Featured Essay - From Ota Benga to Elmo: One Writer's Journey through the AANB

This month, Oxford University Press launches one of the most important publishing events ever in the field of African American Studies: the eight-volume print edition of the African American National Biography. Under the general editorship of Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and the reference publisher at OUP, Casper Grathwohl, the AANB highlights the lives of 4,100 African Americans, both living and dead, from all time periods in American history, and from all walks of life. The volumes begin with an entry on Aaron, an unlettered runaway slave from Virginia, who dictated his slave narrative to sympathetic abolitionists, and end, more than 5,500 pages later, with the life of Paul Burgess Zuber, an attorney who argued landmark school desegregation and equalization lawsuits in New York in the 1950s. The project has been nearly six years in the making, employing over 52 editorial and production staff; 15 expert advisory board members; 18 expert subject editors; and, perhaps most remarkably, nearly 1,300 contributors.

My own journey as the author of 124 entries for the AANB started inauspiciously. Aware that the Moroccan-born slave Esteban was the first documented African man to set foot on American soil, I endeavored to write an entry on the earliest documented woman of African descent in North America. Tituba, the Barbadian-born slave accused of witchcraft during the 1692 Salem witch trials, seemed a good bet. Further investigation suggested, however, that Tituba was most likely an Arawak Indian, even though in popular culture, in works by African American authors Ann Petry and Maryse Condè as well as Arthur Miller's The Crucible, she is depicted as African. The AANB does, however, include an entry on another accused witch at Salem, Candy, about whom the historical record is more definitive in describing as African American. I eventually found an even earlier African American woman, Elizabeth Key, who was born in Virginia around 1630 to an enslaved African woman and a white Englishman. In 1660, Key successfully petitioned the Virginia courts for freedom on the basis of her father's status and her own Christianity. As the legal historian A. Leon Higginbotham has made clear, however, Key did not set a precedent. Virginia lawmakers would soon amend their statutes to ensure that slave status would follow the mother, and not the father, while both custom and law came to view a slave's professed Christianity as irrelevant to his or her legal status. Other than Candy and Key, the AANB includes only one other African American woman born in the seventeenth century: the remarkable Alice of Dunk's Ferry. Born a slave in Philadelphia in 1686, four years after William Penn founded that city, Alice died in 1802 at 116 years of age. A ferry fare collector and oral historian, she continued to ride her horse from Bucks County to Philadelphia well into her nineties.

Following the publication of African American Lives in the spring of 2004, Professors Gates and Higginbotham asked me to devote a year to writing biographies for the project. While this was a daunting task—requiring an average of two completed entries every week—it was also a great honor to know they trusted my writing and research abilities to such an extent. To be sure, there were days, when "I woke up this morning and got me the writer's block blues." But such feelings were quickly overcome by the great diversity of choices available to me among the thousands of names in our database and by immersing myself in the fascinating world of African American culture. African American Lives had included many of the most famous black Americans, but it had also enabled me to write about obscure, but fascinating, subjects like Onesimus, a Boston slave in the early eighteenth century who taught his owner, the famed Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather that inoculation was the most effective measure against smallpox, and Ota Benga the Congo-born pygmy who was exhibited in a cage in the Bronx Zoo in 1908, until protests secured his freedom.

For African American Lives, I wrote a number of entries on activists prominent in the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s. These included Daisy Bates, the Arkansas journalist and NAACP stalwart, who came to national prominence as the chief adviser to the Little Rock Nine, schoolchildren (including Melba Patillo Beals) who braved the intimidation of white mobs and Governor Orval Faubus, in their determination to attend Little Rock High School. I found that James Meredith, inspired by Daisy Bates' example, was similarly resolute in his desire to attend the University of Mississippi at Oxford. While Meredith's self-righteousness and "Messiah complex" often exasperated his advisor, Constance Baker-Motley of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, his obstinacy was exactly what was needed to overcome the state of Mississippi's massive resistance to desegregating "Ole Miss." In Meredith's case, as with the Little Rock Nine, even indomitable courage still needed to buttressed by the full force of the federal government, in the form of thousands of armed troops.

