Local People, Thinking Globally: Race, Migration, and the Black Freedom Struggle
This interdisciplinary session examines the experiences of African Americans and Creoles of color over the course of the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the vast majority of African Americans lived in the southern United States, and the vast majority of Creoles of color lived in Louisiana. Creoles of color were classified as black within the southern racial order, and both Creoles of color and African Americans endured racial segregation and numerous other acts of racial discrimination in the South. Despite the threat of violence, some black people in the South organized and worked to challenge segregation. This session will draw attention to understudied episodes and individuals in the black freedom struggle and explore the relationships between the experiences of black people in the South and the experiences of black people and their descendants who migrated westward and northward.
In her paper, historian Tyina Steptoe will analyze the racial implications of the migration of Creoles of color from Louisiana to Houston, Texas. As Professor Steptoe points out in her proposal, the Southern Pacific Railroad began hiring Creoles of color from Louisiana to work in its Houston yards in the early 1920s. The Creole community grew as a result of the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Professor Steptoe will show that relations between Creoles of color and African Americans in Houston could be tense. However, interaction among these two groups of people also led to the emergence of distinctive forms of cultural expression.
Historian Kevin Allen Leonard’s paper will examine the local and national discourse surrounding a case of racial discrimination in a 1947 baby contest in Casper, Wyoming. Although only 400 of Casper’s 20,000 residents were African Americans, members of this small community organized to protest this act of discrimination. One of the victims wrote to a columnist at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and articles about the case appeared nationwide. This paper suggests that the protest strategies developed in the South shaped responses to racial discrimination even in cities and towns with small black communities such as Casper.
Although millions of African Americans left the South during the middle decades of the twentieth century, millions remained in the region, and some, such as Birmingham World editor Emory O. Jackson, continued the long struggle for freedom. In her paper, Communication scholar Kimberley Mangun will examine Jackson’s role in the little-studied Birmingham Bus Boycott. Professor Mangun will analyze Jackson’s articles about the boycott, shedding light on the experiences of African Americans in a place that often did not receive a great deal of attention in newspapers published outside the South.
Distinguished historian Albert S. Broussard will chair the session and provide comments on the papers.