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Originally published Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Jerry Large

UW professor's black-history idea clicks

If you're looking for information on black history this month, you can probably find it on BlackPast.org. And if you do, you should give a little thanks to some enthusiastic Siberian students.

Seattle Times staff columnist

If you're looking for information on black history this month, you can probably find it on BlackPast.org.

And if you do, you should give a little thanks to some enthusiastic Siberian students.

More than 2.7 million people from around the world visited the site last year, but it started with a much more limited goal.

On the site's fourth anniversary Tuesday, University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor Jr., who started BlackPast.org, told me about its evolution and purpose.

"We started out with the idea that it would be a small, limited resource for the students in my African-American history class," he said. It was background material posted on his faculty website.

After a few months Taylor got an e-mail from a student from New Zealand who'd seen the material. That was surprising, but not as much as the next e-mail.

The State Department sent him a message saying students in Siberia were using the website and the department wanted him to go and tell them more about African-American history.

That trip in September 2005 to lecture at several institutions was an eye-opener.

"There are people around the world who want to know our story," Taylor said, "because it is the story of a people who challenged a major power and prevailed." The black-American human-rights struggle transformed a nation, he said.

"I came back and said, we have to get this out there," Taylor said.

BlackPast.org was launched as a separate site Feb. 1, 2007, with a volunteer staff and volunteer contributors. It still operates that way, ungated and free. And it keeps evolving in response to the needs of the people who use it.

The site has three main areas, dealing with: African-American history, the black West (Taylor's specialty) and global African history.

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It includes an online encyclopedia with more than 3,000 entries, five bibliographies listing more than 4,000 books, speeches, primary documents, timelines and links to other resources from genealogical research to museums and universities.

There are also links to black-oriented publications around the world.

And a section called Perspectives Online Magazine has articles and commentary on little known pieces of history, sometimes written by people who took part in them.

Taylor is the chief fact checker, fundraiser and editor. His friend and former graduate assistant, George Tamblyn, who first suggested the website for students, and Taylor's daughter, Jamila Taylor, are the core decision makers.

Taylor, who is 62 and has been teaching history for 30 years, said he keeps learning more about African-American history by working on the site, responding to new questions and gathering information from diverse contributors.

He's proud that the site goes well beyond the usual icons of black history.

Taylor clicks on a page about Mathias de Souza, the first person of African ancestry to hold elective office in the Americas. He was elected to the Maryland General Assembly in 1641.

He'd like for young black Americans looking for role models to know about people like Eliza Ann Grier.

In 1883, some 20 years after she was emancipated, she enrolled in Fisk University, and because she had little money, worked every other year picking cotton and doing other work. It took eight years to get her degree. She then put herself through medical school the same way.

Black-American history is full of inspirational stories, and that's one reason why interest in it is not just here and not just in February.

Taylor said people from 130 countries visit the site, even though it's only in English. Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany and Brazil are usually among the top five site users.

American ideas, stories and culture have long traveled the world.

Taylor's site keeps spreading the word.

He said BlackPast.org reaches far more people than his classes or books. "This is my most important contribution to history."

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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