Faculty & Staff Insider

April 12, 2019

From the pages of BlackPast: Six African American women who changed the West (and the World)

by Noelle Morrison
Image of University Faculty Lecture awardee, Professor Quintard Taylor

Quintard Taylor, Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor Emeritus of American History, will present the UW’s 43rd annual University Faculty Lecture on April 30, 2019.

Drawing from his extensive online database, BlackPast, Taylor will explore the stories of six little-known black women whose experiences can help us redefine the narrative of African Americans in the West and beyond.

In advance of his lecture, we asked Taylor — who retired from the University in 2018 — to reflect on some key milestones from his nearly 50-year career.

What pivotal moments in your life led you to dedicate your career to African American and global African history?

I grew up in Brownsville, Tenn., in the mid-1960s. The civil rights movement was unfolding all around us, and I asked my mom, “What’s going on? Why is all of this happening?” She said, “You should look it up. There’s a historical root for this.”

As I began to research, I realized we were essentially trying to complete the Reconstruction process that began in the 1860s and 1870s. That’s what got me involved in the idea of history — that events taking place now have a historical precedent.

The global history aspect came while I was attending the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. The school developed a History of African Peoples program, which allowed students to gain knowledge of more than African American history — we also learned about Africa, Latin America and blacks in the Caribbean.

What brought you to the UW?

While teaching at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, I realized I needed to be at a research institution and eventually took a job at the University of Oregon.

In 1998, I was contacted by [UW professor] Richard White and invited to apply for the Bullitt Chair, the oldest endowed chair at the UW. I didn’t think I’d have a chance of getting it, but I did, and it’s been the best job in the world for me. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I held the Bullitt Chair from 1999 until I retired this past June.

Tell us about BlackPast. Where did the idea come from, and where do you envision the project going?

George Tamblyn, my graduate student back in 2004, encouraged me to provide background information on my faculty website about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other topics I was discussing in my African American history lectures. I did and approximately a year later, I realized that people around the globe were using information from my site, and that it was a useful resource.

In 2006, we brought a team together to create BlackPast.org. We knew you couldn’t tell the story of African America without going back to Africa, so we dedicated the site to spreading knowledge about African Americans and Africans all around the world, what we called Global Africa. I believe that if you provide knowledge, you can reduce racial tension. Even black people knowing about their own accomplishments can begin to change the way in which we look at ourselves.

Since the site’s launch in 2007, our team has grown to more than 800 people contributing from six continents. We’ve had 31 million visitors and are hoping to serve even more.

In terms of where the site is going: One of the goals of BlackPast is to take the knowledge that’s sitting in universities and make it available to everybody, including your parents, your grandparents — anybody who’s interested. Our audience is the world.

“The very existence of BlackPast is predicated on the idea of exposing a history that’s been underexposed.”

Your upcoming lecture focuses on six African American women whose stories aren’t well known. What about their experiences stood out to you?

The very existence of BlackPast is predicated on the idea of exposing a history that’s been underexposed. Many websites on African American history tend to cover the hundred most prominent black people, but don’t go beyond that. The women featured in this lecture are fascinating in their own right, in the sense that they influenced policy — yet most people don’t know about them.

What evolution have you seen in Seattle’s black community? Are any trends or movements inspiring you right now?

The elephant in the room is the fact that gentrification is taking place all over. The black community is no longer a spatial community. Times have changed, and people of color are moving out and living everywhere. The challenge to those people is how to maintain that traditional sense of community.

What am I hopeful about? This is probably going to get me into trouble, but I’m actually optimistic about race in America. I’m a historian, so I take the long view.

In 1940, the Harris Poll found that 85% of white Americans believed in white supremacy. And by white supremacy, they meant that they believed white people were superior to all other people of color. It was the norm. Racism was like the air — it was everywhere. People just sort of accepted things that would be considered completely unacceptable today.

BlackPast is helpful because it provides knowledge to make people aware that we don’t have to — we can’t — go back to that period.

“College is not just to teach students, but to teach students how to think and how to learn.”

What do you want students to learn about how our record of history is shaped?

I want students to understand the complexity of history. I want them to understand that it’s not, no pun intended, black and white. There is contingency, complexity and irony. We need to dig below the surface and understand what’s really happening.

I want them to see that college is not just to teach students, but to teach students how to think and how to learn. For me, that’s the goal whether I’m in the classroom or working on BlackPast.

This is what I said to my students all the time: “‘The day that I stop learning is the day I should stop teaching.” We all should be lifelong learners. We should all be absorbing as much information as possible, every day.