Quintard Taylor Jr. is a University of Washington professor and historian who founded BlackPast.org, an online encyclopedia of African American history. Born in Tennessee to a working-class family, Taylor attended St. Augustine's College in North Carolina, and received his master's degree and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He taught at Washington State University, California Polytechnic State University, and University of Oregon before moving to Seattle. Taylor's books include In Search of the Racial Frontier: African American West, 1528-1990 and The Forging of a Black Community: A History of Seattle's Central District, 1870 through the Civil Rights Era. He holds the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Chair of American History.
You Will Go To College
Quintard Taylor Jr. was born on December 11, 1948, to Grace Taylor (1909-1991) and Quintard Sr. (1898-1969). Both parents were only two generations removed from slavery, and one generation from sharecropping in Haywood County, Tennessee. The county was historically predominately African American, and remains so.
Quintard Taylor, Jr. describes himself as "not the A student," but did graduate 10th in his high school class of 210 (Kershner interview). "I didn't think I enjoyed school that much when I was in school," Taylor says. "I later learned to appreciate what I learned" (Kershner interview). When it came to college, Taylor's parents were not blasé about higher learning for Taylor and his older sister, Diane (now Diane Taylor Brown, b. 1941). Although his mother only had a year of college and his father had been schooled only up to the second grade, they had strong feelings about how important education was for their children.
"I really didn't choose college," Taylor says. "My parents said 'you will go to college.' That was the end of the discussion. I didn't have much choice in the matter. They didn't leave it up to me" (Kershner interview). Their son was 16 years old, and Taylor's parents weren't taking any chances on letting him wander to college alone. Instead, it was determined that he would be sent to St. Augustine's College, a predominately black Episcopalian college in Raleigh, North Carolina. Not so coincidentally, St. Augustine's also happened to be the employer of Taylor's sister, a recent Tuskegee graduate. His parents were soothed by the idea that Taylor would be under a family member's watchful eye, and the reduced tuition that came with her employment was a factor; his father never made more than $5,000 any year of his life, according to Taylor.
Why the Sixties?
But Taylor's chosen path for higher education, it turned
out, was quite serendipitous. As a high-schooler, Taylor had been intrigued by
the changes happening in the world around him, and it was his mother's prodding
that drove him. "I was growing
up in West Tennessee in the sixties, the Civil Rights movement was literally
unfolding on the TV screens in front of us. I sat and I watched the news with
my mother," Taylor says. "I wanted to know more about how the
situation came to be that black folks were demonstrating and otherwise
struggling for their civil rights in the 1960s. And she suggested that I study
history, that history would provide the answers. And that's how I first got
involved in this: looking around at the history that was being made in the
1960s, I wanted to know why" (Kershner
At St. Augustine's, Taylor began studying history in earnest. Examining civil rights and black history seemed a natural fit for the sixties, but that doesn't mean the classes were available; African American history was just beginning to come into college curriculums. "I went to a black school, but they didn't offer African American history classes until the last year that I was in college," Taylor recalls. "Ironically, two years later, I'm actually teaching African American history at a university" (Kershner interview).
But things were quickly changing; it was 1969, and affirmative action was beginning. By the end of his senior year of college, more and more universities were looking to recruit African American students like Taylor to graduate programs. The competition was stiff; Taylor recalls an interview at Princeton with 25 others, where he "abruptly left" when he realized they had reserved only two "spots" for African American students (Kershner interview).
Although both the University of Minnesota and the University of Rochester accepted Taylor as a graduate student, the decision came down to money. Rochester offered $2,800 for a teaching assistant position, whereas Minnesota offered $3,000. Taylor was soon on his way to Minnesota: the first time he would ever live permanently in the North. The seemingly cavalier choice of college paid off: the University of Minnesota proved to be an excellent catalyst for Taylor to delve into the new curriculum of African American history study.
Allan Spear -- who would, when he served in the Minnesota State Senate, become the first openly gay elected official to come out -- was one of the professors who anchored an African American history program called African Peoples at the University of Minnesota. The combined Ph.D. included studies in African American, African, and black history in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Taylor thrived despite suddenly being a Northerner. "I remember when the first snow came in Minneapolis, around Halloween," Taylor says. "I'm in my house in the morning and I’m waiting for the announcement that all the schools are closed and that announcement never came. I began to realize that in Minnesota, people keep going in the snow" (Kershner interview). Although it was drastically different both environmentally and demographically from his upbringing and undergrad experience, Taylor cites it as a necessary change. "[Being in Minnesota] was a good test for me, because it tested my ability to adjust to completely different environments" (Kershner interview).
