Black Biography Project Opens the Pages of History

Article excerpt

BOSTON

History has not been good to Onesimus. As smallpox raged across Boston in 1721, the prominent Boston minister Cotton Mather suggested "ye Method of Inoculation" that he had learned from Onesimus, his former slave: Deliberately infect healthy people to boost their immunity.

Although the first mass inoculation in America probably saved thousands of lives, a White Englishman, Edward Jenner, is remembered today as the pioneer of mass vaccination.

Many Black historical figures such as Onesimus cling to the margins of history, or have disappeared altogether. Now, two Harvard University scholars, Drs. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, have begun an ambitious undertaking: restoring forgotten or little-known Black Americans to their place in history.

The African American National Biography project's first volume, African American Lives, was published in April by Oxford University Press. The massive compendium, which contains biographies of what Gates calls the "all-time greatest hits" of Black American history, will be dwarfed by the expected 10 volumes that are planned to follow it. The series will contain about 10,000 biographies in all, in what Gates says is the largest African American research project to date.

African American Lives begins with slugger Hank Aaron and ends with civil rights activist Whitney Moore Young Jr. Between are about 600 biographies, some of them household names such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., comedian Bill Cosby and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Many other names have been revived from attics, dusty archives and history's hidden pages.

"You can't restore what has been truly lost. …