Quintard Taylor has blazed a trail to Black history of the American West—and around the world

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On the day that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, Quintard Taylor was working to register Black voters in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was just 18, a junior at St. Augustine’s University endowed with idealism for the cause of racial justice through non-violent means that King espoused.

But the news of his assassination lit a fuse inside Taylor. And many others. Wracked by a spasm of collective grief and anger, the student population of his historically Black college flooded the streets of Raleigh, amassing to halt traffic at the intersection of several of the state’s key arteries. The National Guard was called in, brandishing rifles, bayonets and even armored tanks.

“That’s the first and only time I’ve stared down the barrel of a tank,” says Taylor, the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor Emeritus of American History at the UW. “To this day, I don’t know whether they would have fired on us. But I do know, at that moment, we were prepared to die.”

Fortunately, St. Augustine’s president, Dr. Prezell Robinson, stepped in and eased tensions. The troops backed off and the crowd gradually dispersed.

But Taylor would never be the same. More an academic than an activist at heart, he set off to blaze a trail as an author and educator of Black history in the American West and, eventually, the entire world.

That story was his story.

Shaped by Civil Rights

Quintard Taylor, Jr., was born in 1948 in Brownsville, a small, impoverished town in the cotton-growing country of segregated West Tennessee. His great grandfather was born into slavery there. His father managed a cotton plantation. His mother worked at whatever menial jobs were available.

Displaced families in Tent City in Fayette County, TN, ca. 1960. Courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries.

As a child, Taylor could feel the Civil Rights movement growing around him. In 1960, one of the first of the era’s major battles played out nearby, when Black sharecroppers were evicted from their homes in retaliation for registering to vote after passage of the 1960 Civil Rights Act.

When buses boarded from Brownsville for the March on Washington in 1963, Taylor’s mother deemed he was too young to go.

But she nourished her son’s inquisitive mind in other ways.

Taylor remembers watching Walter Cronkite explain the news around the Civil Rights movement every evening on TV. He’d ask his mother, “Why is this happening?” And she would always say, “Look it up,” and point to the encyclopedia volumes, which were treated as sacred texts in his family’s modest house.

For Taylor’s parents, knowledge was currency. And education was the way out and up.

“I came to understand not just what was going on around me,” he says, “but also the historical roots that go back to slavery, the Civil War, the failed promise of Reconstruction and, eventually, the Civil Rights movement going on around me.

“My own story was wrapped up in this. That, plus my curiosity, is how I became a historian.”

Black history is everywhere

Pooling together scholarships, fellowships and loans, Taylor graduated from St. Augustine’s in 1969 with a degree in American history. He immediately began graduate studies in American urban history at the University of Minnesota. With a master’s degree in hand, he became one of the first faculty members in the nascent Black Studies program at Washington State University, where he taught courses in African American history and the history of the Civil Rights movement.

One day in class, an African American student named Billy Ray Flowers asked why historians never talk about the history of Black people in the American West. “This was my first teaching job,” Taylor recalls. “I was 23 years old and a little arrogant. And I responded, ‘Because there is no Black history in the West.’”

Flowers challenged Taylor, offering the story of his own ancestors’ migration to Oregon Territory in the 1850s. Taylor listened intently: “I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I should look into this.’”

He did more than that. He made a career of it.

It began with a small grant from WSU in the summer of 1972. Equipped with notebooks, a tape recorder and Flowers as his research assistant, Taylor set off to record any Black history they might find in the rural regions around Pullman. They discovered plenty. Descendants of Black homesteaders from the 1880s in Northern Idaho. The prosperous and prolific King family that once drove the economy of a surnamed valley north of Pullman. And countless others from Western Montana to Eastern Oregon.

“I was fascinated to find this Black presence in places I considered to be predominantly white,” Taylor says. “The experience changed my thinking about African American history. It’s not just in the places you expect. Black history is everywhere.”

