UW professor Quintard Taylor is blowing students’ minds in class and with his website devoted to black history.
DR. QUINTARD TAYLOR is blowing his students’ minds.
Taylor, an esteemed University of Washington history professor, is walking them through the history of Mexican Texas, explaining how African-American slaves left farms and plantations to join the Mexican Army during the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, and slipped across the U.S. border during the conflict to live as free people in Mexico, where slavery was outlawed.
By the time Texas had claimed its independence from Mexico in 1836, he tells the students, what had been a place for black people to live freely in the 1820s had, through sleight of hand and defiance by slave-owning Southerners, become home to some 250,000 black slaves.
BlackPast.org is a 13,000-page reference guide on African-American history.
You can support the site by attending the BlackPast Tenth Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, March 11 at 6 p.m.
If thinking were accompanied by grinding gears and squeaky nuts and bolts, Taylor’s thought factory of a classroom would require earplugs and a ratchet set. One of the class’ 32 students, who went to elementary school in Texas, furrows his brow and confesses he never heard that version of history when he was growing up.
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Taylor calls for a quick break, and when he returns, asks, “How’s everyone doing?”
Alana Edmondson, who grew up in Seattle, tells him, “I’m trying to wrap my mind around it all.”
The professor nods knowingly. He’s had his mind blown, too. Sometimes still does. It’s what happens when you explore African-American history in the West, a topic so arcane when Taylor began researching it in the late 1970s that he originally denied there was such a thing.
Now he’s become one of the foremost experts on the subject, teaching it to students at UW as the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History, a position he has held since 1999. He also amplifies and builds on his teaching through BlackPast.org, the website he founded 10 years ago, which last year attracted more than 4.4 million visitors around the world.
BlackPast.org, which began as a resource for UW history students, has grown to include more than 4,000 original entries written by more than 700 academics, student historians and people worldwide with firsthand knowledge of the subjects. It’s an ambitious site that seeks to offer the internet’s most comprehensive history of African-American people and events spanning the globe, from the dramatic escape of an enslaved black child in Olympia in 1860 to the history of Africans in China.
Taylor says steeping himself in the cultural, social and historical contexts of black people in the West has broadened his view of the African-American experience, both as he sees it and as he teaches it.
“I began to realize that there is no one master narrative, that it’s easy for us to get caught up in this idea that everything is the same all over the country,’’ he says during an interview in his campus office, lined floor-to-ceiling with books on a dizzying array of subjects that testify to his boundless curiosity.
GROWING UP IN Brownsville, Tenn., a predominantly black town where racism was binary — white vs. black — Taylor says, it was “a revelation” when he moved out of the South and saw that other people of color had their own struggles with racism.
“Racism manifests itself differently in different regions in different time periods with different people,’’ he says. Putting African-American history in the broader context of American history gives black people an opportunity to reconsider their own experiences at a time when blackness is often defined by the urban experience, he says.
“My experience is only one experience, but it’s no better or worse than other experiences of black people,” he says. “If a black person grows up in Bellevue, that’s his or her experience, and it’s as valid as my black experience growing up in Brownsville.”
Sharing that awareness, he says, is one of the most important aspects of his work.
Taylor, 63, grew up the youngest of two children in the working-class town of about 5,000 people, most of them black and poor. Because everyone was pretty much in the same boat, he says, he grew up without the shame that often accompanies poverty, and wasn’t called the N-word until he moved to Minnesota for graduate school.
Taylor’s father, who had a second-grade education, managed a nearby cotton plantation. His mother, educated to be a schoolteacher, worked for most of her life at whatever menial jobs were available in town.
During cotton-picking season, the schools serving African-American students closed so the students could work the fields. Taylor says he easily could have stayed in Brownsville but for his mother, who never talked about “if” Taylor was going to college but “when.” Her admonitions to “look it up” in the encyclopedia when he wanted to know something proved to be good training for college.
Taylor was 10 when, traveling with his father, he learned a valuable lesson about exercising discipline in the face of anger and racism. A tire on his father’s car went flat during a visit to cotton brokers, and they unknowingly wandered into a Ku Klux Klan-friendly garage to get it fixed. The garage attendant cursed out his father in front of Taylor, “calling him everything but a child of God. My father was more embarrassed that I was there to witness this than the fact that it happened to him. And he said, ‘Son, you need to learn to let racism run off you like water off a duck’s back.’ And that was a profound statement. For me, that became a mantra right to this day.”
