Thursday, May 20, 2004

Research targets black achievers

By Theo Emery
The Associated Press

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, 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 last month. The massive compendium, which contains biographies of what Gates calls the "all-time greatest hits" of black American history, will be dwarfed by the 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. You have to find it first, preserve it and then put it in the mainstream," said Gates, 53, chairman of Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies, and director of the W.E.B DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. "It's our attempt to reverse centuries of neglect - sometimes advertent, sometimes inadvertent."

Among the lesser-known figures in the book is Mary Elizabeth Bowser. A slave in the home of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president during the Civil War, she spied on top rebel leaders and sent the information North to the Union Army. When suspicion fell on her in the war's waning days, one of her last acts before she fled to the North was to unsuccessfully try to burn down the Confederate White House.

Another is Cesar, a former slave whose treatments for snakebite and other poisons garnered him widespread praise in the 17th century, 150 years before medical schools began accepting blacks.

There's Toni Stone, a female baseball player who played for the Negro Leagues. Signed as a novelty player to bring in fans, she kept pace with male players and, in 1953, singled off legendary pitcher Satchel Paige in an exhibition game. She died in 1996 at age 75.

Gates said he hopes that teachers will use the books to show that black heroes aren't only found among sports rosters and on rap labels.

"Sooner or later, we hope that we'll be able to create a new range of role models other than hip-hop stars and people living the gangster life and embracing the bling-bling," he said.

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