For all their importance to the commonwealth’s long and vibrant history, African Americans have generally been poorly served by Kentucky’s monographic literature even following the civil rights revolution of the 1960s when scholars devoted newfound attention to the history and significance of black persons. The University Press of Kentucky’s decision to publish the handsomely produced The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia thus signifies a most welcome event, one that addresses this scholarly lacuna and provides an important reference work on a population that included some of Kentucky’s first settlers and played a role in the founding of Boonesborough and other pioneer enclaves.
Quickly the history of Kentucky’s black population became inextricably linked to the state’s white population, during slavery’s expansion, maturation, and destruction; throughout the rise and fall of Jim Crow; and in innumerable cultural, economic, political, and social ways. Without integrating the history of black Kentuckians—activists, actors, artists, athletes, builders, clergy, coal miners, educators, entertainers, entrepreneurs, farmers, laborers, lawyers, medical personnel, politicians, soldiers, writers, and in other professions—the state’s history remains under examined, under told, and under explained.
Readers are especially fortunate that three of Kentucky’s foremost authorities on African American history—Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, and John A. Hardin—undertook the mammoth task of conceptualizing, editing, and executing the 596-page The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Along the way they unearthed [End Page 223] numerous caches of hitherto-unknown primary and secondary sources as well as oral history accounts that help fill in the interstices of Kentucky’s black past.
The editors spent almost a decade bringing this seminal project to fruition, working with more than 150 authors (many of whom were University of Kentucky graduate students), and raising much of the project’s $400,000 budget (Tom Eblen, “Kentucky African American Encyclopedia Reveals Many of State’s Untold Stories,” Lexington Herald-Leader, August 29, 2015). They spent their dedication, energy, and time profitably. The editors’ pathbreaking volume contains over one thousand signed entries, many on topics heretofore ignored by historians. Rarely has a reference book brought to light for the first time such a corpus of unknown details about historic events, individuals, or places pertaining to people of color associated with one state from its frontier origins until today.
Smith, McDaniel, and Hardin organize their work alphabetically, much like other historical encyclopedias, beginning with the teacher, social worker, and civil rights leader Vallateen Virginia Dudley Abbington (1907?–2003) and concluding with Zion Hill, the African American community in Scott County. Concise bibliographies follow most entries and the editors have illustrated their book copiously with historical photographs and images, most of which appear in sharp definition. The encyclopedia contains a superb index with numerous cross references. The editors set names, places, events, organizations, and institutions that appear in the encyclopedia in boldface type, allowing readers to distinguish between their appearance as both main entries and as connecting references to other articles.
The editors’ entry selection criterion determined that individuals either must have been born in the commonwealth, lived their formative years in Kentucky, or contributed significantly in some manner to the history of the state, the nation, or the world. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia also includes living persons who broke important barriers along the color line or who achieved some special recognition. According to the editors, they selected [End Page 224] subjects for inclusion who helped to shape regional identity, who made pioneering contributions or salient commitments to Kentucky’s black community, or who reflected the commonwealth’s geographic diversity. Some places, including cemeteries, parks, and communities, warranted separate articles, the editors explain, to document “the depth of segregation in Kentucky.” Similarly some legal cases and civil rights acts receive articles when their inclusion served “to document the changes in American legal history that affected the status of race in Kentucky.” Finally, the encyclopedia includes topical essays on such varied subjects as business, the civil rights movement, eastern Kentucky coalfields...