From Aaron, a former slave without a last name, through Paul Burgess Zuber, a 20th century lawyer and professor, the recently published African American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2008) is the most extensive and inclusive collection of biographical information about African American lives ever published.
The African American National Biography (AANB), co-edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Higginbotham, is an eight-volume series that includes biographies of more than 4,000 African Americans throughout 500 years, dating back to the arrival of Esteban, the first recorded African explorer to set foot in North America.
Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and Higginbotham, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African and African American Studies and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, have included the famous and the infamous, as well as hitherto obscure individuals.
The series includes national heroes and historical figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. But the biographies also include Sissieretta Joyner Jones, a 19th century opera singer; Richard Potter, a magician, sword swallower, and ventriloquist who owned 175 acres in New Hampshire and died in 1835; and the pistol-packing, fist-fighting Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, of the late 19th century.
“These are people that were trapped in historical purgatory,” says Gates. “They were trapped in the amber of the archive, and now their contributions will never be lost again.”
Also included are local figures and community leaders throughout the United States. In many neighborhoods, numerous streets, schools, and playgrounds are named after prominent community leaders, and these names are seen every day — but the person behind the name might not be as well known.
For example, Higginbotham explains, there is a boulevard in Boston’s South End called Melnea Cass Boulevard. While she had driven on that street many times, she was not familiar with its namesake until editing the series, when she learned that Cass was a civil rights activist during the first half of the 20th century, and is now remembered as the “first lady of Roxbury.” Now, every time Higginbotham drives down Melnea Cass Boulevard, it’s not just a name. It’s a life. Higginbotham emphasizes that the history of the Civil Rights movement now focuses on such local leaders in both the North and the South who led their communities in the fight against racial inequality.
Not all in the series are native-born Americans, but they did spend a significant period of their lives in the United States. Gates and Higginbotham also made the decision to include contemporary figures in the series.
The entries were written by more than 1,700 contributors in response to a call for entries that was put forth in 2001. In 2004, Oxford University Press published a preview book, also edited by Gates and Higginbotham, titled “African American Lives,” which included 400 names. In addition to those names published in the printed series, an additional 2,000 names will be included in a forthcoming online database, as part of the African American Studies Center digital archive, available through the Oxford University Press Web site.
Entries were written by scholars, graduate students, and journalists. Many names were contributed by those with personal connections to the individual, and in this way, the series includes local figures who might not have otherwise been included.
The scope of the AANB was always ambitious, and, since issuing the call for entries, Gates and Higginbotham have compiled a database that includes 12,500 names. The extent of the project illustrates the impact of African-American lives on American history, according to Gates.
“Black people have been present in every aspect of American history, but have been in the interstices, in the spaces in between,” says Gates. “In spite of what would seem to most of us [to be] rigid racial boundaries, exceptional black people have always been able to carve out a place for themselves.”
While the African American National Biography is not the first of its kind, it is the first of its magnitude. As Gates explains, the first African-American biographical dictionary was published in 1808, and more than 300 of these volumes have been published throughout the past two centuries. In 1987, Gates, along with Randall and Nancy Burkett, published a three-volume index of these biographical dictionaries.
The catalyst for the AANB occurred when Gates was asked by Oxford University Press to write an essay about individuals of his choice who were included in the American National Biography. To his dismay, he found that many of the African-American names that he was looking for were simply not in that series. As a result, Oxford University Press asked him to edit a national biography of African Americans.
Gates and Higginbotham hope that the books will be used by scholars and historians, but also will have a place in schools, libraries, and in the homes of African-American families.
“What better way to understand the richness, complexity, and depth of African-American history than through biography, because people’s lives are so complex,” says Higginbotham.