As a New Teacher
Having completed his master's degree, Taylor decided that he
would benefit from teaching for a year before completing his Ph.D. Washington
State University (WSU) hired him into the newly formed Black Studies program, where Taylor
became one of two full-time Black Studies professors at the university. He intended
to stay for year, but ended up staying four years in Pullman -- despite the
culture shock that occurred when he moved to the Palouse (a major Washington wheat-growing region). "It wasn't so
much the cultural shock of [Pullman] being white, because I'd already gone through that
in Minnesota. It was cultural shock of there being no one there at all. I
wasn't shocked at the lack of African Americans, I was shocked by the lack of
any people!" Taylor laughs (Kershner interview).
But Taylor found ways to keep himself occupied. His third
year at WSU, Taylor began working on a series of docudramas for the Pullman
public television station KWSU called "South by Northwest." The eight
episodes chronicled the history and role of African Americans in the region, and
the experience proved to be "a lot of fun," says Taylor (Kershner
Having taught at WSU
for four years, in 1975 Taylor decided it was time to go back to Minnesota to complete
his Ph.D. He was drawn by the desire to delve more into urban African American
history as an area of study. He received his doctorate in 1977, and began the
hunt for a teaching institution where he could settle with his wife (later divorced) and three
children (Quintard III, born on September 12, 1972; and Jamila and William, twins born on December 9, 1975). When Taylor took a position at California Polytechnic State University in
San Luis Obispo, he found a great place to raise a family in a strikingly
beautiful setting. "The climate was wonderful, it was mild all year round,"
Taylor says. "The Beach Boys have this album called Endless Summer, and I always said we had in San Luis Obispo endless
spring" (Kershner interview).
Being on a teaching-focused path worked out well for Taylor; as opposed to constantly striving to publish, he was able to spend more quality time with his family while the children were still young. In 1987, Taylor received a Fulbright-Hays scholarship, which allowed him to spend the year teaching at the University of Lagos in Nigeria. "I had a grand time," Taylor says. "University of Lagos is a major research university and it was there I began to realize I really wanted to be at a research university" (Kershner interview). Soon after, Taylor got the chance.
From Oregon to Washington
The University of Oregon proved to be a perfect fit in 1990.
"It was one of those situations where I thought I would remain in Oregon
for the rest of my life," Taylor says of the position he took in Oregon
(Kershner interview). By 1997, he was
chair of the department. But when the University of Washington inquired if he'd
like to apply for the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History
endowed chair, it was too much to resist.
The chair meant a few things: one, it was a salary paid by a private endowment rather than state funds. It also holds prestige: The Bullitt chair is the first fully endowed chair by a private source at the University of Washington. And because colleagues in the history department choose the recipient, it is most certainly a sign of the esteem of fellow historians. "I'm still awed I was chosen, and I've held the chair for over a decade now," Taylor says (Kershner interview).
Choosing Quintard Taylor made a lot of sense. As far back as the late 1970s, teaching at WSU, he began to more clearly see his passion as a historian of Northwest African American history. It happened in a class in Pullman, when a young student challenged him to speak not only to the history of Southern and Eastern blacks, but to that of Western blacks as well. Initially dismissive of the idea of a black history in the West, Taylor decided to see for himself what African American culture existed in the region.
While at Oregon, in 1994, Taylor published his first book, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's
Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era. The book
detailed the rise of the Central District in Seattle as African Americans
flocked to urban areas in the city. The book was published by University of
Washington Press, and selected in the Emil and Kathleen Sick series for Western
History. In 1998, Taylor's research expanded as he wrote In Search of the Racial Frontier, a study of African Americans in
the entire West.