South by Northwest

As a sideline to his teaching duties at WSU, he helped produce a public television docudrama series called “South by Northwest” that dramatized the experience of early African Americans in the PNW—most of which was based on his own research. Though it fell short of the brilliant standard of storytelling set a few years later by the big-budget “Roots,” the series was nonetheless viewed by millions of people over the decades.

After four years at WSU, Taylor returned to Minnesota and earned a PhD in the history of African peoples in 1977, compiling his dissertation based on his research in Black history across the Northwest.

After completing his PhD, Taylor focused his energies on scholarly pursuits for the next four-plus decades. He was a history professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo from 1977 to 1990, teaching for a year at the University of Lagos in Nigeria as a Fulbright Scholar. He served in various faculty and administrative capacities at the University of Oregon during the 1990s.

Quintard Taylor photographed early in his tenure at the University of Washington.

By then married with three children, Taylor’s family made the final move of his academic career in 1999, to the University of Washington. There, he would research, write and teach for two more decades as the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor in American History, the oldest endowed chair at the UW.

Of the many books he has authored or edited, two have perhaps the greatest influence.

The more local of the two, “The Forging of a Black Community: A History of Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights era,” tracks the waves of demographic settlement in the neighborhood that became the soul of Seattle’s Black community. Truth is, the CD was always a home for Black folks, but it became a true black enclave only after the emergence of restrictive housing covenants and discriminatory lending laws pushed Black people into particular neighborhoods—before gentrification later pushed them out.

Taylor casts a wider net with “In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990.” Expanding upon the doctoral work he began while at WSU, he reveals, among many fascinating facts, that the first Black settlers in the American West came north from Mexico (where its own prolific slave trade played out demographically differently than in the U.S.).

Westward migration

Taylor has come a long way from Brownsville.

His massive body of work over a long and distinguished academic career has compiled a curriculum vitae so thick with publications, lectures, boards and awards that it could populate a novella. Most prominent among his many accolades are the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild (2017), the Carter Woodson Memorial Award (2015) and the Washington State Jefferson Award for Public Service (2015).

But perhaps most rewarding to Taylor is the company he has created. He can laugh about the time he came up from Cal Poly to seek research materials on the topic in the UW Library Special Collections, only to be handed his own dissertation.

And his early career joke that “we could hold a convention of historians of the Black West in a phone booth” is nearly as arcane as the phone booth itself.

Today, there is a thriving fellowship of historians specializing in the Black experience in the American West, hundreds of serious scholars following in Taylor’s sizable footsteps and the wide trail he has cut.

In the latter years of his career, though, he found that trail leads all the way around the globe.

Around the world

Shortly after joining the UW, Taylor was teaching a course on African American history when one of his grad students, George Tamblyn, suggested posting on his faculty web site some short biographies introducing key figures and events covered in the class.

A year later, Taylor received an email full of questions from a curious high school student who had found the site. When he suggested they talk during office hours, the student revealed that she lived in New Zealand. “I realized it really is a world wide web,” he says. “This information is going everywhere.”

And everywhere it went, people were interested.

Months later the U.S. State Department arranged for visit to Siberia, where Taylor was invited to deliver a series of lectures on African American history. He was surprised to find a CD of the rapper 50 Cent, its lettering in Cyrillic print, for sale on the counter of a small-town pharmacy in remotest Russia. He was delighted to find a hunger to learn about Black history.

“I think the Siberians saw African Americans challenging this powerful nation from the inside and fighting successfully for their rights. And they were inspired by that,” Taylor says. “What struck me about this was that there are people around the world who understand the political struggles of African Americans—and they have an affinity with them and that struggle.”

When he returned from the trip, he decided to create BlackPast.org.

Online encyclopedia of Black history

In 2007, with the help of Tamblyn and other volunteers, Taylor launched a free, accessible online reference database devoted to documenting, disseminating and defending Black history.

The idea took off.

Adopting a collaborative “wiki” model, BlackPast.org today consists of more than 10,000 pages of articles, biographies, primary documents, perspectives, photographs and illustrations, speeches and interactive timelines produced by nearly 1,000 professional and independent historians from six continents.

