Black Biography Project Opens the Pages of History
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, 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, Drs. 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 in April by Oxford University Press. 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., comedian Bill Cosby and National Security Adviser 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.”
Gates said he recently secured funds to have the books put in every public school library in Boston, New Orleans, Seattle and Washington, D.C., 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.”
— Associated Press
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