New Encyclopedia Chronicles African American Lives Mary Elizabeth Bowser served Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House. She was also a spy — for the Union. Bowser's story is one of many collected in African American Lives, a new encyclopedia edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Higginbotham.
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Seven years ago, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. paged through Oxford's "American National Biography" for information on a man named James McCune Smith. He was the first professionally trained black physician in the United States. The first African-American to run for national office. A prominent abolitionist, but something was wrong.

Dr. Smith's biography wasn't there. Since then, Professor Gates has spearheaded a massive project to collect the lives of African-Americans who should be remembered. But, like Dr. Smith, are too often overlooked. The result is an eight-volume "African American National Biography" that includes more than 4,000 lives and counting.

Professor Gates and coeditor, Evelyn Higginbotham join us in just a few moment.

Later in the hour, we'll have expert advice for those of you still struggling to assemble your Valentine's Day mix tape - it's not too late. But first, if you'd like to nominate someone for the "African American National Biography" our if you have questions about the project, our phone number is 800-989-8255, e-mail us And you can also comment on our blog, that's at

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program again.

Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. (Director, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research): Hey, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And James McCune Smith is hardly the only African-American who should've been but wasn't in the "American National Biography."

Prof. GATES: No, it was a shock to me. Our editor at Oxford, the director of the reference division, Casper Grathwohl contacted me and asked me to write an essay from the new "American National Biography" about an African-American about whom Americans should know more. And so, I didn't want to write about W.E.B. Du Bois and I didn't want to write about Booker T. Washington or George Washington Carver or Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tub, and everyone has heard of them.

So I looked for my two heroes. My true heroes. One was James McCune Smith, and the other was William S. Scarborough - equally fascinating as James McCune Smith. A great, classical philologist, the first black member of the Modern Language Association, president of Wilberforce College. And neither was there.

And so I jumped on the phone to Casper Grathwohl, and I said, this is a problem. What are we going to do about it? And he said, well, why don't we do a supplement to the "American National Biography"? I said, supplement? We need to do an "African American National Biography." And he laughed and we talked about it. And I went to my best friend and colleague Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham who, of course, is here in the studio with me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. GATES: And we said that we were going to edit the "ANB." No one thought that we could do it. You see, Neal, until we publish this, the best biographical dictionary of black Americans contains 626 entries. And we declared, we were going to publish eight volumes with 4,000 entries. And all these years later, I'm pleased to say that we've done it. And W. S. Scarborough is there, James McCune Smith is there, and a whole bunch of other people who wouldn't be in any major biography of Americans without the "AANB."

CONAN: And Evelyn Higginbotham, let me introduce you. Coeditor of the "African American National Biography" and Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African American Studies at Harvard. As Professor Gates said, with you there in the studio in New York.

And tell us a little about Rayford Logan. He was your professor.

Professor EVELYN HIGGINBOTHAM (History and African American Studies, Harvard University): He was my professor at Howard University. He was also a very longtime family friend, because he had actually gone to school with my father.

So I was a contributor to his African - I mean, to his "Dictionary of American Negro Biography", and I was always very interested in this idea of biography and the individual in history. When Professor Gates asked me to work with him, he and I both drew up a long list of names that we looked in the "American National Biography" for and couldn't find many, many names that appeared in the "Dictionary of American Negro Biography" that Rayford Logan and Michael Winston had coedited.

And the truth of the matter was that many of the names in the "Dictionary of American Negro Biography" were very prominent names in the nation.

CONAN: Hmm. Another person you met as a child was Carter Woodson.


CONAN: And he is of course a famous educator himself. Bur nevertheless, isn't there a quote by him? I drive past a wall here in Washington, D.C. with a quotation from Carter Woodson on it almost everyday. And it says, we don't need separate African-American history, we need American history to incorporate African-Americans fairly without bias.

Prof. GATES: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes, that's a good quote. But he had so many wonderful quotes. And one of his quotes - because it was used in my home all the time - was that we work to refute the lie that the negro has no past, that he has made no contribution to American history, and that he has no past worth respecting.

I think he devoted his life to identifying what the African-American contribution was. So in order to do that, obviously, he had to understand where black people fit into the larger American narrative, but at the same time he had to pay explicitly attention to the contributions that black people played not only within the larger nation, but within their own community.

Prof. GATES: You know, Neal, you can't inform the shape of the center unless you explore and explicate the margins. And that's what Carter Woodson did. I mean, after all he was trained at Harvard. The second African-American to get a Ph.D. in history in 1912 after the great W.E.B. Du Bois. But he went on to found Negro History Week, which became Negro History Month, which became Black History Month, which became Afro-American History Month. And now, it's African-American History Month.