Taylor graduated high school at age 16, and enrolled as a history major in St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., where he was mentored by “two remarkable professors.” After graduation in 1969, he was recruited by the University of Minnesota to its graduate history program — one of four African-Americans out of 700 graduate students in the history department.
AFTER GRADUATE SCHOOL, he took a job as assistant professor in the Black Studies program at Washington State University in 1971. One day, a student and basketball player named Billy Ray Flowers raised his hand and asked why historians always neglected to talk about black history in the West.
“I was 23 or 24, somewhat arrogant, and I said, ‘Because there is no black Western history,’ ’’ Taylor says, laughing at his younger self. When Flowers pushed back, offering information about his ancestors’ migration West in the 1880s, Taylor stood in front of the class and listened.
“I was so fascinated about what he said that I decided I wanted to do this black West thing,’’ he says. With a $3,000 grant, Taylor rented a car and hired Flowers as his assistant. Together, they traveled around Eastern Washington and Idaho, collecting oral histories from descendants of early black settlers and slaves.
He returned to Minnesota to earn a Ph.D. in the History of African Peoples in 1977. He worked as a history professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo from 1977 to 1990, and taught for a year as a Fulbright professor of history in Nigeria. He served as a visiting professor at UW for two summers, and held various teaching and administrative posts at the University of Oregon in Eugene in the 1990s.
During that time, he married and had three children. The family settled in Seattle in 1999, when Taylor began teaching at UW. He has authored several books, and his CV is so packed with articles and boards he sits on, it easily would run three times the length of this article.
Taylor credits a graduate student, George Tamlin, then a teaching assistant at UW, with the birth of BlackPast.org. After noticing that a lot of class time was being taken up backfilling students’ knowledge on key figures and events in American history, Tamlin wrote 100 vignettes of people the students should know about, and posted them on Taylor’s faculty website in 2005.
A year later, Taylor received an email from a high-school student that included a dozen or so questions about people on the website. Rather than have a lengthy email exchange, Taylor suggested she come to his office during student office hours.
“And then she said, ‘I can’t come to your office during your office hours. I live in New Zealand.’ It was at that moment I realized we hadn’t gated the site,’’ he says. He quickly learned that people around the world had been accessing the information, including students in Siberia who, through the U.S. State Department, earlier had arranged to have Taylor visit for a series of lectures on American history in 2005.
The site launched as BlackPast.org, a not-for-profit, in February 2007.
“We had maybe 400,000 to 500,000 visitors the first year,’’ he says. “This past year, we had 4.4 million. Altogether, we’ve had almost 19 million unique visitors. I never expected this. I never had any inkling this would take off. We just put some names up there and forgot about it until the girl from New Zealand emailed.”
The site, he says, allows him to reach far beyond the classroom, but the classroom is where he can see the faces of the people whose lives his work has changed.
AFTER THE CLASS lesson on Mexican Texas — only the third class of the semester — I asked Alana Edmondson, the African-American student who was so affected by the lecture, how Taylor’s class has changed her thinking.
“I feel like everything I’ve been taught previously has completely discounted, if not entirely ignored, the role of blacks in the American West,” she says. “It has been implied that because slave ships never docked in Puget Sound, there were never slaves in the Pacific Northwest, thus discrimination and racism must not really exist here, when, in reality, it was very present and remains very real.”
That knowledge, she says, has helped her experiences growing up in Seattle make more sense.
Helping make sense of our world could prove to be Taylor’s greatest accomplishment. After all, the purpose of BlackPast.org, he notes, is “to weave the truths of the black American experience into every American’s identity so that we may make our union more perfect and our society more just.”
John Henry “Doc” Hamilton (1891-1942)
After serving in the famous 92nd “Buffalo” infantry division during World War I, John Henry Hamilton set up a speak-easy in his house at 1017½ E. Union St. in Seattle. The illegal club, which sold liquor during Prohibition in the 1920s, was the first of many run by Hamilton, known by most as “Doc.” His most famous — Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Pit — was frequented by Seattle’s political, business and judicial elite, and hosted some of the city’s favorite musicians. His success eventually accorded him a large home in Madison Valley, but he lost everything after being jailed for 10 months for running an illegal business, a fate that escaped white people running illegal clubs. After a life surrounded by crowds, he died alone in the Mar Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown district.
