Herbin-Triant, Elizabeth A. Threatening Property: Race, Class, and Campaigns to Legislate Jim Crow Neighborhoods. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
By Paige Glotzer
When such an enormous percentage of urban history grapples with the legacies of housing discrimination in the United States, it can be easy to overlook the efforts to segregate that did not take hold. In Threatening Property: Race, Class, and Campaigns to Legislate Jim Crow Neighborhoods, Elizabeth Herbin-Triant links together two sets of such failed legislation in North Carolina: residential segregation ordinances in cities and a rural segregation amendment to the state constitution. Both, she argues, reveal the class tensions among southern whites that are key to mapping the shifting contours of white supremacy in the early twentieth century.
Building on the work of Glenda Gilmore, Barbara Jeanne Fields, and Jack Temple Kirby, Herbin-Triant traces the rise of North Carolina’s Jim Crow political economy as a response by middling whites to both the urban and rural success of African Americans. In the decades after the Civil War, black farmers weathered the combination of economic restructuring and pervasive violence by becoming farm operators at higher rates than whites. Despite their upward mobility, small farmers faced a difficult shift from subsistence to cash crop production that drove many to join the Populist Party. The collapse of a tenuous biracial Populist coalition and statewide disenfranchisement shored up power for Democrats as middling whites joined the party known as a home to elites. Herbin-Triant’s thorough and accessible contextual work makes the first two chapters of Threatening Property an excellent choice for undergraduate surveys on race and politics in the nineteenth-century South. It also links recent historiography that looks to the nineteenth century to explain twentieth-century housing segregation.
Once middling whites joined elites in a single party, the former turned to residential segregation. In cities, where African Americans also became property owners at comparatively higher rates, middling whites adopted a legal strategy that spread from Baltimore throughout the New South in the 1910s: the residential segregation ordinance that prohibited buying or occupying property in sections of a city not designated for one’s race. These municipal ordinances could, they hoped, protect the homes they considered the key assets that gave them status. In Winston-Salem, the fight over residential segregation proved protracted because of the need to secure the support of some of the state’s most powerful elites. Winston-Salem was the state’s wealthiest city thanks to the R.J Reynolds Tobacco Company. Reynolds, like his contemporaries, prioritized the forms of white supremacy that protected his capital. Residential segregation was not among them. In fact, proximity benefited elites; Reynolds targeted black institutions near the factory for philanthropy to keep wages low. Elite influence lead to the state supreme court striking down the ordinances.
The most fascinating contribution of Threatening Property is to connect the regional roots of urban segregation laws to the international origins of rural segregation laws. For this, Herbin-Triant turns to Clarence Poe, a middling but politically well-connected former Populist. Poe used his platform at the Progressive Farmer to articulate a future for the South based on white agrarian cooperation and property ownership. Poe’s plan for rural segregation was heavily influenced by South African Maurice Evans. Both believed that elites’ exploitation of black labor would lead to the ruin of the white race. Evans introduced Poe to the total racial separation and paternalist oversight of South Africa’s Native Lands Act. Adapting it to North Carolina would achieve racial purity by freeing middling whites from competition over land and labor. To this end Poe spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign for legalized whitecapping that would enable farm communities to collectively decide to only sell land to whites.
Herbin-Triant uses legal records, newspapers, and maps to sketch the clear labor parallels of urban and rural segregation efforts: black tenant farmers and sharecroppers would still be permitted to work the land, much like black employees were exceptions to municipal segregation ordinances. The question of labor was a central division of elite and middling whites; Poe did not yearn for a return to the plantation economy where elite landowners monopolized power. Instead, his idealized countryside was a distinctly modern vision cut from the same cloth as with those who sought to craft a new urban geography. Ultimately, both urban and rural residential segregation laws failed because elites were never on board.
Paige Glotzer is Assistant Professor and John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe Chair in the History of American Politics, Institutions, and Political Economy in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of History. Her work has appeared in both peer reviewed journals and in publications for a general readership, including the Journal of Urban History and The Atlantic’s CityLab. She is the author of How the Suburbs Were Segregated: Developers and the Business of Exclusionary Housing, 1890-1960.
Featured image: Bird’s-eye view of the twin cities, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 1891. Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress.