Retracing Roots with ‘The African-American National Biography’

April 16, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Renowned African-American writers Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham discuss their latest joint project, 'The African-American National Biography'.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, documenting the lives of African-Americans. And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The African American National Biography,” says one of its editors, is a rescue-and-recovery project. Eight volumes, some 4,000 entries with more coming online, all documenting life stories, some familiar names, but many more that are little or unknown, pulled from the past and given a place in history, like Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1866, the only documented African-American woman to serve in the U.S. regulars in the 19th century.

HENRY LOUIS GATES, Author: A direct ancestor served in the Civil War.

CHRIS ROCK, Comedian and Actor: I’m going to cry. I can’t believe it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The project comes on the heels of “African American Lives 2,” the sequel to the popular PBS series that used science and other research to trace the genealogies of prominent African-Americans.

And it comes as a new online magazine, The Root, is launched. The site offers news and opinions with an African-American focus and a tool to allow users to explore their own ancestry.

Rescue from 'historical purgatory'

JEFFREY BROWN: The man behind all of these efforts is Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University. His Harvard colleague, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, served as co-editor of the "African American National Biography," and they both join us now.

Welcome to both of you.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Thanks for having us on the program.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Gates, what ties all of these projects together? What is driving these?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: The belief that some of the most important historical contributions made by African-Americans have been lost, trapped in the amber of the archives. It's as if these people are in historical purgatory. And we have the privilege of praying them into Heaven.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean they're out there somewhere, but somebody had to pull it all together?

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM, Author: Well, somebody had to pull it all together. And one of the things that's so fascinating about this project is that, even though we have 12,500 names in our database, there's still names coming to us. And we still have more names. It just shows you how rich African-American history is.

JEFFREY BROWN: With all of those names, what were the criteria for deciding how to make it? And I know you had a lot of contributors. How did all that work?

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, it was really important for us to understand a person's role in history, not necessarily a national leader, like a Thurgood Marshall. We also have local leaders.

And it's amazing how much history is actually made at the local level. In fact, if you think about the civil rights movement, before there could be a national movement, you had to have people in their local communities who were making a difference.

And it was the cumulative effect of all those local movements. So we have people like a Fannie Lou Hamer, and Gloria Richardson, and Anita Blackwell, and names that many people don't even know. And yet these people spearheaded what came to be known as the civil rights movement.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: And many of the people in the biographical dictionary were important to their local community, transcendent figures at their time, but were lost because they didn't have a national presence.

So everyone at this point is familiar with W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington, and Phyllis Wheatley, and Sojourner Truth, but George Washington Bush, Stagecoach Mary?

Unveiling a rich past

JEFFREY BROWN: I was going to ask you for some favorites. Tell us about some of them.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Well, Richard Potter is absolutely my favorite. Richard Potter was born in 1783; he dies in the 1830s. He's the first prominent black ventriloquist and magician.

He stows away on a ship when he's 10 years old and goes to England, where he meets Ramie the Scot, who was a great British magician, who trains him, make him his apprentice.

And he comes back to the United States in 1811 and becomes, by today's standards, a millionaire. He would charge $250 per performance.

Now, in all of your wildest imagining, could you believe that in antebellum America a black man became a millionaire being a ventriloquist? He even bought a 175-acre estate in New Hampshire. And his estate is marked with an historical marker now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite?

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: Well, I have lots of favorites. And one of my favorites is a woman, Alice of Dunksbury, who literally lived to be 116 years old. Her life spanned three centuries.

And she became a legend and, because she ferried people across in Grays Ferry in Philadelphia, she was just a fountain of wisdom and knowledge. So she's definitely one of my favorites.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, speaking of biography, I looked up your biography in the volumes and learned that your training as a historian is in the blood.

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: It is in the blood, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is in the family.

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: It is in the family, because I grew up as a child working, well, with a father who worked with Carter G. Woodson, the founder of black history.

And as I like to say, I grew up in a household that quoted these words from Woodson. "We work to disprove the lies that the Negro has no past or that the Negro has no past worthy of respect."

So for me, working on a project like this is a vindication of a Carter Woodson and my father and lots of other people who always knew that black people made a contribution to the history of this nation and to the history of their own communities.

And we have a database of 12,500 names that can prove it. Our eight volumes cover 4,000 names. And we plan an online version of 6,000.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to make the history even more vivid, I learned that your grandfather was born a slave in Virginia, in the state where we're sitting right now.

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: My grandfather, yes, he's another one of my favorite entries.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: We both had grandfathers. She has her grandfather, and I have my fourth-grade grandfather in the biographical dictionary. And he was from Virginia. He was freed by 1776, John Redman. And he fought in the American Revolution.

And because of him, my brother, my brother's son, Aaron, and I were inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution two summers ago. So it's great.

But I didn't write the entry, because otherwise I would have shown how he really taught George Washington all of his brilliant military strategy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, yes, yes.

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: This part isn't true.

Counterbalancing the 'great man'

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, in one of the releases, I noticed that you mentioned that many of these lives have been, in quotes, "glossed over" by the academy. And that was a curious line to me, because I thought of -- I think of the last several decades, so much more rich history has been told, and the prominent folks, people like yourself, have been part of that. But you're saying that there's still so much more to do.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: The reason is that many historians embrace the great man or great woman theory of writing history or else they write about broad social movements consisting of anonymous masses of people.

But these individuals are brilliantly local, you know, particularly noble. So they didn't make the great man or great woman definition and their personhood, their individuality was subsumed under these broad social movements.

So Stagecoach Mary is not in most narratives, even by black historians of the history of our people in this country. But now all of these people are back; they all have their rightful place.

Do you know that, before we published this biographical dictionary this month, the most sophisticated biographical dictionary of African-Americans consisted of 626 entries?

And we have 4,080 and, as Evelyn has said, we're adding -- all of these will be online through Oxford's African American Studies Center by the end of the year. And we're adding 2,000 names, and eventually 1,000 more.

We want people to write to us at Harvard in the Department of African and African American Studies, if they want to propose someone who should be in the biographical dictionary.

If they're convinced that their great-grandfather really invented the light bulb and Thomas Edison ripped him off, they can make the case.

Educating the public

EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM: But seriously speaking, you know, the African-American...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean he wasn't being serious?


One of the, I think, the great joys of the "African American National Biography" is that it introduces you to lives behind names that you may have known all the time but didn't know the life.

So let me give you an example. In Boston, I travel all the time up a boulevard called Nonia Cast. That's a name in history, but it was a meaningless name for me.

It was only when I started working on the "African American National Biography" that I realized who this woman was. She was a great civil rights leader. And her identity is probably unknown to people who bear her name on their addresses.

I went to school as an elementary school student to a Lucy Slowe Elementary School in Brookland. I didn't know who Lucy Slowe was until I got to Howard University as a college student.

There are so many names that our young people use in their apartment buildings, in their addresses, their schools, and they don't know the great lives, the great heritage that's associated with them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you, finally, because it must be said -- I have one volume here. There are eight of them.


JEFFREY BROWN: It costs a good deal, almost $1,000, although you were telling me you can get it for less.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Yes, if you buy it quickly you can get it for $700.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who is it for, though? Who do you want it to go to?

HENRY LOUIS GATES: Well, first of all, we want it to go to institutions, schools and libraries.

Secondly, do you know how, when we were growing up, the Encyclopedia Britannica or World Book was our family's only piece of intellectual furniture? This should be the intellectual furniture for every African-American family in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Henry Louis Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, thank you both very much.