Profs Publish Af-Am Encyclopedia

Du Bois Institute compiles reference work of African-American history

An eight-volume encyclopedia compiled by Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and composed of over five centuries of African-American history, from the arrival of the first slaves on the continent to the rising career of Barack Obama, made its debut on bookstore shelves earlier this week.

The African American National Biography, which its creators call the largest compilation of stories of black lives, covers 4,080 black Americans, among them men like George Washington Bush, a black settler allowed to own property in 1855, and Richard Potter, a black ventriloquist and magician born in 1783.

The volumes were edited by two professors in the African and African American Studies department, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who is also chair of the department.

Seventeen-hundred scholars contributed to the project over the course of seven years. The only other similar reference source, entitled the Dictionary of American Negro Biography, was published over 25 years ago and included just 626 entries.

“This is the biggest research project in the history of African-American studies,” Gates said.

The biography chronicles the lives of both the famous and the obscure, from varying walks of life.

The project is also unique in that other compilations of American lives do not include information about people who are currently alive, according to a release from the Oxford University Press, the encyclopedia’s publisher.

Gates, who is the director of the Du Bois Insititute, said he was first inspired to tackle this project when he looked through the American National Biography and found gaps in the coverage of prominent blacks in American history. He said he consulted Higginbotham and they began work on the encyclopedia.

Even though it has been published, this largest source of black biographies will continue to increase, Gates said. Over the next two years, 2,000 additional life stories will be added online.

“I learned that the true history of the African-American contribution has not been told and will not be told until these lives and stories are released from the amber of the archives,” Gates said.

—Staff writer Brittany M. Llewellyn can be reached at bllewell@fas.harvard.edu.