You may be surprised to learn that BlackPast.org, the most comprehensive African American and African history website in the nation — and perhaps the world — is based in Seattle.
The Northwest, after all, isn’t traditionally regarded as a focal point for the African American experience. But that’s precisely one of the notions that University of Washington professor emeritus Quintard Taylor would like to address.
“Black history is not something that stands off in the corner somewhere. Black history is all around us,” said Taylor, founder of the site. “There is no place in the U.S. where you are not going to be in touch with black history.”
BlackPast, which is nearing its 10-year anniversary, features more than 4,000 encyclopedic entries provided by more than 700 volunteer contributors from around the globe. The nonprofit site covers notable historical African American figures, locations and events, houses important speeches and lists significant landmarks by state, among other features.
It calls attention to African American “firsts,” including the first black lawmaker (Matthias de Souza, elected to the colonial Maryland legislature in 1641), the first female African American dentist (Ida Gray Nelson Rollins in 1890) and the first black U.S. chess grandmaster (Jamaica-born Maurice Ashley in 1999).
While the site draws comparisons to Wikipedia, Taylor and others tout its more rigorous editing, accountability and dedication to clear source attribution. The site functions like an online library and vetted reference site.
Supporters see it as a valuable resource for students and teachers.
“Our goal,” said Taylor, “is to make African American history part of the educational DNA of every American.”
Already this year, more than 3 million people have visited BlackPast.org and their Facebook page has more than 360,000 likes, and those numbers could grow dramatically. The site is undergoing a major redesign to overhaul its dated look and feel.
“The content is from the past, but the design shouldn’t be,” said Hillel Cooperman, co-founder of Jackson Fish Market, a Seattle-based digital design agency.
Cooperman and Jenny Lam, his co-founder, have donated the redesign of the site, which will also now be mobile friendly. A software engineer is beginning to implement the changes, but BlackPast is working to raise donations to pay for that portion of the work.
“The site has gotten by on a shoestring,” said Cooperman, a well known Seattle entrepreneur who previously worked as a manager at Microsoft. “Now it needs to be brought into the modern era.”
A hunger for black history that spans the globe
Like many great creations, BlackPast came about almost by accident.
Years ago, Taylor was teaching a history class at the University of Washington and his teaching assistant, George Tamlin, noticed that the course was getting sidetracked by basic questions about well-known historical figures. Tamlin suggested that they should write vignettes that the students could peruse online for background information.
“I resisted this,” Taylor said. “I was in some ways a technophobe. But finally I came around to the position that maybe this is useful.”
So in 2004, Tamlin wrote more than 50 entries and posted them on Taylor’s faculty page.
“We sort of forgot about it,” Taylor said. Time passed and he got an email from a student asking for some more information on African American history. He suggested that she come to his office hours.
“I can’t,” she wrote him back. “I live in New Zealand.”
“This information was going far off campus and around the world,” Taylor said. He learned from the U.S. State Department that students in Siberia were reading his site, and asked him to visit. He toured the region over 10 days. “Everywhere I went, there were students familiar with the website,” Taylor said.
The history professor realized that he needed to build a better site, originally aiming to profile 100 of the most prominent African Americans. In February 2007, he led the launch of the nonprofit BlackPast.org.
The site, which is not affiliated with the UW, is funded by a grant from Humanities Washington, a nonprofit supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities; the state of Washington; and donations from individuals and foundations.
The site has been steadily growing in the number of contributors and readers. Taylor hopes to set a new record with 5 million visitors this year.
“I have taught African American history from 1971, [starting] at Washington State University. From that point to right now, and I can tell you without equivocation, that I have learned more African American history and more diverse African history working with BlackPast in the past decade than I did all those years teaching African American history,” Taylor said.
“All kinds of assumptions that I made had to be cast aside because of BlackPast.org,” he said.
A feature that Taylor is eager to develop is an entry for each of the black youth and men who have been killed by police in the U.S. The site has information on the associated Black Lives Matter movement, but they want to go deeper. Their research through newspaper archives have turned up more than 70 victims since 1999.
“Our goal is to try to write about every one of those shootings and put a face to the name,” Taylor said. While BlackPast is not an advocacy site, “we want to make sure there is a site where those people who were killed will be recognized and their stories will be preserved.”
‘You have to search deeper’
Euell Nielsen came across BlackPast when doing research about her church, First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, which, as its name suggests, is the oldest black Presbyterian church in America.
But it wasn’t on BlackPast.
She contacted Taylor and pointed out the omission. He invited her to write an entry about it, and then asked for a bio on the church’s founder, a former slave who was bought by a pastor, freed and then taught — illegally at the time — to read and write. Nielsen, who lives just outside of Philadelphia in Lansdowne, was hooked.
The mother of three and veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves has completed nearly 50 entries, making her one of the site’s top contributors. Other writers include college and university professors and students, and adults who demonstrate an ability to research and write. The website has no full-time paid staff and Taylor edits all of the submissions.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” said Nielsen, who is the official historian for her church. With Taylor as her editor, her writing has improved, she said, and she has discovered a love of history.
Nielsen grew up in a white neighborhood and attended largely white schools. The curriculum, she said, covered maybe a handful of prominent African Americans during black history month.
With BlackPast, “my journey through history has been amazing,” she said. “In my youth I hated it because it didn’t relate to me.”
Now she delights in discoveries made in her research. Like finding records from her own church revealing that Hannah Till, an African American woman who cooked for George Washington, was a free woman when working for him. Or that three African American women played in the negro baseball league. Or stumbling upon the first female black undertaker — and apparently the first female undertaker of any race — in America.
“History does get uncovered, so you have to search deeper,” Nielsen said.
But the site struggles to recruit enough skilled volunteers like Nielsen, and to raise money for the implementation of the redesign and to keep the entries flowing.
Cooperman, who is also a BlackPast board member, would love to see Northwest companies sponsoring categories of posts. Nordstrom could underwrite a series of black fashion designers, for example, while REI could support entries highlighting African American naturalists.
“There are topics [on BlackPast] that are not covered anywhere else,” Cooperman said. “This information isn’t available.”
Sharing the untold stories of African American leaders, heroes and history-makers is important to tell a complete and inspiring narrative, Nielsen said.
“For me, I want to put everybody out there who needs to be out there,” she said. “I want to uplift everyone who needs to be uplifted.”