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African American History, on the Web

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Most Americans know key phrases from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Many can name the first African American major league ball player or Supreme Court justice. But how about the first African American legislator, elected in Maryland in 1641? Or details of the Memphis Riot of 1866? Or the significance of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters?

Quintard Taylor

Quintard Taylor, creator of BlackPast.org

BlackPast.org, an online resource for African American history, is the brainchild of Quintard Taylor, Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History at the UW. Five years after its launch, the site now attracts an average of 2.8 million visitors from more than 100 countries each year.

The encyclopedic resource grew out of Taylor’s efforts to address frequently asked questions about key figures in African American history. “The same questions would come up over and over in the classroom,” Taylor recalls. At the suggestion of teaching assistant George Tamblyn, Taylor created online vignettes of 100 leading figures in African American history and put them on his faculty website as a resource for students. Then a funny thing happened: people as far away as New Zealand and Siberia discovered the vignettes and contacted Taylor.

“That’s when I knew we had a resource that would be used in a lot of places,” recalls Taylor. “At that point, I decided we should create a dedicated site.”

BlackPast.org was built by a small, all-volunteer staff and launched in 2007 with about 200 entries. The response was immediate. “It crashed the server the first day it was up,” says Taylor. “It’s just continued to grow since then.”

The site currently has nearly 3,000 entries describing people, places, and events in African American history, African American history in the West, and global African history. Also included are the complete texts of nearly 300 noteworthy speeches, a list of “101 African American Firsts,” eyewitness accounts of key moments in African American history, primary documents that range from court decisions to treaties, and more.

To provide and update all this material, Taylor has amassed a staff of more than 500 volunteer contributors from six continents. Many contributors, including Taylor and several UW colleagues, are academics who teach related topics at institutions of higher education. Other contributors include college-student historians and independent historians with an interest in some aspect of African American history, including a U.S. ambassador and a former chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

We have so many creative, innovative people working on it, I just let them run with it.

“In the beginning, I recruited volunteers,” says Taylor. “Now people are coming to us, asking ‘How can I help?’” Taylor reviews contributors’ backgrounds to ensure that they have the necessary skills, and links their biographical information, photo, and email address to each entry they write. “That way, people can contact them with questions or clarifications,” explains Taylor. “We want our contributors to take this very seriously.”

Copy editors review the content and try to stay on top of updating existing material, with Taylor leading the way. “Most of every weekend is spent on this,” he admits. The staff also includes experts in web design, social media, finance, grant writing, and other needed skills.

BlackPast.org's promotional video

The site continues to evolve. BlackPast.org is active on Facebook and Twitter, and a BlackPast.org blog was introduced in 2012. A new section, developed by a teacher advisory board, provides suggestions for using the resource in the classroom. “There are lots of ways for people to interact with the website, with new features being added all the time,” says Taylor. “I have no idea what will be happening by next year. We have so many creative, innovative people working on it, I just let them run with it.”

Some challenges remain. The staff must stay on top of technological advances, including the needs of smartphone and tablet users. Taylor would like to integrate translation software so that the site is accessible in multiple languages. And there’s always the issue of funding. BlackPast.org, a private nonprofit, is volunteer-driven but there are overhead expenses. Grants have provided some support; private donations provide the rest. “Without donations, we wouldn’t exist,” says Taylor. “We’re very appreciative, but we would like to diversify the revenue stream.”

Despite the challenges, Taylor marvels at how many people BlackPast.org has reached. That, he says, makes all the effort worthwhile.

“What keeps me going are the letters and emails I receive, like a recent one from a kid on the south side of Chicago who wanted me to know that he couldn’t do his work without BlackPast.org,” says Taylor. “We needed to share this information, to challenge the notion that black people are good at X but never Y. After working on this site for the past six years, I’m hard pressed to find an area in which people of African ancestry have not been involved.”

Interested in being part of BlackPast.org? Visit blackpast.org and click on “How You Can Help.”