William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Race Pride and Race Relations

Black Americans have always had to wrestle with the issue of race, but in a series of changing historical contexts. The major questions have been much the same: what to call themselves, how to think of Africa, how to relate to other disadvantaged or minority groups, and how, in a society dominated by whites, to deal with their own blackness. Philadelphians, like others across the country, expressed a variety of answers in a variety of ways, dealing with some of the issues directly and formally, others indirectly and even unconsciously. What made the late 19th century distinctive is the historical background, as the end of slavery, changing white attitudes, and the challenge of other groups made new choices both possible and necessary.

The descendants of Africans were never agreed about what they should call themselves, and between the Civil War and the turn of the century the choices widened rather than narrowed. Among the acceptable alternatives "colored" was clearly dominant at the beginning. But it seems to have remained so at the end only because there were not one but two major alternatives: "Negro"-- with blacks beginning to insist on the initial capital--and "Afro-American," both gaining ground.

There were other possibilities. The term "black" was used by editors and reporters of both races, as in "Give the Black Man a Chance," but it was never widely popular, perhaps partly because in a color-conscious era it was often used to distinguish some from others, as "blacks" from "mulattoes." The Anglo-African was one of the weeklies which young Jacob White, Jr., used to sell during the early 1860s, and the same term was used by a white Presbyterian minister in 1881, but that is the last year in which this compound noun appears in the Dorsey Collection. The simple unmodified "African" was almost equally rare. One extreme position, urged by Isaiah Wears in 1878 and often

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