For the AANB, I decided to examine the predecessors of Bates, Meredith, and Robert P. Moses during the first Reconstruction, where the occupying federal army in the defeated Confederate states made possible giant strides in civil rights. I benefited greatly from the ever-expanding scholarship on southern black politics after the Civil War, particularly Steven Hahn's A Nation under Our Feet (2005). Like Hahn, I wanted to highlight the agency of local black leaders in shaping Southern politics, beginning in the Civil War, when literate slaves like Spotswood Rice read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation to those who could not read; ironically the Proclamation did not apply to Missourian slaves like Rice, since Missouri had remained in the Union. Rice, who later escaped and joined the Union army, wrote two extraordinary letters while in service that have survived. One, written to his children, reminded them that "I have not forgot you and...I want to see you as bad as ever." He promised to rescue them soon, "if it cost me my life." The second, addressed to the owner of his wife and children, Kitty Diggs, lambastes her for keeping his daughter, Mary, in bondage, and reveals how military service in the Union cause emboldened men like Rice, who taunts Diggs and her fellow slave-owners in his final sentence, "this whole Government gives cheer to me, and you cannot help yourself."

Rice's powerful letters have appeared in several anthologies of the Civil War, but they were a slim basis on which to pin a full biography. What happened to Rice after the war? Did he ever reunite with his children? Thanks to the work of the AANB's predecessors, I found those answers. The African American Biographical Database (a compilation of long-lost nineteenth century African American biographies edited by Randall K. Burkett, Nancy Hall Burkett, and the AANB's Henry Louis Gates Jr.) had proven invaluable in writing many other entries, so I duly checked it for Spotswood Rice, albeit more in hope than expectation. He wasn’t there. But there was a Spottswood Rice, and it seemed a very likely match, since Spottswood (with two "T"s) was born a slave in Missouri. There was no mention of his military service, merely a brief note in the Cyclopaedia of African Methodism (1882): "RICE, SPOTTSWOOD, a member of the Missouri Conference, was born a slave in that State and was deprived of an education. Since he has been in the Conference though, he has worked hard and sustained himself very creditably." Even more remarkably, I found another source for Rice. In 1937, his daughter, Mary A. Bell, was one of several hundred former slaves interviewed in the Works Progress Administration's slave narrative project. Bell, eighty-five years old and living in St. Louis, described her owner, Kitty Diggs, and provided more details of her father's early life and decision to run away with eleven of his fellow slaves—the best workers on the plantation, she recalled. Bell noted that she and her mother were reunited with Rice at Benton Barracks in St. Louis. There, Spotswood (or Spottswood, or Spottwood, as he is listed in Bell's narrative) worked as a nurse, his wife as a laundress, and Mary began her education at the age of thirteen. Mary, like her father, joined the A.M.E. Church, and in her 1937 interview makes clear her great pride in her father, husband, and sons, all veterans. Indeed, she professed her admiration for "any man who will fight for his rights, and any person who wants to be something." I now not only had enough information for an entry on Spottswood Rice, but one on Mary Bell as well.

Other equally fascinating Civil War and Reconstruction figures followed. There was Abraham Galloway, a fugitive slave, abolitionist, Union spy, and later state senator. Galloway knew eastern North Carolina intimately from his years as a slave and scoured the coast for suitable landing sites for the Union navy. The leading black intelligence operative in the Carolinas, Galloway also helped recruit thousands of fugitive slaves to the Union cause and, allegedly, extracted a promise from a white recruiting officer—at gunpoint—to pay them equal wages. After the fall of the Confederacy, Galloway moved seamlessly into the politics of the Union Leagues and the Republican Party. "If the negro knows how to use the cartridge box," he often remarked, "he knows how to use the ballot box."