I think in 20 years, Neal, it's going to be Neo-Nubian History Month.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: In any case, it's February.

Prof. GATES: It's February.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: It is February. But remember, you founded the association for the study of Negro life in history as it was called then, so he was very explicit about studying the contributions of black people themselves. And one of the issues that we faced in doing this project was the idea that maybe what we should do is to just really try to augment the American Negro Biography - I mean, the "American National Biography"…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: …with African-American names. Just populate it with African-American names. But what we realized is that we discovered thousands upon thousands of names, and it didn't - it just wouldn't have been feasible to take so many thousand names and put in into the American Negro - into the "American National Biography." We would have been overrepresented as a population within that.

Prof. GATES: Mm-hmm. The other thing is that all of these names that we've published - mm-hmm, excuse me - all these biographies that we published will be online through Oxford University Press, which also publishes the "American National Biography," and the British version, which is called "The Dictionary of National Biography." So then - and in the digital world, there is a seamlessness - a seamless relationship among the collections. So that each one is separate. The British is a separate. the American biography is a separate. the African-American biography is a separate only because you organized them that way. As soon as you push another button, they're all integrated.

So it's like having your cake and eating it, too. That's the good thing about working with Oxford University Press. In fact, Oxford has started the African-American Studies Center, which is the largest online database in history of over a dozen major black reference works including the "Africana Encyclopedia," which Kwame Anthony and Appiah - Kwame Anthony Appiah and I edited just a few years ago.

So we are integrating all of these 4,080 African-Americans into the larger database of important biographies of British and American lives. But we also are making them accessible separately because there was a vacuum of these names.

CONAN: we're talking with professors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham, coeditors of the "African-American National Biography." if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is

Let's start with Jennifer(ph). She's calling us from Three Rivers in Michigan.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JENNIFER: Well, I have a story to tell you about - I work in a library, and I was given a list from a professor of names to look up for history class. And the name Shelby Davidson is on his list. And I searched and I searched, found nothing. By using the Internet I found out he was an African-American inventor who had invented something to do with the post office. My point to you is that I even looked in black American, African-American encyclopedias - it's a community college, so it's a small library, but I searched every book I can find and looked in the index. So I'm wondering if perhaps his name might be someone in yours.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: I don't have our list right in front me. I will look for that. I'm not sure. But we do have a database of 12,500 names. So in addition to the names that we've published, which are over 4,000, we have another 2,000 that we will put online. It is very possible that he is in that larger database.

Prof. GATES: And if he's not, you're welcome to write to us. You can e-mail us and you can submit an entry on this person. In fact, that's what I'm so excited about. We received many, many hundreds, even thousands of suggestions. Often, they weren't usable. I mean, if someone said you don't know that my great uncle really invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison ripped him up. You know, we had to explore the historical veracity of the claim.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: But - it generated many, many people that we never heard about. And one of those people was my fourth great-grandfather. And I suggested to Evelyn that we might kindly include an entry on John Redmond(ph), who was a free negro, who fought in the American Revolution, and with great distinction - I might add. And she said, fine, as long as I didn't write the entry, because I would have had him winning the American Revolution single-handedly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: And that's what happens. But because Oxford is putting these 4,000 names online, and an additional 2,000 yet to be written, the person who just called in could be a contributor to "African-American National Biography." And you have to do is go on the Harvard Web site and e-mail us with your suggestions, and we would welcome them most warmly.


JENNIFER: I should probably let the professor submit it because it's from his list. And I have to let him know so he doesn't think I'm stealing it from this list. Thank you.

Prof. GATES: Okay.

CONAN: Jennifer, good idea, but you'll never get anywhere in academe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JENNIFER: Well, thanks for the advice. I'll keep that in mind.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: And I wanted to say, you two are the coeditors. But Professor Higginbotham, clearly, you had a lot of help.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Yes. We had a lot of help, because we had an editorial staff. And so we had help on the lot of different levels. We had help from Oxford with Casper Grathwohl and Tony Aiello. We had our - a number of managing editors over the years. But the one who is with us at the end is Steven Niven. But I've also like to emphasize the help that we had from contributors.

You know, when Professor Gates and I first decided to launch it as project and we introduced the idea of having as many as 6,000 names, many people thought the idea was ambitious it was ridiculous. And so we had to solicit many, many people, and those are the contributors who've helped us.

