Encyclopaedia Africana Project
"A Pan African Dream Come True"

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Date: 1997 October 07

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Bust of W.E.B. Du Bois in Accra, Ghana, West AfricaEAP History Archive
1997 October 07

Preserving History
Protecting a Legacy
W.E.B. Du Bois' dream and work for an Encyclopaedia Africana lives!

by David Graham Du Bois
Guest Columnist for "The Final Call"
Accra, Ghana, West Africa
October 7, 1997

Where ever I go around America, or to North, South, East or West Africa, to Asia or to Europe, someone always asks me: "Whatever happened with your father's Encyclopaedia Africana Project ?"

Almost no one knows that the Secretariat for the Project, created in 1961 with W.E.B. Du Bois as its Director, continues to exist in, Accra, Ghana; or that despite grave financial restraints and repeated political upheavals in Ghana through the years, variously affecting the fortunes of the Project, it has produced three (3) handsome volumes of African Biographies.

And, under the very committed direction of Mrs. Grace Bansa, a Ghanaian, and a recent $450.000 pledge of support, the Secretariat is determined to realize Du Bois'  dream of many years for an Encyclopaedia of African peoples written from an African of view. 

An article that appeared in the New York Times of August 7, 1997, entitled "Dream of Encyclopedia Africana Nears Reality," by columnist Matthew Mirapaul, is misleading.

Mirapaul asserts that a project emerging at Harvard University under the direction of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reportedly in union the Microsoft Corp. and the billionaire Bill Gates, will somehow finally fulfill Du Bois dream for an Encyclopaedia Africana

But, Du Bois' dream was clearly cited in a statement he issued in Accra, Ghana in April 1962.  He wrote:

"I propose an encyclopaedia edited mainly by African scholars.  I am anxious that it be a scientific production and not a matter of propaganda.

Portrait:  Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois
Dr. William Edward
Burghardt Du Bois

"While there should be included among its writers the best students of Africa in the world.  I want the proposed Encyclopedia to be written mainly from the African point of view by people who know and understand the history and culture of Africans." 

And further, "All Africa should be invited and urged to participate and to share in authority and support."

-- W.E.B. Du Bois, Founding Director of the Secretariat of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project

The opportunity to realize his dream on the continent of Africa was the factor that convinced a reluctant Du Bois, at age 91, to make what he knew would be a final move from New York's Brooklyn Heights to the Cantonments of Accra, Ghana in 1961.  He was responding to an urgent appeal from Ghana's first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, with assurances of the full support of the independent Republic of Ghana for his dream of an Encyclopaedia Africana .

Du Bois' dream began to take shape at least as early as 1909.  In 1931 he drew up a plan for the Encyclopedia and by 1934 had succeeded in getting organizational assistance from the Phelps-Stokes Fund.

Throughout the 1930s Bu Bois wrote to scores of people in the United States and abroad discussing the encyclopedia and seeking financial assistance.  He writes in his autobiography, "A Soliloquy on viewing My Life From The Last Decade of Its First Century," published in 1968, five years after his death:

"I spent nearly ten years of intermittent effort on this project and secured cooperation from many scholars, white and black, in America, Europe and Africa.  But the necessary funds could not be secured."

The problem of "the necessary funds" has consistently plagued the Accra-based Secretariat of the Encyclopaedia Africana .  But, it is unlikely to be a problem for the Harvard-based, temporarily named AFROPAEDIA project of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., with Harvard University, the Microsoft Corporation and Bill Gates on board.

In a statement by Gamal Gorkeh Nkrumah, son of Kwame Nkrumah, and myself issued in Cairo, Egypt, August 1, 1997, and subsequently distributed on the Internet, we stated:

    "In recognition of the great need, we welcome preparations now under way by the African Global Experience to produce an AFROPAEDIA, L.L.C., in both print and CD-ROM, under the co-editorship of Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

    However, we took serious exception to the assertion made by the co-editors in the Call for an Assistant Editor for the AFROPAEDIA project posted on the Internet on July 16, 1997, that "for almost ninety years" W.E.B. Du Bois' "ambitious scheme" for an Encyclopaedia Africana "has remained a dream."

With the complete statement admittedly in hand, Matthew Mirapaul in his New York Times article makes repeated references to Du Bois and his pioneering efforts for an Encyclopaedia Africana .  But his only reference to the Accra-based Secretariat that is actually engaged in realizing Du Bois' dream, and of whose work he and others connected with the AFROPAEDIA project are well aware, was "another publishing venture" which owns the trademark Encyclopedia Africana.

Why then did the New York Times head it's piece on the AFROPAEDIA project: Dream of Encyclopedia Africana Nears Reality?  

The article provided no information about the existence or status of the Accra-based Secretariat.

The New York Times and Mr. Mirapaul knew that at a press conference held on May 21, 1997,  at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, La-Van Hawkins, chairman of Urban City Foods-Burger King and Dr. Raymond A. Winbush, Director of the Fisk University Race Relations Institute, announced the decision to provide badly needed state-of-the-art communications equipment and technical assistance to the Ghana-based Secretariat to the tune of $450,000, contributed by Mr. Hawkins.

This decision was described as the first undertaking of the HOLDINGS Project (Holding Our Library Documents Insures Nobility, Greatness and Strength), an ongoing, historical initiative designed to collect, preserve and electronically distribute documents and artifacts of the African American experience.

Dr. Winbush, who was interviewed by Mirapaul in preparation for his August 7, 1997 New York Times article, told the press conference that HOLDINGS will be an international effort connecting scholars in Africa and throughout the diaspora with those in the U.S., providing global access to historical collections of documents, books, letters and photographs by developing CD-ROMs, World Wide Web sites and other digitized resources.

In addition to document preservation and distribution HOLDINGS will provide technical assistance to historically Black colleges universities and others collecting and preserving priceless archival documents of the Black experience.

HOLDINGS is an outgrowth of the newly revived Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Initial partners in the preservation project include Urban City Foods, Burger King, the La-Van and Wendy Hawkins Foundation, the National Council of Black Studies and the National Council of Negro Women.

While Fisk University will be the central repository, collection and preservation sites will be housed at historically Black colleges and universities and Black organizations in:

  1. Portland, Oregon
  2. Los Angeles, California
  3. Tulsa, Oklahoma
  4. Chicago, Illinois
  5. Washington, D.C.
  6. Atlanta, Georgia
  7. Tallahassee, Florida
  8. Raleigh, N.C.
  9. Accra, Ghana, West Africa

The decision of HOLDINGS to provide financial and technical support for the Accra-based Encyclopedia Africana Secretariat, an early intellectual collaboration between W.E.B. Du Bois and Ghana's first President Kwame Nkrumah, as its first activity demonstrates its recognition of the enormous contributions made by Du Bois to the history, life and culture of peoples of African descent on the continent of Africa and throughout the African Diaspora.

It is not surprising that neither the New York Times nor its columnist, Matthew Mirapaul, appreciate the significance of this collaboration and of the international efforts to guarantee the success of the Encyclopedia Africana project as envisioned by W.E.B. Du Bois.

David  Graham Du Bois
Dr. David Du Bois is the son of W.E.B. Du Bois and a professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
EAP Articles by David Graham Du Bois

76 Nile Street, Apt. 24 
Cairo, Egypt  12612

P.O. Box 144
Amherst, MA, USA  01004

e-mail: dubois@afroam.umass.edu

David Graham Du Bois

Photo by Edward Cohen
North Amherst, MA (1994)
BIO: David Du Bois

Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography
Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography

Encyclopaedia Africana Project
1997 October 07
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