Cleaning Up Jim Crow: The Consumer Politics of Environmental Justice and the Fight to End Segregation in Asbury Park, New Jersey

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:40 AM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
David E. Goldberg, Drury University
In January 1906, the Asbury Park Board of Trade Commission made public its intentions to annex the territory of black homes and businesses known as the “West End,” an exclusively African American community that resided just outside the official boundaries of the popular New Jersey shore beach town. Urging white citizens to support commercial development and modern municipal improvements by ending segregation, the decision to annex the “West End” unleashed a wider political discussion about the long-term social and economic effects of environmental racism and African-American fitness for self-government. In a political campaign that often pitted whites against whites, segregationists claimed that consolidating the proposed area would shift the tax burden onto whites and depreciate the economic value of the profitable beach resort.

In examining the politics of annexation in Asbury Park, this paper proposes to move Progressive era discussions about black leisure and civil rights beyond traditional labor disputes or contests over access to public accommodations. Instead it argues that the rise of mass consumption as a guiding principle of economic growth, and the debates about environmental justice and consumer protection that it spurned—intertwined with the ideologies that helped contest Jim Crow segregation and protect African Americans’ right to consume at the Jersey Shore. In a society that had long been organized around production, the popularity of northern beach resorts recast traditional ideas about economic freedom and public health and welfare. Free consumer advocates advanced and protected the underground economy of leisure and advocates of consumer protection advanced a program of economic growth and environmental justice. As an indictment against segregation, annexation’s passage on May 6, 1906 ensured the potency of a new consumer movement that linked the public health of consumers and consumer districts to political stability, economic prosperity, and civil rights.

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