Tag Archives: African American History

Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That

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Jay W. Driskell, Ph.D.

In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”

The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.

Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?

I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.

NAACP Box

My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.

What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.

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Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Underwood and Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?

Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.

NAACP 1919 announcement
“N.A.A.C.P. Began Anti-Lynching Fight Says Chas Macfarland”, 1919. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.

Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.

With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.

NAACP Nov 14 1919 pg 1 lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 1. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Why is MIT creating this lynching database?

The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.

How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?

When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.

So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.

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Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 2. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.

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A tragic and ironic depiction, particularly in light of Dr. Driskell’s early findings,  of the “lynching problem” from 1899; “The Lynching Problem”, Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.

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Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia“, 1942,  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.

In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.

For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?

So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.

NAACP letter Jan 1938
James Weldon Johnson to Walter White regarding a proposed anti-lynching bill, January 24, 1938, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:

“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”

So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.

May 1941 Marshall to White LBJ
Even LBJ voted against anti-lynching laws (he did so consistently throughout his congressional career), in the third paragraph Marshall offers commentary on the congressman from Texas; Thurgood Marshall to Walter White, May 1, 1941, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?

Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.

But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.

One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.

Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.

Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College

The Power of Urban Improvisation: Lawrence Powell’s The Accidental City

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Phillip Pittman, Plan of New Orleans, 1770, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Famed geographer Carl Suer once wrote: “Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape the result.” To put it less eloquently, people shape the landscape through husbandry, conservation, and architecture, and the end results speak volumes.

While New Orleans might not be the perfect encapsulation of such an idea, as evidenced by Lawrence Powell in his 2012 work, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, the city’s collective attitude toward planning, culture, and economics emerged from a combination of human endeavor and environmental reality. The self interest of founder Sieur de Bienville—coupled with French distraction at humanitarian disaster along the Gulf Coast and in France itself— enabled Beinville to direct settlers to the developing, flood prone settlement. Bienville ignored, and actively plotted against, French plans to establish a colonial city at Bayou Manchac or even Biloxi. Land grants and slaves proffered to new arrivals in exchange for their residence quickly built up the local population.

With rising numbers of slaves and colonists, Bienville had established a demographic threshold beyond those of his colonial counterparts. By late November of 1721, and despite insect infestations, disease, floods, political rivalry, and official condemnation from France, New Orleans emerged as the most “densely settled territory along the entire Mississippi.” Over 450 persons resided in today’s French Quarter; nearly another 450 along St. Bayou St. John and in the Chapitoulas District. Counting the West Bank settlements that stretched from modern day Algiers Point to English Turn, over 1,200 people resided in the region. A great number of those counted were slaves, mostly African and some Native American; none willingly residing in the area, but as Powell writes, numbers were numbers “whether black, red or white. And to the extent that demographic facts might carry weight at the end of the day, no one could deny Bienville was holding a strong hand.”[1]

Bienville’s machinations provide an instructive lens from which to view Powell’s book and the history of New Orleans it presents. From the outset, the New Orleans economy seemed to produce more money for itself than its colonial masters; residents did so by hook or by crook, engaging in economic pursuits beyond the purview of officialdom that far more often flowed into the coffers of locals more than into European capitals overseas. This viewpoint makes greater sense when one considers how many masters the city endured: French, Spanish, and of course American. The town always figured out a way to line its own pockets; smuggling, vice, and black markets frequently made up for much of the city’s economy. Second, but no less important the physical environment deeply impacted its culture in at least two ways: the introduction of slavery to build infrastructure and establish an economy and the sense of fatalism due to frequent storms, floods, and fires that seemed to beset the city.

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Plan showing the the boundaries of the great conflagration of 21st of March 1788, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Slavery, as was the case in much of the New World, played a central role in New Orleans’ growth, though much differently than its Anglo neighbors to the northeast. Plantation slavery grew much faster than in the English colonies where it began on a smaller scale and slaves largely came from the West Indies. With the explosion of tobacco and later cotton, the English colonies transformed from “societies with slaves” to “full fledged slave societies where the norms of agro-export plantation agriculture permeated all areas of life: the economy, culture, law, politics.” In contrast, Louisiana experienced what Powell describes as the “big bang of slavery” almost overnight, incorporating large-scale slavery into its economy and culture. Though according to scholars such as Jennifer Spear and Emily Epstein Landau, it took decades before Louisiana “became a settled plantation society.”[2] Slavery imprinted itself onto the New Orleans landscape very early and attempts at state regulation followed. The Code Noir, to paraphrase Powell, did not gradually crystallize from experience but instead arrived as law, fully-grown, drawn largely from Saint Domingue’s 1685 slave code.[3]

Needless to say, it would be slaves that pulled “Louisiana and New Orleans out of the mud.” They built the infrastructure of its early streets, drainage systems, and levees that would prove vital to the city’s survival. They populated the city and brought artisan skills sorely lacking among its white settlers. Slaves hailing from Senegal largely designed and built “the complex drainage and mortar and pestle technology of rice cultivation” that saved the colony from starvation. “France may have founded Louisiana … but it was slaves from Senegal and Congo who laid the foundation,” writes Powell.[4] In 1731, the African slave trade ended when the Companies of the Indies relinquished its charter; creole slaves would fill the void. Together, Africans and creoles not only shaped its physical landscape but also nearly every other aspect of New Orleans life.