CONAN: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Higginbotham. Their new encyclopedia of African-American biographies includes thousands that might have been forgotten like George W. Bush, for instance. Heard of him? That's right. He was a little known pioneer of the first nonnative settler in the state of Washington. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A little later, we'll be helping those of you still struggling with your Valentines Day mix tape. But right now, we're talking with Henry Louis Gates Jr. His new project - one of many - is a compilation of thousands of biographies of African-Americans. From John Carruthers Stanley - he owned over 12,000 black slaves on his plantation, to Toni Stone, one of the three female baseball players in the Negro Leagues. Her batting average: 243.

If you'd like to join the conversation, Professor Gates and his coeditor Evelyn Higginbotham are with us. 800-989-8255. E-mail us And you can read what other listeners have to say at our blog,

Let's see if can get another caller on the line. Gary(ph) is with us. Gary is with us from Middleton, Ohio.

GARY (Caller): Yes. My name is Gary Agee.


GARY: I just wanted to ask about Daniel Arthur Rudd. I'm just completing a dissertation about this journalist and civil rights leader from Cincinnati. Lived in the 1890s from Springfield, moved to Cincinnati, and wrote also to other books including the biography of Scott Bond. And I just wanted to know if he was in the text.

CONAN: Any idea about him?

Prof. GATES: Evelyn, do you remember? I don't remember if he's in there. I would think so, though. It rings a bell. Does it sound familiar?

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: It does sounds familiar. But I must tell you that in this eight volumes, there are names that are not appearing, they are in a larger database. If we couldn't find a person to write and entry in the time that we had to get this publication out. Unfortunately, some names were missing. But we do encourage people to go on the Harvard Web site. The names would be identified there. They are identified.

If a name is missing, then we ask our contributors to volunteer to write about that person. If a name is there but there is no assigned writer, then we people to write about that person. So we would love to find out as well if Rudd is there.

Prof. GATES: And if he's not, maybe you could write the entry.


GARY: I'd be happy to do that. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. I know you can't take notes for your dissertation today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARY: Okay.

Prof. GATES: Neal, we have 1,700 contributors. This is the largest recovery project in the history of African-American studies. And that number will expand - I mean, we could have maybe - possibly, another 2,000 contributors for the - one each for the two thousand additional names. And there's so many African-Americans. You mentioned George Washington Bush, and I have to say I have two or three favorite characters in the biographical dictionary.

But George Washington Bush - the real George Bush, by the way - is one of my favorites. I mean, this man worked as a trapper for the Hudson's Bay Company. In the American West, in the 1820s and the 1830s, he settled in Missouri. And then, in the 1840s, he joined with three other white families and went to Oregon Territory. And Oregon Territory had a rule that black people couldn't settle.

So being an intrepid person, he went to Washington Territory, which of course became Washington state. And he was a very, very prosperous person. And obviously, he was very popular because in 1855, his fellow citizens petitioned the Congress to allow him to keep the 65 acres that he had accrued and to remain there as a citizen. I'm sorry - 640 acres that he had accrued and remained there as a permanent citizen.

Now, you just don't hears stories like that. Or Richard Potter - Richard Potter, Evelyn, I have to say is my number one favorite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: Because Richard Potter was born in 1783 and died 1835. Neal, he was a ventriloquist and a magician. At the age of 10, he stowed away on a ship as cabin boy and went to England - the United Kingdom - where he met a magician called Remy(ph) the Scott. And Remy the Scott took a liking to him, made him his apprentice, and he became the dominant ventriloquist and magician of his time. Came back to the United States and made a fortune. In fact, he had an estate, Potter's estate in the state of New Hampshire. It's still there marked as a historical site.

Now, who would ever have dreamed that in antebellum America, a black man could make a fortune as a ventriloquist and a magician. These people - Alice of Dunk's Ferry who took tickets on a ferry in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is the only person in the dictionary who lived through three centuries. She was born in 1686; she died in 1802.


Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: And she was great oral historian. And people would come from miles around just to hear or see Alice of Dunk's Ferry. Or Stagecoach Mary, a black woman who worked with a group of nuns and was finally kicked our because they, well, accused her of murdering a man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, her status weren't higher in those days.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Yeah. He deserved it, you know, I think. But Stagecoach Mary was quite colorful character in the 19th century. Deadwood Dick - Nate Love, the original Deadwood Dick. We also have "Deadwood" on HBO. That was a black man. Nate Love who published an autobiography. These are not characters that would have made it into an integrated "American National Biography." We want - these people were trapped in the amber of the archive. They were in the purgatory of history. And what we've been able to do is to bring them back to life to restore them to their proper place in American history.