A Scholar and a Professor
It was a year after In
Search of the Racial Frontier was published that the University of
Washington offered the Bullitt chair to Taylor -- yet another surprise twist, as
he has intended to stay in Oregon for his entire career. But the chair came
with many opportunities; a full-time research assistant, for one, but also more
resources and time. "I think I'm more productive as a scholar because of
the support that comes along with the Bullitt chair; I think I’m more
productive as a teacher because of some of the support. I get to do more
things," Taylor says (Kershner interview).
Soon, Taylor got a chance to do a lot more than simply write and teach. Another seemingly offhand event occurred that opened Taylor's eyes to another way to disseminate the research and knowledge about African American history he had been so vigilant to record. It actually came from the suggestion of one of Taylor's teaching assistants; the pair were both getting a significant number of questions from students about figures in African American history. The students needed a primer on black historical figures and incidents, and Taylor's TA suggested using his faculty website page to put up brief articles ranging from biography to timelines for the students to reference. They began putting up articles in January 2004.
Taylor's first clue that the site was being used more widely than anticipated came a few months after it launched, in 2005. A young student who had accessed the site wrote to him, asking if he might mind answering a few questions about African American history. He wrote back, asking her to stop by his office. She replied the next day that her schedule might not permit it; she was actually a student in New Zealand. "That point I realized we had not gated the website to make it restricted to University of Washington students or students in my class and the information we put up there -- and this is where I began to realize the significance of the name 'world wide web" -- the information we put up there was going all around the world," Taylor says (Kershner interview).
The site continued to grow, both in content and audience. The first five volunteers to run it were Taylor himself, George Tamblyn, Jamila Taylor, Catherine Foster, and Turkiya Lowe.
In 2005, the United States State Department asked Taylor if he would be interested in going to Siberia to teach a few courses through a State Department-sponsored program; students there had discovered the site. He spent 13 days touring and lecturing around Russia. "I came back and I realized this is a resource that is already global, it's already going around the world, and maybe we should take it much more seriously," says Taylor (Kershner interview).
In 2007, it became clear that the faculty website platform wasn't going to cut it. On February 1, 2007, the site became BlackPast.org and went live, with about 600 entries. And the numbers proved to be impressive: when it launched in 2007, 455,963 visits were recorded. By 2008, BlackPast.org hit a million visits per year. And on April 2, 2012, a lifetime 10 million visits had occurred, from 120 nations. Numbering more than 10,000 pages, the site is entirely run by almost 500 volunteer contributors.
In many ways, it realizes the responsibilities of the chair
that Taylor still feels humbled by holding. "I look upon it this way: I think
this is part of the purpose of the Bullitt chair. One of the purposes is to
provide information to the general public, to teach undergraduates U.S. history,
and I do that," says Taylor (Kershner interview).
Taylor continues to relish both teaching and his research. "I don't know if I've been lucky -- or just been naïve -- but I've never thought in terms of the conflict between writing and teaching," he says. "I think they complement each other. I hope I will continue to write, as well as continue to teach" (Kershner interview).
Black History Is Here
With the development of BlackPast.org, Taylor's contribution to history will continue long beyond his teaching career. His passion for the context of African American history in U.S. history is obvious, as he talks about one lesson he'd like his work to illuminate.
"I say that African American history is all around us. People can grow up in Spokane or Seattle or Everett or Yakima and they can say African American history is what happens in Mississippi, it's what happens in North Carolina, it's what happens in New York or Washington, D.C. It has no bearing on what happens in the Pacific Northwest. I'll give you one case in point to show how mythical that is.
"It's about Charles Mitchell, a slave boy in Olympia in 1860 who became famous because he attempted to run away from slavery. He got to Victoria, and with the help of abolitionists, he gained his freedom. This is a story of slavery in Washington. Not slavery in Alabama. It's also the story of the resistance of slavery in Washington, and it's a story of anger too, because some of the Americans wanted to go to war with Great Britain because of what Great Britain had done.
"That's what I mean when I say black history is all around us. African American history is embedded in the general history of this region. It's part of the much larger story of the Pacific Northwest" (Kershner interview).
Today Taylor continues to teach, help run BlackPast.org, and do scholarly research and writing. (His current project is a book to be titled Urban Archipelago: African American Communities in the Twentieth Century American West). In 2010-2011 he served as president of the Western History Association and he serves (in 2012) on the National Park Service Advisory Planning Committee and on the board of HistoryLink.org, the online encyclopedia of Washington state history.