The New York Times reported Howard University students and faculty are celebrating Black History Month by adding Black history content to Wikipedia. No word if the entries will include commentary showing Black advertising and Black advertising agencies are becoming history. And whatever happened to the professional development and research center that Howard University launched to help diversify the advertising industry?
Howard University Fills in Wikipedia’s Gaps in Black History
By Jada F. Smith
WASHINGTON — Wikipedia is a vast ocean of erudition, with entries on virtually every subject, obscure to earth-shattering, and, it may seem, every human being of even vague renown. It is also, its leaders concede, very white.
“The stereotype of a Wikipedia editor is a 30-year-old white man, and so most of the articles written are about stuff that interests 30-year-old white men,” said James Hare, president of Wikimedia D.C., the local branch of the foundation that runs Wikipedia. “So a lot of black history is left out.”
Students and faculty members at Howard University, one of the nation’s pre-eminent historically black higher education institutions, set out Thursday to fill in the gaps. With Black History Month upon them, they camped out at a Howard research center that houses one of the world’s largest repositories of Africana and African diaspora information and, over coffee and pizza, worked to add some tint to Wikipedia’s white.
“You’d think that, ‘Oh, Wikipedia has articles on everything,’ but for anything having to do with a marginalized community, there’s a lot of gaps,” Mr. Hare said.
Both academics and researchers working with the foundation agree that the online encyclopedia suffers from a dearth of information about black history, too often petering out when the topics extend past the well-known names and events of slavery and the civil rights movement. In the Internet age, this is no trivial matter: To many people, a topic does not exist if it does not have a Wikipedia page.
The foundation is hoping to fill in the blanks by hosting events like the one on Thursday throughout February, soliciting expertise and institutional knowledge from places like Howard; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in New York; and National Public Radio.
The organizing team came up with a list of entries that needed to be expanded, like those about Myra Adele Logan, the first woman to perform open-heart surgery, and Mildred Blount, a fashion designer who dressed celebrities in the 1940s and designed the hats worn in “Gone With the Wind.” They also began creating entries for topics that were completely absent from the Wikipedia database, like Beth A. Brown, a former astrophysicist at NASA, and Farish Street, a hub for black businesses in Jackson, Miss., that thrived until the 1970s.
Meta DuEwa Jones, an English professor at Howard who participated in the editing event, often teaches the poems of the Dark Room Collective, a group of poets that scholars have called as significant to the writing world as the New York School and the Black Arts Movement. There are pages on Wikipedia for more than 50 artist collectives, including lengthy entries for the New York School and the Black Arts Movement. The Dark Room Collective is not there, “even though they specifically changed the face of African-American literature and contemporary literature in the ’80s and ’90s,” Ms. Jones said.
“It’s not just a problem that it’s not on Wikipedia — it’s also a possibility,” she added hopefully as the team set out to craft an entry.
She and students from disciplines ranging from fine arts to biology expanded pages about authors, scholars and even the research center they were working in, called Moorland-Spingarn.
Of course, Wikipedia is not always a welcomed presence in a scholarly community tired of research papers crafted more by Google searches than by hard slogs through primary sources. Some professors remain skeptical about the site’s community editing process and criteria for sourcing.
Still, some of those professors, like Joshua Myers, acknowledge that Wikipedia has become an almost inevitable research tool for undergraduate students. He said he had come on Thursday to help make it a good starting point, at least, for more in-depth research.
“They’re using these articles as the beginning and the end,” Mr. Myers said, shaking his head. “If it can be a point of departure, then it can become useful.”