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 11
Recreation, Entertainment, and Postscriptum to William Henry Dorsey

William Henry Dorsey's collection is full of evidence of every kind about the most exciting period in Afro-American history. In 1860 thousands of his fellow Philadelphians had once been slaves; almost all of them, slave or free, found the Civil War a liberating experience. By the end of the century even more had witnessed the ups and downs of southern Reconstruction, where early hopes for genuine political and economic inclusion were largely defeated by white southern intransigence. Historians of the South have often told the story of how the systematic denial of the vote and the spread of an officially sanctioned segregation eroded many of the gains of the late 1860s and 1870s, with help from the quasi-sanctioned practice of lynching. But the more paradoxical and in the long run equally significant history experienced by Dorsey's own community in the same era is less familiar.

The urban North already represented the future, marked by less dramatic but more complicated developments than those to the south. There were in Philadelphia few absolute triumphs, in an era in which pseudo-scientific racism infected the whole of the country, and many small victories for civility were matched or followed by defeats. But Afro-American contemporaries were more inclined to emphasize progress than pain. A major gain in personal security from white violence helped to balance the dangerous rise in vice and crime which blighted economic and personal life in growing black neighborhoods. Desegregation, however incomplete, advanced on several fronts, and there were undeniable advances in education and the professions to set against the systematic discrimination which shut the majority out of the industrial revolution. However shadowed by a subservient and even criminal politics the right to vote brought dignity to many and jobs for some, adding an important new layer to the black leadership class.

To a reader a century later, too, the evidence of vitality, based in part on the

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