Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

In 2006, Oxford University Press published the three-volume Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895. Now, the five-volume Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present begins where that set left off: it completes the comprehensive survey of African American history with nearly 1,250 entries that reflect the trauma, tragedy, hope, and accomplishments of black culture and life since 1896. The previous set began with the emergence of slavery near the beginning of the colonial period and ended with the death of Frederick Douglass, the massive disfranchisement of African Americans following the end of Reconstruction, and the emergence of Booker T. Washington as the most prominent black man in the nation. The new set begins in 1896—the year in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson, giving its stamp of approval to the emerging de jure segregation in the American South—and ends in our own time, an age in which two African Americans in a row have served as U.S. secretary of state and a third has been elected president of the United States.

These five volumes chronicle an astounding history, from segregation to integration at the highest levels of American society. They also chronicle the incomplete nature of this transformation, placing in historical context the continued discrimination against African Americans and the grim disparities in wealth, access to health care, and life chances between blacks and whites in modern America. The entries in this Encyclopedia chronicle heroism and determination, success and failure, cultural innovation, and social change that have affected blacks and whites over the course of our history. In 1903 the great black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of “the color line.” These volumes underscore the continuing accuracy of his prediction.

This new set begins in the mid-1890s, a watershed period for African Americans. In 1895 Frederick Douglass died. Since the 1840s this independent newspaper editor, politician and officeholder, adviser to presidents, and successful orator had been the de facto spokesman of an entire race. His autobiography, which went through three incarnations, inspired Americans, black and white, for half a century.

The passing of Douglass—an uncompromising, fearless black man who never flinched in his opposition to slavery, racism, and discrimination—marked the end of an era. In 1896, the year after Douglass died, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the right of the states formally to segregate African Americans. The Court’s decision signaled that the federal courts would no longer attempt to protect the promise of equality found in the amendments added to the Constitution after the Civil War. By the end of the nineteenth century, the legal and political conditions for blacks had worsened. The Supreme Court gave implicit approval to the disfranchisement of southern blacks in Williams v. Mississippi in 1898, and in the same year the national government turned a blind eye to the massive use of force, violence, and intimidation that led to a virtual coup d’e´tat in Wilmington, North Carolina, where black elected officials were forced to resign their offices to avoid being murdered. In 1901 Representative George H. White of North Carolina left office, the last of two generations of post–Civil War blacks to serve in Congress. More than seven decades passed before southern blacks again had a major voice in the national legislature.

At Atlanta’s Cotton States and International Exposition in September 1895, seven months after the death of Douglass, Booker T. Washington gave his most famous speech. Known derisively as the Atlanta Compromise, this speech was not the surrender of a black leader, but it did reflect a realistic understanding that segregation was the way of the near future, and it recognized that, at least in the South, blacks faced a diminishing role in politics and social life. With about 90 percent of all blacks living in the former slave states, Washington believed that African Americans faced a grim future and that simply protecting the lives and livelihoods of blacks must be the central mission of any leader. With rural poverty on the rise and lynching a constant threat, Washington sought to provide some security and safety for blacks until the time was ripe to regain political rights and greater economic opportunity.

Washington was the most important African American of his age, and he was the most influential black man among whites. But as the five volumes of the new Encyclopedia show, other African Americans, in the North as well as in the South, struggled to make a place for themselves in American society. In education, culture, law, business, politics, and sports, black people created space for themselves and struggled to achieve a measure of equality. The NAACP emerged early in the twentieth century as a voice for civil rights, with a litigation staff ready to fight in the courts to force the United States to live up to the promises of the Constitution. In the Spanish-American War and World War I, black soldiers proved their mettle and gained fame and even grudging respect from the majority-white culture that preferred simply to segregate blacks and forget about them. In the Harlem Renaissance black writers, artists, musicians, and performers fundamentally altered the very nature of American cultural life. In the boxing ring Jack Johnson and Joe Louis challenged the absurdities of racism, while more quietly, but just as profoundly, scholars and scientists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Charles Drew demonstrated—to anyone who cared to notice—that black intellectual accomplishment disproved, over and over again, racist assumptions about inequality.

World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II profoundly altered the demography of race, as millions of southern blacks moved north and west, seeking better lives. They encountered racism and discrimination, but they also found more economic opportunity, access to better education, and the chance to participate in politics. By the end of World War II northern blacks had two seats in Congress, and hundreds more sat in state legislatures and on city councils. Returning veterans from World War II were unwilling to accept second-class status, and political, legal, economic, social, and cultural conditions were right for change. Significantly, only a year after the war ended, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, a former U.S. Army lieutenant and star college athlete, to play baseball in a previously all-white league. His teammate on the UCLA football team, Kenny Washington, helped integrate professional football at about the same time.

