A Sense of Place: Birmingham's Black Middle-Class Community, 1890-1930

Article excerpt

A Sense of Place: Birmingham's Black Middle- Class Community, 1890-1930. By Lynne B. Feldman. (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, c. 1999. Pp. xvi, 326. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-8173-0969-1; cloth, $49.95, ISBN 0-8173-0967-5.)

In his study of African Americans in Norfolk, Virginia, Earl Lewis analyzed "the ways in which blacks acted in their own interests, the strategies they devised to empower themselves" (In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991], p. 5). Lynne B. Feldman undertakes a similar enterprise in A Sense of Place, her exhaustively researched work on the middleclass black community in Birmingham, Alabama, at the turn of the twentieth century. While Lewis examined African Americans' experience both at home and at work, Feldman focuses exclusively on the community because that was the area of life over which Birmingham's nascent black middle class exercised the most self-control. As white racism intensified in the 1890s and early 1900s, the city's black elite segregated itself from Birmingham whites by forming a community in the western suburb of Smithfield. Smithfield was a refuge from the repressive environment of white-dominated Birmingham, a place where blacks could live "among those who shared common interests, values, and culture" (p. 40).

Class consciousness pervaded this community. In Smithfield, middle-class blacks could separate themselves not only from hostile whites but from lower-class African Americans. To protect their class status, Smithfield residents created "an infrastructure of organizations designed to serve their needs and desires" (p. 3). These included schools, churches, civic groups, social clubs, and a variety of black-owned businesses that limited contact between the middle class and the black masses and confirmed the black elite's sense of itself as a unique group. …