Quintard Taylor Jr. didn’t expect to stay in Pullman for four years. He’d joined the faculty of Washington State University’s new Black Studies Program in 1971, thinking he’d teach for a year before going on to get his doctorate in history.
Instead, the decision to come to Pullman “became kind of life-changing,” he now says. “It set my career and my life trajectory.”
His work at WSU, researching the history of Black people in the Pacific Northwest, would become his doctoral dissertation at the University of Minnesota. It was the foundation of a public television series called South by Northwest. And it informed his career throughout higher education, which culminated at the University of Washington as the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History.
Interviewing pioneers and descendants:
With a $1,500 university grant, Taylor began to seek out Black pioneers and their descendants throughout the Northwest to collect oral histories. He and the research team of Joyce Stephens and John Dawkins conducted more than 40 interviews, recorded on cassette tapes. Some of those interviewed were born in the late 1800s and had lived in the West for decades. Others relayed the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. As he talked to people they suggested others he could contact, he says. Their stories are archived in WSU Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections.
South By Northwest:
Taylor’s research was the basis for a groundbreaking public television series called “South By Northwest” about Black pioneers in the Pacific Northwest. These half-hour docudrama episodes were produced by KWSU-TV and aired on more than 80 commercial stations across the country. Big-name Black actors of the day took part, including Esther Rolle and John Amos. Nate Long, a director and producer from Seattle, was executive producer. And Joseph Wilcots, a cinematographer on the miniseries “Roots,” directed. “In 1974 and ‘75 we were all up and coming,” says Taylor. “I was probably 25 years old when I was involved with this project.” One day the screenwriter abruptly quit. “I remember Nate calling me into a barn or something, we were on location, and he said ‘Quintard, you have to be the screenwriter.’ I said ‘Nate, I’m not a screenwriter, I’m a historian.’” Long replied, “You’re a screenwriter today.” The series won a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award and a New York Film Festival Award.
On updating his work:
Taylor’s “History of Blacks in the Pacific Northwest” ends in the early 1970s. He has written many other histories of Black people, but none with that geographic scope. Updating that history is not in the cards for him, partly because he’s working on a book about Black communities from Houston to Honolulu, and partly because he turned 75 in December. If another historian wants to take over that job, “tell them to have at it and I’ll be as supportive as I can,” he says.
On what’s changed:
“Most of these cities saw their Black populations peak around 1990. From then on almost all of the Black population growth was in the suburbs. I never would have predicted that in the 1970s,” he says. He’s also been surprised at the changing demographics of what once were Black neighborhoods. He remembers interviewing Constance Thomas in Seattle in the early 1970s. She was “kind of the grande dame of the Central District,” which was where most of the city’s Black population was concentrated at the time. “She said, ‘Mark my words, White people will discover the Central District. They’ll realize it’s close to downtown Seattle and has Lake Washington views,’” Taylor says. That has come to pass, with two-thirds of Central District now being White. Says Taylor, “I certainly didn’t predict this, but Mrs. Thomas did.”
The evolution of BlackPast.org:
In 2004 Taylor was teaching at the University of Washington, introducing class after class to basic facts about important people and events in Black history. His graduate assistant suggested they create short write-ups about that material and put it on his faculty website, so he could devote class time to other material. “Then we sort of forgot about them,” Taylor says. But people all over the world were finding them and reaching out to Taylor for more information. “For the first time I realized the world wide web really meant that,” Taylor says. That led to the creation of BlackPast.org in 2007, an online reference that includes short biographies of notable and little-known but important Black figures from history, as well as full-text primary documents. With a global network of volunteer contributors, BlackPast was on track to log 7 million visits last year, Taylor says, and over its lifetime has attracted more than 50 million visits. Working on BlackPast “is probably what keeps me alive,” Taylor says.
Read highlights from Taylor’s history of Black people in the Pacific Northwest.