Office of the President

February 24, 2021

Black history is American history

Ana Mari Cauce

Black History Month is a chance to recognize that Black history is American history. It’s an important time to reflect on the ways in which Black people, their stories and their impact have so often been elided and erased from our shared understanding of ourselves as a nation and a people.

The University of Washington is fortunate to be the home of a historian whose life’s work has sought to rectify that erasure by preserving and increasing access to rich troves of African American history. Professor Emeritus Quintard Taylor, who holds the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History chair, is the founder of BlackPast.org, a free and public reference resource compiling information about Black history. It encompasses both African American history and the history of people of African descent around the globe, and is compiled by academics from every continent. It is an extraordinarily flexible tool, serving everyone from junior high students to undergraduates to the general public. It contains thousands of encyclopedia entries, the full text of hundreds of speeches, bibliographies and primary sources, as well as special projects. It puts the vast tapestry of Black history at our fingertips, taking us far beyond the relatively few names that tend to dominate popular narratives of Black history and experience.

BlackPast is a boon to scholars, but it’s also a treasure trove for all of us whose imaginations are fired by untold stories. If you love opening a window onto the past, you’ll be fascinated by BlackPast projects like 101 African American Firsts. Just glancing at the names and dates of these pioneers reveals the ironies and ellipses of history. For example, in 1828, Theodore Sedgwick Wright became the first Black American to graduate from an Ivy League university, but it would take 173 years before Ruth Simmons became the first African American to serve as the president of one. Or you might learn about lesser known acts of mob violence against Black communities; while the Tulsa Race Massacre has gained greater recognition in recent years, the murder of more than 200 African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas in retaliation for labor organizing has been largely forgotten. BlackPast has countless resources to answer questions and spark new ones, and I encourage everyone to do some exploring on this outstanding and highly user-friendly site.

BlackPast and Professor Taylor’s entire body of work show most powerfully how Black history is an inextricable part of American history and world history. His work – and the work of other Black history and culture scholars – reveals how much we miss when we limit ourselves to history through the lens of the powerful few. As Professor Taylor has said, “Blackpast.org is our attempt to try to bring together…the African American experience, and to deny the possibility for anyone to ever say again, ‘I can’t find any Black history.’”

In the course of pursuing his work to document and share Black history, it’s fitting that Professor Taylor has earned his own esteemed place in history. He is an internationally recognized authority on Black history and has produced seminal works on the history of Black Americans in the Pacific Northwest. He was selected to deliver the UW’s 2019 University Faculty Lecture, about the lives of six African American women whose stories are not widely known. Thanks to Professor Taylor’s work, their lives and experiences, as well as thousands of other Black stories, are reborn as a history that we can all discover and share.