Expanding Our Mission

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

It is hard to believe that it has now been almost ten years since Evelyn Higginbotham and I forged a partnership between the Du Bois Institute at Harvard and Oxford University Press to commission the African American National Biography (AANB), the reference work that makes up the bulk of Oxford African American Studies Online. Of course, the idea for such a publication goes back over one hundred years, to 1909, when W. E. B. Du Bois (AT A GLANCE - link needed) first proposed The Encyclopedia Africana, at a time when the academic study of African American history had barely begun. (Du Bois had earned the first black Ph.D. in History at Harvard in 1895, while the second black Ph.D. in History, earned by Carter G. Woodson (AT A GLANCE - link needed), also at Harvard, would not be conferred until 1912.) Though the field of African American Studies has expanded from a largely historical and social sciences focus to become a truly interdisciplinary area of study, the African American National Biography represents an important milestone in the field's evolution as an academic discipline, and in the sustained growth of reference tools central to the study of African American History. The marginalization—and, in some cases, outright erasure—of the biographies of outstanding African Americans has posed an extraordinary challenge to both professional scholars who wish to analyze the past and amateur historians trying to piece together an incomplete family tree. Even when given its due recognition as an indispensable part of the American experience, the study of black history is often presented as consisting of the same handful of civil rights leaders and other pioneers ("the first black person to accomplish x," "the first black person to be elected to such-and-such office," etc.). While these well-known figures are of course important—indeed, it can be easy to take some of their achievements for granted—the narrative is not complete without the lives of so many teachers, farmers, businesspeople, soldiers, musicians, and artists who survived, overcame, and, in many inspiring cases, thrived and contributed. AANB continues to uncover and preserve the lives of these remarkable individuals, and to place them within a larger American context.

Extending the mission of this project on-line, beyond our first print edition, has been a goal of AANB since its inception. There are so many lives and accomplishments waiting to be rediscovered—or, perhaps a better word is reclaimed—and almost every community in America has a story to tell relating to the African American experience. It was with this in mind that we initiated a recent competition among several high schools affiliated with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (LINK NEEDED), a longtime partner in our efforts to document African American lives. We gave these schools a simple challenge: research prominent African Americans within your community, and produce balanced, scholarly, evidence-based articles similar to those found in AANB. The entries we received are a testament to the enduring contributions of African Americans, and to the cleverness and persistence of our young amateur historians. We received an article, for example, on Kate Brown (1840–1883), a retiring room attendant who was permanently injured while being forcibly removed from a whites-only train car, and who later sued the rail company and won. From North Carolina, we learned of Eileen Watts Welch (b. 1946), entrepreneur and philanthropist. From Florida, we read about Nathaniel Glover (b. 1943), the first black sheriff of Jacksonville since Reconstruction (AT A GLANCE - link needed), who is now a college president. We also received articles on former slave and school founder Alfred Odrick (1812–1894), as well as William Gaston Pearson (1858–1947), who helped establish Durham, North Carolina, as a leading center of black commerce and education in the first decades of the 20th century. So, while there are numerous obstacles to retrieving lost black lives from historical anonymity, there are also countless opportunities for students and lay persons to submit entries to us for our consideration, a process we hope to facilitate and encourage. We congratulate our intrepid young scholars, all of whom are being published here for the first time. To learn more about their work, please click here (LINK NEEDED). We plan to add more material for schools that are interested in carrying on this research on their own, including this Guide to Primary Sources (LINK NEEDED).

In another effort to expand on our work with AANB, we have also added a new group of primary source documents aimed at bolstering some of the entries on the site dealing with African American literature—specifically, short stories. The art of the short story has been strongly associated with a white (largely male) canon. Take any modern American literature class (from high school to the postgraduate level), or pick up any anthology, and you will find that they are dominated by excellent writers such as Raymond Carver and John Cheever. While widely-taught for their contributions in the form of the novel, relatively few black writers are included in survey courses on the short story. And even the most well-meaning teachers tend to teach the works of writers of color that take as themes only their experiences as a person of color. While this is somewhat understandable—and indeed is often welcome—we have tried to include pieces that may surprise readers who were expecting only stories of protest and oppression, or stories about anti-black racism. Among them, for example, is the tale of a resourceful heroine standing up to a mobster in Colleen J. McElroy's "Amazing Grace and Floating Opportunity" (LINK NEEDED); a couple trying to define true contentment in Opal Moore's "A Happy Story" (LINK NEEDED); a man trapped in a surreal, almost dreamlike journey in John Holman's "Swoosh" (LINK NEEDED); and a scholar encountering a clash of cultures in Reginald McKnight's "Palm Wine." (LINK NEEDED) We have also collected a ghost story ("The Mystery Within Us," (LINK NEEDED) by Pauline Hopkins (AT A GLANCE - link needed)), a western ("An Adventure in the Big Horn Mountains" (LINK NEEDED), by Eugene Frierson), a romance ("The Little Grey House" (LINK NEEDED), by Anita Scott Coleman), and even what we would now call a post-apocalyptic story by W. E. B. Du Bois ("The Comet" (LINK NEEDED)). Finally, we have included important pieces from the prolific Paul Laurence Dunbar (LINK NEEDED) and the political activist Michael Thelwell (LINK NEEDED). From the dialect stories of Thomas Detter to the Harlem Renaissance (AT A GLANCE - link needed) of the twenties to the contemporary era, African American fiction has continued to evolve and expand in the most delightful ways. Hopefully, this modest collection can serve to supplement American and African American literature classes, providing a more complete picture of the American short story.

We would love to hear from you about ways that we can continue to enhance the site, so that this can be a truly interactive experience with scholars, educators, and students who are at the forefront of this field. Until then, enjoy your journey!

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
May 2011