Odessa Brown (1920-69)
Odessa Brown, after whom the Children’s Clinic in Seattle’s Central District is named, moved to Seattle from Arkansas in 1963 after training to become a licensed beautician. She supported her
family of five by working as a beautician and a community organizer doing health outreach in Seattle’s predominantly black neighborhood. She is credited with convincing the planners of Seattle Model Cities, a federally funded anti-poverty agency, to establish a clinic to meet the needs of the neighborhood. She did so while sick with leukemia. The clinic opened in 1970, and remains an important source of health care for African Americans.
Seattle’s open-housing campaign
Discrimination against minorities when renting apartments or selling real estate was legal in Seattle until 1968. The discrimination, which included “restrictive covenants” designed to keep minority families out of most of the city’s neighborhoods, resulted in 78 percent of the city’s African-American population living in the Central District. The unraveling of those racist policies began in 1959, when Robert L. Jones attempted to buy a house from a white homeowner. When the homeowner refused, Jones filed a complaint with a state board that heard complaints of discrimination. The board ruled against Jones, and a legal battle began that ignited fair-housing activists into action. The issue became bogged down in Seattle committees for years. Three weeks after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, the City Council passed a law outlawing unfair housing practices in the sale and rental of real estate. The person credited with writing the law was first-term Councilman Sam Smith, the first African American to serve on the council.
Arthur Allen Fletcher (1924-2005)
A Republican civil-rights activist, Arthur Fletcher is considered by many “the father of affirmative action.” Fletcher’s life reads like the stuff of legend: civil-rights activist in high school, wounded as a soldier in Germany while serving in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army during World War II, a brief career as a pro football player, deputy highway commissioner, talent booking agency, business owner, political activist and a single father of five living in squalor after his wife committed suicide in 1960. His belief in self-help programs and black economic development as keys to African-American empowerment propelled him into the highest echelons of government. He served in four Republican presidential administrations:those of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. While Fletcher was head of the United Negro College Fund in 1973, the organization coined the phrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Zoe Dusanne (1884-1972)
A seminal figure in Seattle’s art scene, Zoe Dusanne opened the city’s first modern-art gallery in her home overlooking Lake Union in 1947, when she was 63. Born Zola Graves in Kansas, Dusanne changed her name after moving to New York with her teenage daughter during the Great Depression. With two marriages behind her, she remade herself in the big city, amassing a collection of modern art she would bring to Seattle in 1942. The Zoe Dusanne Gallery introduced modern art to Pacific Northwest audiences and introduced Northwest artists to an international audience. Her home was demolished in 1958 to make way for Interstate 5. She relocated the gallery but closed it permanently in 1964. After her death, the Seattle Art Museum celebrated her with a show of works by artists she championed.
Carl Maxey (1924-97)
Orphaned at a young age after his adoptive mom died and his adoptive dad disappeared, Carl Maxey lived at the Spokane Children’s Home until age 12, when the home stopped caring for African-American children. He was sent to live at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center, an experience that fueled his lifelong passion for justice. The first African American to graduate from Gonzaga Law School (class of 1951), Maxey used his brilliance and formidable gift with language in the service of civil rights and the anti-war effort. He championed people accused of crimes, women in contested divorce cases, conscientious objectors and a man facing death row in another state.
Daisy Lee Tibbs Dawson (1924-2013)
Daisy Lee Tibbs Dawson is the only African American memorialized in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, Japan. Orphaned at an early age in the 1920s, she paid her own way through high school in Alabama, where she was mentored by the white principal and his wife. She moved with them to Seattle in 1944 and joined work parties, helping to repair King County homes of American citizens born to Japanese immigrants after they were ordered into internment camps. After graduating from the University of Washington in 1948, she traveled to Hiroshima with an interracial, interdenominational group to rebuild houses after the United States bombed the city. During her three-month stay there, she helped build four houses and a symbolic garden that stood as a peace shrine.
John Newington Conna (1836-1921)
Born into slavery in Texas, John Newington Conna became a free man by joining an all-black Union Regiment of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards during the Civil War. He moved east, started a family and eventually came west. He and his family were the first African Americans to travel by train to Tacoma. Conna bought a 160-acre farm in what is now Federal Way, worked as a real-estate broker and eventually started his own real-estate firm. He became active and influential in Tacoma politics. When Washington state was established in 1889, Conna was selected as the Sergeant at Arms for the state’s first legislature. He later moved to Alaska, ran as a socialist for Fairbanks City Council and bought property there.
