UW News

February 21, 2018

A talk with UW historian Quintard Taylor: Taking ‘the long view’ in troubled times

UW News

Quintard Taylor giving the 2016 Denny Lecture at the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington on Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Quintard Taylor giving the 2016 Denny Lecture at the Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Washington on Tuesday, March 29, 2016Joe Mabel

Four decades of teaching and research have brought Quintard Taylor a lifetime achievement award from the Washington State Historical Society.

Taylor is the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of History at the University of Washington, now emeritus, with additional appointments in the American Ethnic Studies Department and the Center for Multicultural Education. He is also the founder of the 13,000-page website BlackPast.org, which celebrates its 11th anniversary this year.

He has received the Washington State Historical Society’s Robert Gray Medal for 2017, recognizing his career and “far-reaching commitment to researching, preserving and promoting the history of African-Americans in the Pacific Northwest.”

Taylor is the author of many articles and books, including “The Forging of a Black Community: A History of Seattle’s Central District, 1870 through the Civil Rights Era” (UW Press, 1994) and “In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528 – 1990” (Norton, 1999).

He sat down with UW News for a discussion of his work and this unusual moment in history.

Of all your accomplishments, of what are you most proud?

“I am most proud of Blackpast.org. I have devoted so many hours to it, it almost sounds like an obsession, but the reason I say it is because we have a huge audience. We have just crossed the 4 million mark in visitors in 2017.

“I never would have imagined in 2007 that we’d have any kind of response like that. When we first crossed the 100,000 mark, some of my colleagues in the history department were shocked, because after all, it is simply a website. It is a website, but one that focuses on African-American history and the somewhat radical idea that the history that is normally presented in the university classroom can and should be taken beyond the campus and made available to everybody. And we thought, OK, that’s a cool concept in principle. Let’s see how it works.”

Taylor said the greatest honor he and BlackPast.org received was an invitation for him to address the National Education Association’s annual conference in Florida, where he spoke to an audience of 2,000 people.

Asked about the nature of the BlackPast audience, he said those coming to the site are mostly between the ages of about 40 and 70, two-thirds women and about two-thirds black. About 17 percent of visitors are from outside the country, primarily from Canada and the United Kingdom.

The site also, Taylor added, has links to black newspapers across America and “the most comprehensive list of newspapers on the African continent,” where you can view daily front pages.

You mention that among your goals is to get BlackPast.org into every classroom in the nation.

“Yes, and the big issue is that only 12 percent of the people who use it are teachers, and another 10 percent or so are students. We’d like to see those numbers improved with 50 percent of our clientele as students. We do know students are using it because our numbers go up in the school year and they go down in the summer. But even when we see that impact, it’s small considering the potential numbers.

Taylor added with a laugh, “It surprised me, because in a way this website is made for students. It’s the Wikipedia for African-American history. I resented that at first but now I embrace it. Like President Barack Obama embracing the term ‘Obamacare.'”

He said, however, that BlackPast needs to find a sustainable funding model, so a full-time person can be hired “to what I now do for free.”

About BlackPast.org

BlackPast.org is a free reference website about people of African ancestry in the United States and around the world. Supporting the 13,000-page website is a volunteer staff of 12 and nearly 700 volunteer contributors across six continents adding new content regularly. It was founded on Feb. 1, 2007. The site includes:

  • An online encyclopedia featuring more than 4,500 entries on people, places and events in African-American history.
  • Perspectives Online magazine, featuring commentary on important but little-known events in black history, often written by those who participated in or witnessed those events.
  • The complete text of over 300 speeches by African-Americans, other people of African ancestry, and those concerned about race, from 1789 to 2016.
  • More than 160 full-text primary documents, including court decisions, laws, organizational statements, treaties, government reports and executive orders.
  • Nine major timelines that show the history of people of African ancestry from five million B.C.E. to today.
  • Nine bibliographies listing more than 5,000 major books categorized by author, title, subject and date of publication.
  • Six “gateway pages” with links to digital archive collections, African and African-American museums and research centers, genealogical research websites and more than 180 contemporary African and African-American newspapers.
  • Links to more than 200 documentaries on African-American, African, black Latin American, Caribbean and European history.
  • Special features on African-American firsts, major black officeholders in history, President Barack Obama and LGBTQ populations.

How does BlackPast cover the Black Lives Matter movement?

The site, Taylor said, has a page explaining the rise of the movement as well as almost 70 entries detailing other situations “involving police conduct vis a vis unarmed black people. Other entries describe the three founders of the movement.

