When the first edition of Great Black Americans was published in 1945, the subjects of the book were, in Ralph Ellison’s memorable phrase, nearly “invisible” men and women; they were either ignored or undervalued by most standard historical accounts. Therefore, many white Americans lived in almost total ignorance of their achievements, and African Americans had to depend on a kind of oral tradition within their own culture to learn about these figures. The uniqueness of the lives of such individuals as W. E. B. Du Bois seemed to suggest that they were exceptions and that their work was not typical or indicative of the capabilities of the vast majority of African Americans. This lack of information permitted even well-meaning white Americans to regard the cultural traditions of African-American society as essentially insignificant in terms of the country as a whole. This attitude resulted in an acquiescence that surfaced in the racist policies of segregation and discrimination that have plagued American life.

In responding to this situation, Richardson and Fahey have two main goals. For the African-American community, they have provided concrete evidence of the men and women from that community who have made vital contributions to American life, reclaiming or restoring a heritage of achievement that was previously overlooked or even suppressed. This was a crucial step in the development of African-American pride as a component of that group’s consciousness. For the African-American community and the majority of the citizens of the United States, the authors have tried to show that their subjects were heroes in the most basic sense of American experience—that their achievements are an aspect of the fundamental strength of the country and that their lives are an expression of the central principles upon which the...

(The entire section is 755 words.)