Reconstruction in South Carolina gave rise to Prince Rivers, once the finest coachman in Beaufort, who attained the rank of sergeant in the Union's First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the unit's commanding officer, remarked that "no white officer in his regiment had more administrative ability, or more absolute authority over the men" than Rivers. Higginson also commented that if South Carolina became a black monarchy, Prince Rivers would be its king. Rivers didn't become king, but he did serve in the state legislature, chaired the House military committee, and actively recruited African Americans to the state militia. After Reconstruction he returned to being a coachman. Rivers's colleague in the legislature, William J. Whipper, was an even more flamboyant figure. A northern-born lawyer and nephew of the abolitionist William Whipper, William J. served with distinction in the Union Army, reaching the rank of sergeant, but was court-martialed twice, once for gambling and once for fighting. He served with Rivers in the South Carolina House in 1868, and chaired the House judiciary committee. His uncompromising support of equal rights (and voting rights for women) earned him the enmity of the white minority in South Carolina who dubbed him the "most rascally of rascally radical Republicans." Whipper had his personal foibles. He was a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and a gambler, and allegedly lost $75,000 in a single night of poker, $30,000 of it on a hand of four aces, defeated by another black legislator's straight flush. He also maintained a number of running feuds with fellow black Republicans, including the Congressman and Civil War hero, Robert Smalls. Whipper, at least, survived the end of Reconstruction. Charles Caldwell and Noah Parker, in black-majority Mississippi did not. Both were assassinated in December 1875 as conservative whites "redeemed" the state from its brief experiment in democracy.

The end of Reconstruction forced ambitious African Americans to seek avenues for progress other than politics, notably in business and religion. In North Carolina, I followed the careers of Charles Clinton Spaulding , leader of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and his fellow Durhamite, John H. Wheeler, President of the Farmers and Mechanics Bank; the women's activists Mary McCrorey and Sarah Dudley Pettey. In Mississippi, I found that the farmers and businessmen William T. Montgomery and Wayne Wellington Cox prospered, though my entry on Bohlen Lucas, a sharecropper, is probably more revealing of everyday life in that state.

Despite disfranchisement and racial violence—typified by the Sam Hose lynching in 1899—the goal of political equality was never truly stifled, at least in the Upper South. Following World War I, inspired by wartime service and activism by both the NAACP and the Garvey movement, political activity stepped up. Spaulding and Wheeler were prominent in the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, while Wheeler and the Virginian Gordon Blaine Hancock served in the liberal, interracial Southern Regional Council. In South Carolina, Modjeska Simkins, Osceola McKaine, and John H. McCray founded the radical Progressive Democratic Party during the Great Depression. White supremacy proved much more resistant in the Deep South, as revealed by the fate of the Scottsboro Boys and the Communist martyr, Ralph Gray, in 1930s Alabama, and by the continuation of political violence even after the onset of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The hardest, by far, of all the entries I wrote for the AANB, were on Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, the "Four Little Girls," memorialized in Spike Lee's documentary, who lost their lives in the Sixteenth Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.

Looking back, I can see from the names listed above a set of common interests and patterns, notably in the role of politics, violence, and the law in shaping African American history. But these entries are only one seam in the remarkable garment of the AANB. I might just as easily have followed a seam of caregivers and health providers like Onesimus, Doctor Jack, the Tennessee slave herbalist, and midwives Onnie Lee Logan and Margaret Charles Smith. Or a seam of entertainers, like Hattie McDaniel, Cab Calloway, Halle Berry, Charley Pride, and Kevin Clash, the creator of Sesame Street's Elmo. And in the thousands of AANB entries by my fellow contributors, there are many more seams for readers to follow.

Moreover, the AANB is a garment not yet finished, and whose final shape we still cannot fully discern. In researching this essay, I discovered new information about Spotswood Rice and his daughter Mary Bell. Spotswood's wife is buried in the same St. Louis cemetery as the legendary Stagolee. Genealogists have unearthed new information about Rice's family, and I even found a MySpace page in which one of Spotswood's descendants proclaims him a hero. After six years, the publication of the AANB seems in many ways like an ending—but I know it's only the beginning.

Steven Niven
Executive Editor
African American National Biography
W. E. B. Du Bois Institute