Black Archipelago: Politics and Civic Life in the Jim Crow City

By Heathcott, Joseph | Journal of Social History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Black Archipelago: Politics and Civic Life in the Jim Crow City


Heathcott, Joseph, Journal of Social History


Their inhabitants are subject peoples ...
--Kenneth Clark, on the "Dark Ghettos" of American cities (1)

In this paper, I examine the Strange Career of Jim Crow in the context of industrial St. Louis, where a nearly uniform system of segregation emerged over the first half of the twentieth century in a political culture suffused with gentility and civility. I argue that segregation emerged as the central feature of settlement and public life in St. Louis between 1900 and 1950. At the same time, however, the unevenness of its application and the pretensions of civility that characterized the urban political culture of this North-South border city provided important openings for the development of vital black civic institutions, political associations, and organizations that would protest, challenge, and eventually dismantle legal apartheid. Segregation was the tragic precondition for a flowering of black civic life in St. Louis. But the spatial and life distortions wrought by segregation created the conditions of its own demise, as African-Americans in St. Louis drew upon their internal community resources to build the requisite political power and civic culture to defeat American apartheid in its legal form.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Racing the Industrial City

In the summer of 1917, Union Station bustled with the noise of a people in motion. It was the noise of Mississippi, of Arkansas, of Louisiana, of southern Missouri, the long draw of vowels that would remake the city's language, cadence, complexion and culture. It was the noise of black southern men and women, pouring at an ever-quickening rate into the city, transforming its neighborhoods, music, politics, and social life. It was the noise of jazz, of craps, of chickens in the yard, of fiery preachers, of rent parties and hard work. It was the noise of joyous reunions of families and friends. It was the noise of a city bursting at the seams.

As war raged in Europe, black migration into St. Louis reached a fevered pitch. That year, Americus Jackson stepped off the train at Union Station and reunited with her husband Henry. With three young sons in tow, Americus was relieved to be away from Columbus, Mississippi, away from sharecropping and white terror. She felt poised at the threshold of a new life in the big northern city. While his mother and father embraced, young Henry junior marveled at the immensity and bustle of the train station, and at the fine clothes and proud carriage of his father and his uncles--so different from the tatters and tired demeanor he remembered in Mississippi. As they stepped out onto Market Street, and into the chaos of the city, Henry junior could scarcely contain his awe. "Tall buildings of stone and brick," he recalls, "wide paved streets and sidewalks; streetcars charging; autos everywhere blowing horns and making screeching sounds when they stopped." Taking note of his son's amazement, Henry senior stooped down to comfort him. "This is St. Louis," his father said, "your new home." (2)

That same summer, East St. Louis bled. Severe competition over limited industrial jobs, a mounting strike action against feudal employers, and the use of southern black men as scab labor ignited the deadliest riot in America since the Civil War. Whites, many of whom were Eastern European immigrants and were themselves recent settlers of the area, pointed their fingers, frustrations, truncheons and guns at black laborers. (3) The resulting violence, in which both blacks and whites perished, was grave enough for the NAACP to dispatch W.E.B. DuBois to East St. Louis to investigate. (4) However elated African-American people were in their new circumstances, it was clear that the racial order of the South was extant throughout the North as well, and often just as virulent.

Yet competition for work alone could not account for the intensity of the violence against black people in East St. Louis; indeed, the many and varied European ethnic groups constantly fought one another in a labor system divided, segmented, and manipulated by factory owners and managers.

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