Introduction: African Americans and the Urban Landscape

By Williams, Lillian Serece | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Introduction: African Americans and the Urban Landscape


Williams, Lillian Serece, The Journal of African American History


The movement of African Americans from the South to the North following the Civil War and culminating with the mass migrations that followed World Wars I and II changed the American urban landscape. Moreover, U.S. African Americans subsequently changed from a largely rural to an urban population. This urban-based population was critical in the success of the 20th century reform movements for social justice, and as a result African American communities gained unprecedented political power. The migration and settlement of African Americans in cities has led to some of the most exciting research in the field of African American history.

During the 1960s and 1970s historians of the African American urban experience took their clues from the sociologists. The studies that emerged emphasized racial segregation and the so-called tangle of pathology that resulted when African Americans migrated to cities. In this conceptualization families and communities were impacted negatively by the large increase in the black population. Most of these studies were conducted in the major cities of the North and scholars contended that the migrants suffered from anomie, disease, poverty, and weakened family ties. This view held that solving the immediate problems of food, shelter, and making a livelihood sapped most of the migrants' energies. These studies focused upon the formation of the black "ghetto" in northern cities, the physical and institutional development of black residential areas. Invariably, African Americans' experiences were perceived as deleterious to the maintenance of their culture and to their goals of self-determination. Racism was the key to understanding African American communities according to this view, and African Americans were passive in the process. (1) Yet this paradigm limited our understanding of the intricacies of the migration, resettlement, and their meaning for African Americans.

Historian John W. Blassingame, writing in 1973, noted that African American communities also were centers of black life and culture and questioned the emphasis on "race relations." He observed that 19th century Savannah, Georgia, provided African Americans with a "large arena to develop a variety of social, intellectual, and creative talents and to build [a] community infrastructure...." (2) Blassingame highlighted the limitations of the race relations model and challenged scholars to raise new questions when examining African Americans in urban America. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a new wave of publications that bore such titles as Life Is What We Make It and In Their Own Interests. (3) These cultural and political studies focused on African American agency during the important post-World War I migration era. (4)

Scholars extended the case study genre into other regions of the country, including the South and the West. (5) Some also began an examination of African American urban experiences in communities with small black populations. Myra Young Armstead's "Lord, Please Don't Take Me in August": African Americans in Newport and Saratoga Springs, 1870-1930 offers a refreshing comparative examination of two small African American communities in the resort towns of Saratoga Springs, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. (6) Armstead argues that the black populations of these towns exhibited the same strengths and characteristics as those who resided in the major metropolises. This phenomenon was fueled, in part, by chain migration and a continued support system from African Americans in other nearby towns. James Borchert and Allen Ballard had described the importance of chain migration, as well as the return to their homelands to attend family celebrations in maintaining their culture, in promoting economic relations within the African American communities of Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. (7) In my book Strangers in the Land of Paradise, I provided a detailed analysis of the impact of migration, and the economic circumstances surrounding the development of Buffalo's African American community, and found that southern black family traditions, far from having a debilitating effect on the community of newcomers, actually provided the armor that migrants needed to challenge their difficult social and economic situation. …

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