CONAN: Let's see if can get another caller in, okay? Let's go to John(ph), and John's with us from Lamoille in Nevada.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I just - I guess you just touched on what I was going to talk about. Five years ago, I moved up here to become a cowboy, and 50 years old, it's not really easy. But what I've learned is this. Probably 50 percent of the original cowboys in this part of the country were black. And their history is just amazing. Astronomers and philosophers and poets. I'd like to see them included. I guess that's really all I have to say.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: We do have a lot of these kind of people included. But one of the points that I'd like to make is that it's interesting there were people, who were very famous during their era and yet they're lost from history.

JOHN: Oh, (unintelligible).

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: But one person is a man named Isaac Murphy. And Isaac Murphy was a jockey. Well, in the late 19th century, early 20th century, there were lots of black jockeys. And this one - this particular man won many, many races. But now, he's lost in history. Another one that I think is really cute. The predecessors to the Williams sisters of tennis. We have, of course, today everybody knows the names of Venus and Serena Williams. But not that many decades ago in the '30s and in the '40s, there were sisters, Margaret and Roumania Peters. Also great tennis players. And they were called Pete and Repeat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: And these names of people who during their time were stars and yet, history has forgotten them.

CONAN: And given John's interest in the west, tell us a little bit about Cathay Williams.

Prof. GATES: Oh, Cathay Williams. Cathay Williams was fantastic. She was a - what would you call her - a cross-dresser? Cathay Williams passed for a man and joined the Buffalo Soldiers. Cathay Williams became William Cathay. Isn't that incredible? And apparently, was subjected to several medical examinations and gender was never detected. Now, I don't know the nature of these medical examinations, or the quality of the medical examiner. But somehow, the sister got through.

And finally, she outed herself in a press report. She gave an interview after she had left the military and she applied for pension, and for reasons that we have yet to understand, she wasn't given her pension. But it wasn't because she's a woman. And it's said that she - and we put this in the entry - that she joined - well, one theory is that she joined to be with her lover.


Prof. GATES: But it only boggles a mind to figure out how this whole relationship unfolded out on the prairie with the Buffalo Soldiers patrolling the Native Americans. But that's Cathay Williams, and she's in here.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's talk now with Shelly(ph). Shelly with us from Sacramento in California.

SHELLY (Caller): Hi. I was calling because I was wondering what the difference is between gathering information for black histories and gathering information for white histories. I don't have the opportunity to have black history in my background…

Prof. GATES: Uh-huh.

SHELLY: …but having a history all the time was enforced when I was younger. You know, write a journal, write things down. When grandma tells you a story, write it down. And so I want to know the difference between how I was raised and how you gather histories for those with black backgrounds.

Prof. GATES: Well, I don't think that there is any fundamental difference between the nature of historiography for…


Prof. GATES: …white Americans or for black Americans. The difference is that you were raised just as I was raised without the presence of black people in our textbooks and in our curricula.

SHELLY: That's true.

Prof. GATES: You wouldn't know that there was a - such a thing as African civilization in the textbooks that I used in Piedmont, West Virginia just two hour, three hours west of Washington, D.C. and the Allegheny Mountains on the Potomac River. Black history was one day. One day. What do you mean one day? One five-minute period on slavery. And it lead up to Abraham Lincoln as our great liberator and basically our teachers would say in a polite way - I went to a white, you know, integrated schools, we call them white schools when I grew up.

Irish-Italian paper mill town, Piedmont, West Virginia and people were very nice, not - teachers weren't racists. But basically, they would say, the best thing that ever happened to you people - that's what they would say - was getting - sold into slavery, brought to the new world, as if slavery was a finishing school. And it saved us from our savagery and barbarism in the jungles of Africa.

And then they would say, if it hadn't been for Abraham Lincoln, you people wouldn't be sitting here today. And it was so humiliating.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: But one point, though, and I think it's important to mention here is that history as a craft of - as a discipline has changed. We don't look at simply the great men and the partisans and the people who left their biographies and autobiographies in papers in the Library of Congress anymore. History itself has changed such that we look at the records of slaves and workers and we look at newspapers and a variety of sources that give us news-historical actors. And so, in the last few years, black people have come into the American narrative much more prominently because of the new methodology.

CONAN: In that regard, I was reading your entry on Mary Elizabeth Bowser. It's an incredible story of an abolitionist/activist who went and worked as a servant in the house of Jefferson Davis, the confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia during the war. And then, at the end of this I hear that the federal government, after the war, destroyed the records to protect the lives of the people who had worked with them in the south. And I guess you can understand that.

And then that her family inadvertently lost her wartime journal that she'd kept. They lost it in 1952 and you could hear the silent scream of a researcher.

