A Prehistory of Ferguson: Race, Slavery, and Resistance in St. Louis

AHA Session 69
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Clarence Lang, University of Kansas

Session Abstract

A Pre-History of Ferguson: Race, Slavery and Resistance in St. Louisexplores the history of surveillance, patrol, and violence in the urban south and documents the ways in which contemporary debates are grounded in historical antecedents.

In late summer 2014, The Atlantic published “The Roots of Violence in Ferguson.” Tracing the late 20th-century history of police/resident relations in the city, the article locates the roots of violence in Ferguson to the city’s shifting racial demographics. Almost a year later, The New York Times lamented that “anguish about race keeps building.” In the wake of protests in Baltimore, North Charleston and Cleveland, scholars and commentators alike have located the roots of contemporary racial violence in a post-WWII America where African American citizens were overwhelmingly excluded from federal policies. Yet the question of Henry Davis, a black resident of Ferguson who asked, “Why should I have to show ID if I’m just walking down the street?” (Powell “The Roots of Violence”) suggests far more complicated roots. This roundtable discussion traces 19th and early 20th-century efforts to police black bodies in urban spaces and calls attention to the social and political forces that sought to keep black residents of St. Louis literally and figuratively “in their place.”

Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of scholars, this roundtable asks a series of questions that explore the relationship between space, violence, and resistance in urban history: What role has gender and race played in the militarism of public spaces and the formation of African-American sites of resistance? How have the physical spaces of the 19th and early 20th-century city shaped the nature and staging of power? How were spaces characterized by the bodies that inhabited them and in turn, those bodies coded by views of race, gender and space?

In exploring historical perceptions of race, space and gender, this roundtable provides insight into the racialized spaces of St. Louis that underlies more recent manifestations of violence and resistance. By forging connections between 19th, 20th and 21st-century modes of enslavement, the panelists look to reconfigure popular understandings of the roots of contemporary urban conflict.

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