Freedom’s Frontier: The State of the African American West in 20th- and 21st-Century History

AHA Session 270
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Herbert Ruffin II, Syracuse University
Dwayne Mack, Berea College
Albert S. Broussard, Texas A&M University
Jeanelle Hope, University of California, Davis
Herbert Ruffin II, Dwayne A. Mack, Syracuse University, Berea College

Session Abstract

Our roundtable presentation addresses the state of African American West scholarship that has focused on the black western experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It will draw from our forthcoming book Freedom’s Frontier: African Americans in the West from Great Migration to Twenty-First Century (University of Oklahoma Press, spring 2018).

Since the 1970s, the history of the African American West has evolved into an exciting branch of scholarship. In this period, the largest and most dynamic area of study has focused on the black urban experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first regional synthesis to conceptualize how the African American western frontier connected to twentieth-century industrial-urban America was Quintard Taylor, In Search of a Racial Frontier (1998).

Conceptually, this book was written in a manner that was mindful of the New Western History and regional syntheses that preceded it and were published in the same year. What resulted, was the fresh telling of a previously marginalized field of study centered on the significance of the African American West, which fluidly intersected race, class, gender, multiculturalism, community formation, and political expression west of the 100th meridian from enslaved Spanish explorer Esteban to the Los Angeles rebellion/riot of 1992. Most regional surveys published before In Search did not directly address the systematic erasure of twentieth century black western history. They also took on the unjust burden of trying to make this history fit into the traditional West canon that usually ended in 1890 and intentionally ignored the region’s complex race relations, which included not just African American and European American relations, but also Asian Americans, Latin Americans, and Native Americans, or the “racial frontier.”

Since In Search, several regional surveys have been published that have used the racial frontier framework, which has produced an invaluable expansion of how the story of the U.S. West has been told in the twenty-first century. In the forthcoming volume, Freedom’s Frontier, Ruffin, Mack and the volume’s contributors seek to add to this rich, ever growing tradition, as a study of the black western experience from the Great Migration to 2015—a period when the region’s black population grew from 710,400 persons in 1940 to almost 7 million persons in the 2010 census.


The scope of our roundtable discussion will specifically draw from Freedom Frontier’sBibliographic Essay on the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century West” and selected content from the volume’s chapters.

Our roundtable will begin with a discussion on how the western black experience has been written chronologically and in the scope of regional surveys, state studies, black urban history, civil rights history, multiculturalism, Black/Cultural/Ethnic/Media studies, and black popular culture.

This will be followed by a conversation on Freedom’s Frontier, whose chapters range from freedom rights activism to black identity contained within five sections related to “Place”/community formation, “Racial Frontier”/multiculturalism, “Political Expression”, “Entertainment and Representation”, and “Reconsiderations.” This arrangement will help the audience conceptualize how the history of the African American West has evolved.

Our roundtable will end with a question and answer section.

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