Prof. GATES: Oh, yeah. So many, so many of the stories of African-Americans have been lost by the failure of repetition. When the person who just called in said, her assignment was to write down the stories that grandma would tell. That's what I've been trying to encourage through our PBS series "African-American Lives." Do your genealogy. Do it right now. If you're listening to this program and sit down interview your mother, your father, your grandparents, write down their stories. Even if it turns out that stories are myths as many of our family stories are, it is the basis, it's the beginning of restructuring the larger narrative of A, of you family - that means yourself -B, of the African-American people, and C, of the larger American people - the story the great American nation.

Because our voices have been excluded, bracketed, smothered, muffled - use the metaphor you want. And we have to retell American history from the ground up. From the kitchen table or the parlor up. And that - this is the generation of black genealogy. This is a generation that's going to restore all of these people to their proper place as actors in the American (unintelligible).

CONAN: Shelly, thanks for the call.

We're talking with prefessors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail we have from Eve(ph) in Chicago. A suggestion for the biography - Retired Captain Ken Johnson, founder of NNOA, organization to recruit blacks in the Naval Academy, which had very few blacks when he was at the academy. His son, Kenny Jr., just ran unsuccessfully for the Illinois State House of representatives from Chicago's Second Ward, and thus, have a Web site. Johnson Sr. just died and will be buried next week at Arlington Cemetery. The information about Captain Johnson was sent out to all of us who worked for his son in the campaign.

Here's another. This from John Tomy(ph). What about Major Taylor. Probably the best cyclist of all time, better than Armstrong easily. And…

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: He's in there.

Prof. GATES: Major Taylor is totally in there. World champion cyclist. He died 1932. He was born about 1878. And Major Taylor was the man. In his - world champion cyclist. When Evelyn mentioned Isaac Murphy, he won the Kentucky Derby three times.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Three times.

Prof. GATES: Being a jockey in the Kentucky Derby was an as it were an African-American position for many, many years. But we've forgotten that. So what this person just recommended, she should e-mail us if she wants to volunteer to write a 500-word essay…

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: And Mr. Taylor is in there.

Prof. GATES: I mean, no, not Major Taylor. The one before.

CONAN: The one - the gentleman who wrote in before about the…

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Oh, yes. Sorry.

Prof. GATES: Yeah. I didn't want to lose that.

CONAN: Okay.

Prof. GATES: But e-mail us. Just go on the Harvard Web site. Send all the e-mails to Evelyn Higginbotham.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Martha(ph) is with us from Tucson, Arizona.

MARTHA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MARTHA: Yes. In the late 1943s in Detroit, Michigan, there was a very famous portrait artist by the name of Betsy Graves Reyneau. And she did a huge selection of portraits of famous American negroes. Some of - at least the one of George Washington Carver. It is my understanding as part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. And I have - she was a friend of the family and I tried to keep track and find out about this and have been unsuccessful. There was a thing called the Harmon Foundation.

Prof. GATES: Oh, yes. Quite famous.

MARTHA: The Washington that was supposed to be in charge of them, but I don't know what happened. But I hope you can find these paintings.

Prof. GATES: Well, I think it was her painting that the United States government used as a model for the stamp of George Washington Carver in the - I can't remember where the stamp was first released. But the Harmon Foundation sponsored many of the most important African-American artists in the first half of the 20th century. So that's a very…

MARTHA: I tried to Google them and I was unsuccessful. But I'll try more. She did a beautiful portrait of every, you know, from George Washington Carver through Joe Lewis, Marian Anderson and they're all large, beautiful paintings. And I just would hope that one day they could be reassembled. This was - but Untied Nations was just forming and the war was just ending and there was a growing interest in Africa, and my family happened to be very interested in this. And Betsy stayed in our home and she's a wonderful and interesting lady. And I hope that they can be put back together.

CONAN: Martha, it's a great suggestion.


Prof. GATES: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Thank you for the call.

MARTHA: Okay. Thanks.

Prof. GATES: Neal, just one correction. Remember when you were talking about John Carruthers' family.


Prof. GATES: I think you said 12,000 - so, he owned a 163 slaves…


Prof. GATES: …in North Carolina. But, you know, it raises an interesting point. Half of the free negroes in 1860 lived in the south and remained in confederacy and the border states in which slavery was legal throughout the entire civil war. And many of the (unintelligible) own slaves themselves. And we write about these people. The black experience is enormously complex

CONAN: Yeah. Professors, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

Prof. HIGGINBOTHAM: Oh, thank you.

Prof. GATES: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham, both of Harvard, in our bureau in New York.

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