|EAP History Archive
1997 October 07
Protecting a Legacy
W.E.B. Du Bois' dream
and work for an Encyclopaedia Africana
David Graham Du Bois
Where ever I go around America,
or to North, South, East or West Africa, to Asia or to Europe, someone always asks me:
"Whatever happened with your father's Encyclopaedia Africana Project
Guest Columnist for "The Final
Accra, Ghana, West Africa
October 7, 1997
Almost no one knows that the Secretariat
for the Project, created in 1961 with W.E.B. Du Bois as its Director, continues to exist
in, Accra, Ghana; or that despite grave financial restraints and repeated political
upheavals in Ghana through the years, variously affecting the fortunes of the Project, it
has produced three (3) handsome volumes of
And, under the very committed
direction of Mrs. Grace Bansa, a Ghanaian, and a recent $450.000 pledge of support, the
Secretariat is determined to realize Du Bois' dream of many years
for an Encyclopaedia of African peoples written from an African of view.
An article that appeared in the New
York Times of August 7, 1997, entitled "Dream of Encyclopedia Africana
Nears Reality," by columnist Matthew Mirapaul, is misleading.
Mirapaul asserts that a project
emerging at Harvard University under the direction of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reportedly
in union the Microsoft Corp. and the billionaire Bill Gates, will somehow finally fulfill
Du Bois dream for an Encyclopaedia Africana
But, Du Bois' dream was clearly
cited in a statement he issued in Accra, Ghana in April 1962. He wrote:
"I propose an
encyclopaedia edited mainly by African scholars. I am anxious that it be a
scientific production and not a matter of propaganda.
Dr. William Edward
Burghardt Du Bois
|"While there should be included among its writers the best students of Africa
in the world. I want the proposed Encyclopedia to be written mainly from the African
point of view by people who know and understand the history and culture of
further, "All Africa should be invited and urged to participate and to share in
authority and support."
W.E.B. Du Bois, Founding Director of the Secretariat of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project
The opportunity to realize his
dream on the continent of Africa was the factor that convinced a reluctant Du Bois, at age
91, to make what he knew would be a final move from New York's Brooklyn Heights to the
Cantonments of Accra, Ghana in 1961. He was responding to an urgent appeal from
Ghana's first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, with assurances of the full support of the
independent Republic of Ghana for his dream of an Encyclopaedia Africana
Du Bois' dream began to take
shape at least as early as 1909. In 1931 he drew up a plan for the Encyclopedia and
by 1934 had succeeded in getting organizational assistance from the Phelps-Stokes Fund.
Throughout the 1930s Bu Bois
wrote to scores of people in the United States and abroad discussing the encyclopedia and
seeking financial assistance. He writes in his autobiography, "A
Soliloquy on viewing My Life From The Last Decade of Its First Century,"
published in 1968, five years after his death:
"I spent nearly ten years of
intermittent effort on this project and secured cooperation from many scholars, white and
black, in America, Europe and Africa. But the necessary funds could not be
The problem of "the
necessary funds" has consistently plagued the Accra-based Secretariat of the
. But, it is unlikely to be a problem for the Harvard-based,
temporarily named AFROPAEDIA project of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with
Harvard University, the Microsoft Corporation and
Bill Gates on board.
In a statement by Gamal Gorkeh
Nkrumah, son of Kwame Nkrumah, and myself issued in Cairo, Egypt, August 1, 1997, and
subsequently distributed on the Internet, we stated:
"In recognition of the great
need, we welcome preparations now under way by the African Global Experience to produce an
AFROPAEDIA, L.L.C., in both print and CD-ROM, under the co-editorship of Kwame
Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
However, we took serious
exception to the assertion made by the co-editors in the Call for an Assistant Editor
for the AFROPAEDIA project posted on the Internet on July 16, 1997, that "for
almost ninety years" W.E.B. Du Bois' "ambitious scheme" for an
"has remained a dream."
With the complete statement
admittedly in hand, Matthew Mirapaul in his New York Times article makes repeated
references to Du Bois and his pioneering efforts for an Encyclopaedia Africana
his only reference to the Accra-based Secretariat that is actually engaged in realizing Du
Bois' dream, and of whose work he and others connected with the AFROPAEDIA project
are well aware, was "another publishing venture" which owns the trademark
Why then did the New York Times
head it's piece on the AFROPAEDIA project: Dream of Encyclopedia Africana
The article provided no information about the existence or status of the Accra-based
The New York Times and Mr.
Mirapaul knew that at a press conference held on May 21, 1997, at the Four Seasons
Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, La-Van Hawkins, chairman of Urban City Foods-Burger King and
Dr. Raymond A. Winbush, Director of the Fisk University Race Relations Institute,
announced the decision to provide badly needed state-of-the-art communications equipment
and technical assistance to the Ghana-based Secretariat to the tune of $450,000,
contributed by Mr. Hawkins.
This decision was
described as the first undertaking of the HOLDINGS Project
(Holding Our Library Documents Insures
Nobility, Greatness and Strength), an ongoing, historical initiative designed to collect, preserve and
electronically distribute documents and artifacts of the African American experience.
Dr. Winbush, who was interviewed
by Mirapaul in preparation for his August 7, 1997 New York Times article, told the press
conference that HOLDINGS will be an international effort connecting scholars in
Africa and throughout the diaspora with those in the U.S., providing global access to
historical collections of documents, books, letters and photographs by developing CD-ROMs,
World Wide Web sites and other digitized resources.
In addition to document
preservation and distribution HOLDINGS will provide technical assistance to
historically Black colleges universities and others collecting and preserving priceless
archival documents of the Black experience.
HOLDINGS is an outgrowth
of the newly revived Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville,
Initial partners in the
preservation project include Urban City Foods, Burger King, the La-Van and Wendy Hawkins
Foundation, the National Council of Black Studies and the National Council of Negro Women.
While Fisk University will be the
central repository, collection and preservation sites will be housed at historically
Black colleges and universities and Black organizations in:
- Portland, Oregon
- Los Angeles, California
- Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Chicago, Illinois
- Washington, D.C.
- Atlanta, Georgia
- Tallahassee, Florida
- Raleigh, N.C.
- Accra, Ghana, West Africa
The decision of HOLDINGS
to provide financial and technical support for the Accra-based Encyclopedia Africana
Secretariat, an early intellectual collaboration between W.E.B. Du Bois and Ghana's first
President Kwame Nkrumah, as its first activity demonstrates its recognition of the
enormous contributions made by Du Bois to the history, life and culture of peoples of
African descent on the continent of Africa and throughout the African Diaspora.
It is not surprising that neither
the New York Times nor its columnist, Matthew Mirapaul, appreciate the significance
of this collaboration and of the international efforts to guarantee the success of the
Encyclopedia Africana project as envisioned by W.E.B. Du Bois.