulsa, Oklahoma
December 2005