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

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book is an attempt to illumine much of the history and some of the condition of modern black Americans through the story of those who settled in one place, the City of Philadelphia.

The significance of this Philadelphia story begins with the simple fact that the great majority of African-Americans today live in cities, products of the long journey that over the past century and a quarter has transformed an overwhelmingly rural people, locked in slavery, into an overwhelming urban people, still searching to better a troubled state of freedom. Slavery, the starting point, is of course the secular equivalent of original sin in this country, ultimate source of much of the tragic side to our history and society. But the problems that sin begat have inevitably changed with time. The world made by slave and slaveowner has been richly and even vividly illumined for millions of Americans over the past generation, but it is no fault of either scholar or artist that the portrait is increasingly one of a remote and faded society. And while it was Civil War which most dramatically changed that society, what really killed it was less that one event than the long slow process of urbanization itself, one which passed an important milestone when, within the lifetimes of most of today's adults, the census of 1960 showed that we had reached the current situation in which proportionately more black than white Americans live in cities.

The place to look, then, for the origins of the contemporary African- American condition is no longer the plantation but the city. And for an historian, the time to look is the time of the new beginning ushered in by Civil War. The thirty-five or forty years between the Emancipation Proclamation and roughly the turn of the century were by any measure the most hopeful in the history of black Americans. And while for the great rural majority the joy which greeted the death of slavery was tempered by political and social reverses

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