BlackPast posts encompass both African American history and the history of people of African descent around the globe.

The site has hosted more than 55 million visitors since its launch, increasing traffic every year. There were nearly 6 million visitors in 2023. And Taylor anticipates more than a million will visit in this Black History Month alone.

There is no more fitting emblem of Taylor’s indelible, enduring impact on Black history than the ongoing progress and proliferation of BlackPast.

“BlackPast and Professor Taylor’s entire body of work show most powerfully how Black history is an inextricable part of American history and world history,” wrote UW President Ana Mari Cauce in 2021. “His work—and the work of other Black history and culture scholars—reveals how much we miss when we limit ourselves to history through the lens of the powerful few.”

Presenting—and protecting—the authentic past

Taylor knows that the work he has begun must always continue. These days, he spends much of his time in Texas, where efforts to remove Black history from the textbooks are gaining real traction.

He believes there are two ways a nation can address the sins of its past: Own up to it, as Germany has done in denouncing all vestiges of its Nazi era. Or try to erase it from the books, deny it ever happened.

Quintard Taylor speaking at MOHAI in 2016.

“In 2007, I would never have said that the reason for BlackPast is to prevent the erasure of Black history,” Taylor says. “But that’s become a real movement in many places.”

In his reading, the words of our nation’s founders, many of them slave owners, created the mechanism for reform, laid the foundations for equity and inclusion, gave language to the struggle for justice that would come long after their time—and will likely continue long after our time.

BlackPast is part of it.

“We have to face the fact that America has imperfections. Always has. It also has always been a place of contested ideas and complicated truths,” Taylor says. “What we have at BlackPast is the good, the bad and the ugly. We have stories of suffering. We have stories of triumph. Because they’re all part of the larger story of this nation and this world.”

As a life-long historian, Taylor tends to take a long view. He knows that the ongoing arc toward justice is prone to reversals. “If you are alarmed that Black history will be taken away, there’s an antidote: it’s called BlackPast.org. As long as BlackPast exists, Black history will not be erased.”

BlackPast.org is volunteer-driven and funded by private donations. To offer your support, click here.

Seattle’s Black Past

BlackPast.org contains an encyclopedic trove of stories on the global African diaspora. But its roots lie in the Pacific Northwest and Quintard Taylor’s foundational studies of Black history in the region. Here are just a few local stories you’ll find in the vast BlackPast catalog:

York (watercolor, 1908) by Charles M. Russell

York, the enslaved African American who became an essential member of the famous Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-06.

Charles Mitchell, born into slavery and brought to Washington Territory in 1855 before escaping to Canada at age 13—nearly causing a war between the U.S. and Canada in the process.

Emmanual Lopes, Seattle’s first Black resident who, in 1858, opened a restaurant and barbershop serving the tiny frontier outpost in Washington Territory.

Local 493, a women-led musicians union that helped launch many careers in the heyday of Seattle’s Jackson Street jazz scene.

Odessa Brown, a community organizer for Seattle’s Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP) whose advocacy led to a children’s health clinic named in her honor.

Edythe Turnham (a leader of Local 493) and her Knights of Syncopation, Seattle, 1925. Courtesy UW Special Collections.

Jack Daniels Holsclaw, the Spokane-born Tuskegee Airman who received the Distinguished Flying Cross while piloting 68 combat missions in World War II with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group.

African Americans of the Manhattan Project, constructing facilities in Richland where plutonium was produced for the first atomic bombs.

Daisy Lee Tibbs Dawson, a Seattle activist and educator memorialized in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum for her work to help the city rebuild after the devastation of the first atomic bomb.

Liberty Bank, the state’s first primarily Black-owned financial institution, which opened in 1968 in Seattle’s Central District.

The Seattle Schools Boycott of 1966 in protest of segregation and de facto racial discrimination.

Arthur Allen Fletcher, who helped establish the Affirmative Action program while serving in the Nixon Administration before leading the United Negro College Fund, helping coin the phrase: “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”