CAMBRIDGE — Stagecoach Mary Fields was a gun-toting, hard-drinking,
cigar-smoking frontierswoman who gambled, brawled and reputedly even
killed a man. Well into her 60s, she dependably steered her coach
through some of Montana’s harshest weather to deliver the mail.
She was also a beloved housekeeper at a convent, tended her own vegetable garden and, late in life, presented bouquets to men who hit home runs during baseball games in Cascade, Mont.
Fields, who died in 1914 in her early 80s, is just one of thousands of black historical figures whose life stories have been relegated to the edges of American history, but who are being brought to light again in the “African American National Biography.”
The ambitious project, seven years in the making, includes the stories of more than 4,000 black Americans — from household names, including Martin Luther King Jr. and former Secretary of State Colin Powell — to the obscure and almost forgotten, including Fields and Richard Potter, a turn-of-the-century magician and ventriloquist.
“Black achievement has been trapped in amber, and what we’ve been able to do is find these people again and restore them so they’ll never be lost again,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard University scholar and co-editor of what he says is the largest research project in the history of African American studies.
“If someone sat down and read these entries from A to Z, they would have a complete, new understanding not only of African American history, but of the complexity of the American experience,” he added.
Many of the people whose biographies appear in the project paved the way for the more famous individuals who came later, said co-editor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard.
Take, for example, James McCune Smith, a New York City doctor and abolitionist in the mid-19th century.
“During the antebellum years, there was no voice more important than James Smith,” Higginbotham said. “Even Frederick Douglass said he looked up to this man. This man was incredible, and the average person has no idea who he was.”
Ted Rhodes is another example, she said. The professional golfer battled against, and broke down, many of the discriminatory policies of the white golf establishment during the 1950s and 1960s, long before Tiger Woods was even born, Higginbotham said.
Woods is one of more than 300 athletes included in the compendium, but there was a conscious effort not to overweigh the work with sports figures and entertainers, Gates said.
“We could have had 4,000 athletes,” he said. “But we wanted to refute stereotypes, disappoint expectations. So we put more scientists, more educators, more writers, more politicians in there.”
The information in the eight-volume “African American National Biography,” scheduled to be released by publisher Oxford University Press on Feb. 4, has until now been scattered, found piecemeal in hundreds of smaller, often obscure volumes published during the last 200 years.
“I do think that is an extremely important project … because it locates a lot of information in one handy source,” said John Fleming, president of the Washington-based Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Unlike the “American National Biography” and similar works that only include biographies of the deceased, the “African American National Biography” includes the life histories of the living as well, because a disproportionate number of blacks have made their marks on history just in the past 50 years or so, Gates said.
The editors originally came up with a list of more than 12,000 names for possible inclusion, but that was winnowed by an advisory board of academics charged with selecting the most significant.
The biographies were written by more than 1,700 contributors, from scholars to amateurs who had never before been published.
Bobby Donaldson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of South Carolina, contributed biographies of early 20th century black activists Silas X. Floyd, William Jefferson White and Charles T. Walker.
“These are some really compelling life stories and it’s hard to boil them down to just 1500 words, but this is as comprehensive an African American biography as we can do,” he said.
Each entry includes a bibliography to make it easier for anyone who wants to find additional information on a particular person.
The work isn’t done yet, either. The biographies of more than 2,000 additional black Americans will be added to the online version, and the living people could be updated in subsequent editions, Gates said.
The next goal is to solicit donations to get the $995 sets into schools and libraries.
“I want them to get in the schools and I want them to become part of the curriculum,” Gates said. “I want filmmakers to make films about these people, I want them to be integrated into the larger narrative of American history and biography.
“Now, there’s no excuse to ignore these people.”