“You know the first entry that’s on the list? An incident in Seattle in 1938 that involved a black waiter in a hotel in what is now the International District. He was pushed down steps by three white policemen and killed by the fall. At first, they said he just tripped and fell. Nobody questioned that explanation, except that there were some witnesses who reported that he didn’t fall, that he was pushed. Three cops were prosecuted by the local authorities and they all they went to jail although the governor would eventually commute their sentences.”

Taylor stressed that there was an organized community in Seattle even then that was smaller and less powerful and influential than today, but that was nonetheless able to get the officers arrested and put in jail.

“As we began to compile the stories for the Black Lives Matter page, we realized every story is different which is another reason for doing it,” he said. “We want those who died to be more than just statistics for either the proponents or opponents of Black Lives Matter.

“The Black Lives Matter page shows how racism, contemporary poverty and poor education help generate the conditions that bring about the murder of black women and men and that this tension between the cops and African-Americans has deep roots in history.

“This kind of angst we’re in now, the moment we’re in, didn’t come out of a vacuum or thin air. President Trump’s not even responsible for it. This is a long, long history that has been going on in this country, north, south, east, and west, and we show that connection at BlackPast.”

Speaking of President Trump, what are your views of his presidency and administration?

“I’m not as concerned as you might expect me to be. Because I’m a historian, I take the long view. I’ve seen this overt racism before. I grew up with it in Tennessee in the 1960s.

“When were growing up, there were local racists, the mayor, the sheriff, the local police force, who make Trump look like a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. I grew up in what political pundits now call the real America, deep red Tennessee, and that’s where the big cultural divide is between the interior, the heartland, according to some historians, and the east and west coasts. That divide goes all the way back to the Civil War. And I don’t know at what point we’ll be over it. Maybe we’ll be over it when there’s a demographic shift, a tremendous demographic shift.

“In some ways, Trump is a bad echo of what has happened in the past. I think a lot of the anger toward Obama wasn’t directed toward his policies; Obama could have been a conservative. I think there were a lot of people who were having a hard time with the huge demographic shift taking place in America today.”

Tell more about this demographic shift.

“Last year for the first time in the history of America, kids of color were the majority in all the public schools. That’s a sign, an indication of what’s going to come in the future.”

Taylor described two arguments in play: One, the need to understand these populations and help incorporate them into American society. The other comes from those who are “frightened” at these demographic shifts and the loss of a national white majority.

“Whether or not Trump is a racist, to me doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Trump has tapped into this angst, this anger, this sense that there are white people who are going to be a minority pretty soon.”

Taylor added that it’s no accident that the greatest racial violence by the state in America has been in South Carolina and Mississippi: “Why? Because those are the places that have black majorities going back to the Civil War.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be appalled by what Trump is doing. I’m just saying that I look at the long haul. I just really think that this is kind of a last hurrah …”

A last hurrah of what?

“Of those who wanted to keep America white, of those who sincerely believed and in some cases still believe that race, nationality, and culture are and have always been linked. If this is the case, they are frightened that this linkage that in their eyes has accounted for the success of the American nation, is somehow going away and that they have to fight back against this extreme shift. As the change proceeds, their voices become smaller but at the same time more angry and shrill.

“I’ll give you a parallel.”

Taylor described how the Ku Klux Klan was powerful at its peak in the 1920s, faded from prominence, then returned less powerfully in the 1960s, and again in the 1980s and 1990s.

“But in each instance it’s an echo of its previous self. That reflects their belief that they are indeed losing the battle. Call it the culture wars or another name, that they are losing control of the United States.”

“And when somebody comes along and says, ‘You can have it all, you’re the greatest people in the world’ — remember talk radio has been saying much the same to this audience for the last 30 years — the ‘let’s make America great again,’ slogan becomes a brilliant appeal to the folks who feel that America is no longer great because it is being transformed.”

Finally, how do you think President Obama will be remembered by history? For the cultural milestone, certainly, but also as among the better presidencies?

“I don’t disagree with that. I think certainly Obama is going to be considered one of the better presidents, though not the best. At the top of my list: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because quite frankly they faced much greater challenges than even Trump, and certainly than Obama did. On the other hand, Obama would be in the top five or six, and certainly in the top 10 among presidents.

“I think where Obama becomes important is what we’re discussing. He represents a sea change in terms of the culture of America — that by his very presence he is representing the transformation of American society.”

Academics tend to be comfortable with and even lead such changes, Taylor said.

“But what about people who are not in charge of the transformation, or what if it leads to a society that you feel uncomfortable with? I think Obama represented that to a lot of folks.”

Taylor added that Trump “has actually done the other side a favor because you look at what’s happened with the #MeToo movement and how that’s going to materialize, so to speak, in terms of the coming elections, I think it is going to be absolutely incredible.”


For more information about Taylor and his work, contact him at quintardjr@comcast.net.