Encyclopedia to chart state's history from black perspective

By Megan Boehnke Published:

Helen Fairfax Holmes was a fire cat.

That's how Eastern Kentucky University visiting scholar and Frankfort resident Karen McDaniel describes her late friend.

Once, when the two were getting out of a car at Holmes' house, McDaniel tried to help the feeble woman to the door.

"She smacked my arm and said, "I don't need no help,'" McDaniel said. "I never tried to help her again like that. She was independent."

Holmes, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Frankfort chapter, helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort in support of civil rights legislation before the Kentucky General Assembly. The march drew 10,000 protesters and appearances by Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson and musical group Peter, Paul and Mary.

She also organized a boycott of taxi stations, organized sit-ins at Kentucky State University where she was an English professor, and got students involved in equal rights demonstrations during the civil rights era.

"She was at there in the forefront," McDaniel said. "She was just amazing in all the things she was involved with and all the things she did."

That's why McDaniel is including her friend as one of the hundreds of entries in the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia she is working on. McDaniel, one of three editors on the project, is a Kentucky native who has spent the last 30 years living in Frankfort.

The book, scheduled to be complete in 2011, is a way of filling gaps in Kentucky's written history where blacks have been missing, she said. It will serve as an authoritative reference on blacks in the state and document the state's diversity.

"For African Americans, especially in our school children, the encyclopedia will be a source of pride in the accomplishments of other African-Americans in their home communities," McDaniel said. "Everyone wants to know that they come from people who have made contributions to this country and that their history matters.

"For too long, many black accomplishments have been left out of our history texts and the encyclopedia will fill those gaps."

Holmes will be joined in the book by fellow Franklin County entries of well-known school teacher Tabitha Anderson, Kentucky State University, former KSU president Rufus Atwood, the Greenwood Cemetery, the 1964 march and others.

McDaniel spent last summer along with the other editors, University of Kentucky Associate Professor Gerald Smith and Western Kentucky University Associate Professor John Hardin, traveling through Western Kentucky to gather information about potential entries. This summer, they are moving through Eastern Kentucky. People across the state are also sending entry ideas to the editors through the project's Web site.

"We know not all 120 counties are going to have a story, but if there's a story there that needs to be told, then we want it," McDaniel said.

For McDaniel, not only is it important to tell the story of black Kentuckians, but to also ensure that black women like Holmes are represented.

"When we talk about history, it's usually his story, and women are always excluded, as are blacks," she said. "Just when Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, the women got into action and passed out fliers, and through church groups, women always worked that way."

McDaniel, who is a visiting scholar at EKU in both the African-American Studies Program and the Women's Studies Program, has written essays in two other books on women: Notable Black American Women, Book II in 1996, and Kentucky Women in 1997.

When she decided to create a similar collection of biographies of black Kentuckians, the University of Kentucky Press told her there was not enough material. The director of the press, after talking about the project with Harden, suggested instead an encyclopedia that would include places, events and organizations. When Harden and McDaniel agreed, Smith joined and the three wrote a detailed proposal.

The project has gained support from all three universities where the editors teach. UK has given the project $200,000, a Web site and office space in the Margaret King Library on campus. WKU has given travel funding, and EKU has given McDaniel permission to spend half her time there working on the book. All three universities have also provided graduate research assistants.

Other colleges across the state are involved through faculty members who serve on the book's 28-member advisory board. The board members serve as topical editors and will write some the entries " including the 14 topical essays on entries such as Law and Government and the 1966 Civil Rights Act, which include more detailed information on the topics.

McDaniel and other editors are in the process of recruiting volunteers to write other entries. Those authors will research and write the entries, which will then be edited closely by the one of the three editors. McDaniel said they already have some information on file about the entries that they will refer to during the editing process to ensure accuracy.

The project is also working with other institutions in the state including the Kentucky History Center and libraries all over the state. This summer's journey will likely include stops in Middlesboro, Pikeville, Pineville, London, and McDaniel's hometown, Williamsburg.

"Not only are you finding stories," she said. "You're making people aware of what you're doing and they can bring you stories you're not going to get."

Telling these stories is part of completing the record of Kentucky's history, she said.

"That's the big issue for us," she said. "There are African Americans who have had major accomplishments. You don't hear about black inventors. Everything from the refrigerator to the stoplight. The way we make shoes. You can't go through the day without doing something that blacks have had a hand in.

"It's the same with Kentucky."

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