When it was published as Great American Negroes in 1945, Richardson’s text became a standard work almost immediately, primarily because it applied a traditional treatment of heroic American citizens to an area of experience that was nearly overlooked. The book remained popular because of a judicious selection of subjects (aside from the omissions of Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth), solid research, a clear and direct style of expression, and appropriate revisions to respond to changing cultural conditions, keeping the text timely and relevant. The concentration of Great Black Americans on the external actions of its subjects offers a sound basis for a fundamental understanding that would prepare a young adult reader to go on to a more mature analysis that might also consider the internal conflicts in the lives of individuals such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright.
When HarperCollins acquired the rights to the book from its original publisher, Thomas Y. Crowell, in the late 1980’s, its continued appearance in print became problematical. This situation is unfortunate because the book remains contemporary in its insistence on “suggesting some of the affirmative implications” of African-American life, in Albert Murray’s phrase. As Murray argues, the “sacred role of victim” has been damaging for African Americans, and a book which shows that blacks “live with gusto and a sense of elegance that has always been downright enviable” helps to restore the dignity that African-American culture deserves. The book demonstrates that, for all the pain of African-American life, these great individuals have contributed to and benefited from the ethos of the American experience in the most profound ways.