Debating African American Urban Politics in the Age of Jim Crow

AHA Session 242
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Lisa G. Materson, University of California, Davis
Joe W. Trotter, Carnegie Mellon University

Session Abstract

Recently, historians have exposed the diversity of black urban political activism. This panel argues that from the 1880s-1930s African Americans engaged in both electoral and grassroots organizing to achieve goals of equality and civil rights. Historians of African American urban political life have previously viewed city politics as a method of personal uplift separate from broader grassroots struggles for justice. Further, while tracing the rise to power of white ethic groups, scholars have not examined the ways in which black urban politics thrived in this period. Such a focus provides an incomplete analysis by neglecting the sophistication of African American politics in cities prior to the great migration. This panel addresses this gap in our knowledge. The papers show how black partisanship shaped African American electoral strategies and notions of public political identity. Further, this panel shows how African Americans were deeply engaged in struggles for economic equality and how black activism exposed the limits of American liberty and the constraints placed upon civic participation.

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood discusses how in the 1880s African Americans in Boston, Massachusetts crossed party lines to support Democratic candidates, drawing the ire of black and white Republican supporters. In doing so, they expressed disillusionment with Republicans and sought to leverage black electoral strength towards more progressive civil rights platforms in both parties. Similarly, writing about Baltimore, Maryland in the 1920s, Dennis Doster examines the election of 1920 and the campaign of William Ashbie Hawkins, an African American lawyer and civil rights activist who was the first black man to run for the United States Senate seat in the state of Maryland. During the campaign, black Baltimoreans exhibited a powerful independent politics that rejected unwavering partisan fidelity. Black political activists had an array of goals. As Mary-Elizabeth Murphy documents, black women in Washington, DC, crafted a broad vision of citizenship that aimed not only to secure legal equality for all African Americans, but also, elevate the status of service workers by securing just wages, hours, labor protections, and dignity. African American urban political action often became the target of oppression. Julie Davidow shows how, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, white political reformers seeking to root out Republican political corruption joined with southern advocates of disenfranchisement to help shape an emerging national consensus that African Americans were unfit for full participation in the body politic.

These papers are examples of not only the rigorous debate and discussion of African American urban politics in academia, but also of how disagreements over tactics and goals shaped the contours of black urban political activism at the time. Black men and women argued over whether equality would be best achieved through traditional political structures or if they should employ more radical methods. Further, there was rarely consensus over what full equality, once achieved, should entail. By examining these tensions, these papers expose the importance of issues of class and gender in defining the terms of American freedom. This panel also shows how newly digitized sources support the study of new political history.

See more of: AHA Sessions