William Grose (1835-98)
At a time when African Americans were forbidden by law to read and write, William Grose traveled around the world as a sailor in the U.S. Navy, worked in the gold fields of California and helped African Americans illegally enslaved in California escape. Grose was the second black settler when he arrived in Seattle in 1860. He worked as a cook before opening a restaurant. He would eventually become one of the richest men in Seattle. By 1883, he owned a three-story hotel and restaurant and a 12-acre ranch in Madison Valley.
Ross (1866-1934) and Nora Hendrix (1883-1984)
Legendary guitarist/genius Jimi Hendrix’s paternal grandparents, Ross and Zenora “Nora” Hendrix, met on the road, while traveling with a Dixieland vaudeville group. Nora performed as a “chorus girl/dancer,” while Ross, a one-time special policeman in Chicago, worked as a stagehand. Financial problems broke up the vaudeville group in 1912, when it was performing in Seattle. The couple married here, but eventually moved to Canada for work. Jimi Hendrix’s younger sister writes that Nora, with her penchant for flamboyant costumes and love of performing, was a significant influence on the young musician.
Ernest Charles Tanner (1889-1956)
Labor leader Ernest Charles Tanner, the son of a trapeze performer and a nurse who moved to Tacoma in 1900, was the first African American to play college football in the Northwest. After attending Whitworth College for two years, he worked as an elevator operator and became a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association Tacoma chapter. He was the only African American on the committee that worked to resolve the “Big Strike” of 1934 that shut down ports along the Pacific Coast. He is credited with keeping the white and black workers united so employers couldn’t break the union.
Gertrude Harvey Wright (1888-1983)
One of four women in Seattle’s first black musicians’ union, jazz pianist Gertrude Harvey Wright is credited with helping keep jazz alive in the Northwest between World War I and 1950. Wright became active in union politics, first at the all-black musicians union, and then at the segregated Local 493 when the all-black union dissolved in 1924. Jim Crow laws paid black musicians half of what white players were paid, and they were denied entry into downtown, parks, radio, hotels and orchestras. Nonetheless, Wright continued to play in bands and orchestras in Seattle, helping establish union-scale jobs in the area around Madison Avenue and Jackson Street, where black jazz thrived.
As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their expedition from 1804 to 1806, they brought with them an African-American slave named York. Born in Caroline County, Va., York came from a family of five that was owned by the Clark family. York became Clark’s slave by inheritance, and worked as Clark’s “manservant” until President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition from St. Louis across the country to the mouth of the Columbia River. York is credited in Clark’s diaries with helping to forage food for the expedition members, and serving as the first contact with Native tribes. When the expedition ended, York asked for his freedom. Clark refused.
Green Fields (1840-1914)
Green Fields was a rare sight in the Pacific Northwest: an African-American Civil War veteran. Fields, a former slave, escaped to freedom from Mississippi, and joined the Union Army in St. Louis as a substitute soldier. Discharged from the Army in 1865, he married and eventually settled in Seattle. He worked for the city as a street cleaner, saving enough money to buy a modest Queen Anne house. Fields was buried in Seattle’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where his grave is marked with a headstone, placed there in 2007 to honor his military service.
Berry Lawson (died 1938)
Berry Lawson was sleeping on a chair in the lobby of a Yesler Way hotel where he was staying in 1938, when three Seattle police officers arrested him for loitering. Less than two hours later, the 27-year-old waiter was pronounced dead of a broken skull. The officers maintained that Lawson was high on drugs and had plunged down a flight of stairs after breaking away from them. The coroner’s findings raised doubts about the story, but the coroner cleared the officers. Local black leaders pressured the city to investigate, and the officers were charged with second-degree murder. The officers suggested the charges were payback for their investigations into white slavery on “Skid Row.” About two months after Lawson’s death, each officer was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to prison for 20 years. The state supreme court upheld their convictions, but Gov. Clarence Martin pardoned them. After the pardon, one of the officers admitted responsibility for Lawson’s death.
Bios are adapted from BlackPast.org by Susan Kelleher