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Database Is Black History in the Making

February 22, 2001|STEVE CARNEY |

In 1990 Charles Isbell, then a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, got fed up with some of the static on the African American culture Usenet group that he used to enjoy.

"There were a lot of problems with noise--people coming in and saying mean things and starting flame wars," said Isbell, now 32. "I decided I wouldn't participate."

Instead, he bought a black history calendar and began posting historical tidbits on the Internet himself, starting Jan. 1, 1991.

"This is ancient times," he said. "This is before the Web went out to more than 1,000 people."

As interest grew, Isbell turned his compilation of facts into a Web site in 1993, and now the Black History Database ( has grown into a massive, ever-increasing repository, searchable by date or subject.

For example, according to the database, Feb. 1 is not only the first day of Black History Month, it's the date Jefferson Franklin Long became the first African American to speak in the House of Representatives as a congressman in 1871.

It also is the birthday of poet and author Langston Hughes, born in 1902, and the anniversary of the first sit-in at a segregated lunch counter by black college students in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.

"I think it's important information," Isbell said. "There's a huge hunger for this type of information from educators and individuals. It's interesting, and it's not as accessible as it ought to be."

He said he modeled his creation on the Internet Movie Database (, which includes news, reviews, encyclopedic information and numerous discussion groups.

Isbell said he wants his database to continue growing into a virtual grass-roots community whose contributors not only add dates and facts that they have researched but also include additional illuminating text or links to other sources of information.

"In this way, it doesn't reflect anyone's political and social agenda," he said. "If enough people take an interest in it, it will grow beyond what even I conceived of. This is what the Web is. It's a very easy opportunity for people to maintain an incredible database of stuff they care about."

Isbell, now a researcher in artificial intelligence at the AT&T Shannon Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., said he gets two or three e-mails a day with additions, suggestions or commendations, though he has a backlog of about 1,200 messages he still needs to read.

He said he spends a couple of hours a week tinkering with the site or checking his mail. The greatest time investment came when he created the site, writing the HTML code and typing in the dates and facts.

His Web site now resides on MIT's computers, but Isbell said a friend is setting up a server where they hope to transfer the site later this year. That will make it easier for others to work on the site and help it grow, and it will prevent any possible conflicts with the university over the site's content.

Isbell said he knows how popular the site is by how much it has been plagiarized.

He sees his calendar entries with the same information, the same wording and even the same typos on sites all over the Internet.

"What I'd like for them to do is just point back to the original source," he said, so that interested readers can get even more information from the database.

But he finds the site's popularity "completely gratifying."

"To me it was such a simple thing to do, and it clearly had an impact," he said.

It has become something more useful than the old Usenet group, which Isbell said degenerated quickly after its inception. He said it became constantly mired in discussions about anything but African American culture.

"I was tired of there being so much noise," Isbell said of the discussion group. The database he created in response "turned into something so much better than I expected."


Steve Carney is a freelance writer.

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