Civil rights activists and lawyers, aided by some sympathetic northern politicians, soon pushed for an end to segregation. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 did not end all racism or segregation in the nation. It did not even lead to a system of integrated schools. But it did send a signal to millions of southern blacks that at least one branch of the national government was ready to support a struggle for equality. The struggle was carried out on many levels. In the streets Martin Luther King Jr. and others led countless demonstrations—often in the face of brutal suppression by angry white mobs or policemen who considered “law and order” to mean beating unarmed civil rights marchers. In the courts lawyers and judges grappled with how to reshape American law from endorsing segregation to banning it. Political leaders, responding to the courage of civil rights demonstrators and the brutality of southern officials and police, finally acted. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson sent federal marshals and federal troops to enforce court orders and to protect civil rights demonstrators. Congress passed three major civil rights laws—in 1964, 1965, and 1968—that finally broke the back of segregation. The costs were high, including the deaths of King, Medgar Evers, and many others whose names and stories find their place in these volumes. The formal end to segregation did not end racism or discrimination. Nor did it produce social, political, or economic equality. Urban riots and radical politics, also chronicled here, illustrate the failure of laws or of the massive changes in politics to create a truly equal America.

African American history is not, of course, just about politics, law, or discrimination. Culture, art, music, literature, play, work, family, and faith more regularly affect people in their day-to-day lives. The five volumes of the new Encyclopedia provide an analysis of cultural figures from the jazz and blues musicians of a century ago to the hip-hop artists of today, from Paul Robeson’s impact on white and black culture in the 1920s and 1930s to Oprah’s impact in the twenty-first century, and from James Baldwin to Maya Angelou.

This Encyclopedia goes to press in the wake of the 2008 presidential election. The election marks a new phase in African American history—and American history. Indeed, with this election America is now forever changed. This is the only way to understand the spectacular rise of Barack Obama.

When Obama was born in 1961, as this Encyclopedia teaches us, segregation was still legal in a third of the nation. The majority of blacks lived in the South, where few could vote; almost none went to integrated schools; and they were barred from public facilities, restaurants, hotels, theaters, amusement parks, public parks, and just about everything else. No black person had ever served on the Supreme Court, in a president’s cabinet, or as the elected governor of a state. None had been in the Senate since Reconstruction. None had served as the mayor of a major city. Nor had any ever been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Except for some meaningless third parties, none had ever even considered running for President.

When Obama was born, the bloodiest battles of the civil rights movement were yet to be fought and the civil rights martyrs who would define the decade—including and especially Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.—were still alive. So too were the three young men who would be murdered attempting to register voters in Philadelphia, Mississippi—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—and the four young girls who would be blown up in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1961 Viola Liuzzo was busy raising her children in Detroit. She would later be murdered at Selma.

Barack Obama was born into an America that was a deeply segregated place. His black father and white mother’s marriage was not legal in about eighteen different states. Anyone predicting that the son of this union would one day be president would have risked being committed to a mental hospital. The idea of a black president was not just remote, it was impossible to conceive. Only in a science fiction story about an alternative universe could the parents of the baby Barack Obama have thought he would one day be president of the Harvard Law Review, a member of the U.S. Senate, and eventually the primary resident of the White House.

In the sweep of American history, the election of 2008 seemed like a welcome to an alternative universe.

An Obama presidency will not end racism. It may in fact lead to some increase in overt racist talk, as those who don’t like his policies will blame them on race. But in other ways, an Obama presidency will change the nature of race relations. Whites who said they would never vote for a black man, in the end, did just that. The Republican Party, which played the race card so effectively with Willie Horton in 1988, was unable to do so this time. During the campaign, supporters of Republican candidate John McCain offered up offensive and nasty racist characterizations of Obama, including distributing handbills that looked like food stamps with Obama on them. In a last desperate effort the McCain campaign focused on Obama’s former preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was notorious for his harsh and often seemingly unpatriotic rhetoric denouncing racism. Obama had successfully distanced himself from Wright, and in the political world of 2008 a radical minister is no Willie Horton. No one seemed to be much affected by the effort, as white voters supported Obama at about the same level they had supported white Democratic candidates in recent years.

Even as he became the first black president, Obama transcended race. His earliest support did not come from the black community, but from upper-middle-class Americans of all races, who were charmed by his intelligence and thoughtfulness and anxious to find a new political leader in the new century. Obama campaigned on economics, foreign policy, health care, and jobs. He rarely spoke of inequality or civil rights, not because he is not concerned about them, but because he understood that the central issues of the election—jobs, the economy, health care, and the Iraq War— transcended race. Thus, Obama campaigned on issues that affect all Americans, without regard to race, geography, or class.

Indeed, in the end Obama is not America’s first black president—he is America’s first president who happens to be black. The difference is huge, and it suggests the beginning of a new chapter in African American history.

Whether focusing on politics, economics, business, law, or culture, the entries in the new Encyclopedia provide information to readers while reminding them of the importance of race to the development of American history. In the end the new Encyclopedia chronicles American history, reminding us that the history of America has always been, in large part, the history of race and race relations. In the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, we offer both a history of African Americans and a way of seeing that history as it is intertwined with all of American history.

Using the Encyclopedia. There are nearly 1,250 entries in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present, arranged in alphabetical order letter by letter. The contributors have sought to write in clear language with a minimum of technical vocabulary. There are approximately as many biographies as there are topical entries, and the Encyclopedia includes entries on each of the fifty states and on each of the U.S. presidential administrations in the period. In selecting the subjects for the biographical entries, we made every effort to include a representative group of individuals—most of them black and a few of them white—who have had a significant impact on African American history and culture. There are far more important figures in African American history than could be included in these volumes; many more biographies are available in the eight-volume African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gate