It never fails: Gerald Smith goes to a community to speak about the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia project, and he leaves having learned something unexpected.
People bring old photographs, documents and newspaper clippings to show him. They tell him tales about local history. They even drive him to hidden slave cemeteries and show him little museums, public library archives and memorabilia collections he never knew existed.
"There is a tremendous amount of interest and enthusiasm for this project," said Smith, below right, a University of Kentucky history professor and one of the encyclopedia's three general editors.
Along with famous people such as Muhammad Ali and many African-American firsts, the encyclopedia will document fascinating lives that few people know about.
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For example, Margaret Garner, a slave born in Boone County in 1833, was the inspiration for Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. And Joe Simons, a Fleming County slave, was known for his ability to read the Bible upside down. (The woman who owned him read the Bible aloud while he stood at her feet fanning flies; that's how he taught himself to read.)
Although slavery and the civil rights movement have been well documented, little has been written about many aspects of the parallel universe of black life in Kentucky before integration.
Owensboro's black citizens organized the Negro Chautauqua in 1907 to provide intellectual stimulation and religious education. There were black newspapers such as the Baptist Monitor, and baseball teams such as the Owingsville Giants of the 1920s and Lawrenceburg Athletic Club of the 1950s.
"African-Americans had their own world," Smith said. "There were people, places and events of distinction that shaped not only their lives, but the history of Kentucky."
The encyclopedia is an effort to verify and record much of that history — and to serve as a springboard for further research and writing that will lead to greater cultural understanding.
But like many worthwhile projects in this economic downturn, the encyclopedia is threatened by lack of funding. As Black History Month began, the encyclopedia's publication date was pushed from 2011 to 2013, and "if we don't have $30,000 by Aug. 1, it's pretty much over," Smith said.
Since the project began two years ago, it has received strong support from University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and smaller contributions from several other Kentucky colleges, universities and foundations, said Stephen Wrinn, director of University Press of Kentucky, which is publishing the encyclopedia. Smith said that, after giving speeches about the project, he often receives small donations from people in the audience.
Like the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, published last year, this book will cost about $700,000 in cash and in-kind support to produce. Only about half of that has been raised.
Wrinn said the project needs a private individual or two to step up and champion a fund-raising campaign, as Mike Hammons and Alice Sparks did for the Northern Kentucky book.
"Gerald and the others have done a good job of getting it up and running," Wrinn said, and the fund-raising is being co ordinated by the press's Thomas D. Clark Foundation. "I'm confident we're going to do it."
Wrinn said he isn't aware of an African-American encyclopedia for any other state. The Kentucky Encyclopedia, published in 1992, was a pioneer, too; many states have since done their own. "This is an opportunity for Kentucky to again be a leader," he said.
So far, 1,271 entries have been chosen for the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, and 242 have been completed. Several hundred more have been assigned, and Smith is looking for volunteers to join the approximately 80 writers on the project. For more information, go to www.uky.edu/kaae.
Editing the book with Smith are history professors Karen C. McDaniel of Eastern Kentucky University and John A. Hardin of Western Kentucky University. They and other historians are writing 14 topical essays on issues including civil rights, education, religion and women.
Graduate students in history are doing much of the research and verification, and most of the project's funds go to pay them.
"It will fill many of the gaps in Kentucky history, and in the history of the South as well," Smith said of the encyclopedia. "I have met some of the nicest people around the state. One thing I've learned about Kentuckians is that they love and appreciate their history."