“The creation of a hybrid culture – a Creole culture, whose whole was always greater than the sum of its ethnic parts,” notes Powell, “is one of the Atlantic World’s most vital contributions to modernity.”[5] The French and Haitian Revolutions furthered such developments as refugees from both settled in New Orleans. The addition of Spanish and later American rule added additional cultural flavors and an ad-hoc sense of addressing problems. “They say New Orleans was a Creole city,” Powell muses, but “It’s probably just as accurate to call it a creolized city, for that’s how the place was cobbled together – from the bricolage of cultural borrowings and solutions improvised on the fly.”[6]

As often is the case with colonies, the distance from the home country gave settlers and colonial leaders a certain amount of license. Attempts to build a large-scale tobacco industry failed; the climate simply would not allow for the production of a high quality product that could compete with that of its English competitors. Smuggling, gambling, and other forms of vice laid a basic economic foundation for residents, and this underground economy even drew in the ruling classes. This distance also led to a great deal of interracial interaction ranging from business dealings and gambling wagers in the backrooms of taverns to sexual couplings in the bedrooms of the common and elite.

Mixed race sexual relations occurred from the city’s founding. Male settlers first cohabited with local Native American women and while institutionalizing relationships between enslaved and free peoples through marriage was not legal, sexual relations were common and in many cases led to the growing free black population. “For here, especially during the Spanish period, interracial unions were a significant well spring of free black growth,” writes Powell. By 1791, the free black community made up 20 percent of New Orleans’s population and within that 20 percent over half were of racially mixed ancestry.[7]

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I. Tanesse, William Rollinson, Charles Del Vecchio, and P. Maspero, Plan of the city and suburbs of New Orleans: from an actual survey in 1815, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

For readers not versed in New Orleans history prior to incorporation into the U.S., as is the case with this writer, Spain’s influence on New Orleans might prove surprising. Powell credits Spain with the city’s iconic “vernacular architecture.” Spanish colonial rulers even established New Orleans’ first public market, The French Market. However, Spain struggled to deliver comprehensive infrastructure projects. This was not unique to the Spanish. The physical environment often proved simply too powerful an actor for any governing body. “New Orleans’ quasi liquid landscape continually mocked European efforts to erase nature from the landscape,” Powell points out.[8]

As always, an exception to this rule existed. By the end of the eighteenth century the levee system, though problematic, still subject to seepage, and vulnerable to inundation, did largely avoid mass flooding. The town, however, remained filthy: “the wet garbage of New Orleans seemed nastier than the dry garbage elsewhere.”[9]

Powell also highlights the ways in which Spanish slave policy, though hardly humane, contributed to a growing free black population that would influence the city in countless ways. The colonial Spanish caste system, though clearly invested in racial hierarchy, had some fluidity. Individuals could change their racial status. ‘The truly remarkable feature about the sistema de castas was its malleability,” Powell points out. “Racial identity might be ascribed at birth, bit it wasn’t fixed at birth.” The system could be “played,” and baptism, marriage, and acquired wealth were just three ways to “lighten” one’s complexion and advance up the colonial Spanish caste system. One can find similar examples in Spanish and Mexican California.

Yet this malleability also led many free blacks to invest in the same system. After all, if one could find “cracks” in the system to advance socially and economically, that system might be worth protecting: “And herein lay the genius of the caste system: it encouraged subaltern classes to be unequal partners in erecting this distinctive tripartite structure of racial segmentation.”[10] Oppressors might have imposed the system, but, to paraphrase Gramsci, hegemony takes work. In this case, free blacks shared the work with New Orleans’s European settlers.

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Benjamin Moore Norman, Henry Mollhausen and Shields and Hammong, Norman’s plan of New Orleans & environs, 1845, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In The Accidental City, Powell synthesizes a wealth of scholarship on the city and in doing so covers a great deal more ground than that which is discussed here. Much of the book’s first half explores the economics and politics of colonial New Orleans, while the second half devotes more attention to the ramifications of slavery and the creation of a creole culture. It largely ends with American rule of the city, though he does spend some time describing the tightening of racial lines and other aspects of the city’s incorporation into the United States.

Stylistically, Powell is more gifted than most; the Tulane professor knows how to turn a phrase. When discussing the end of the French period, Powell describes the city’s improvisational nature, flouting of Enlightenment ideals, and wayward relationship to the law as “though the entire town had been populated with inhabitants parachuted from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”[11] The shift in architecture and urban planning during the Spanish period meant the spilling out of the city’s boundaries physically and demographically; the expansion of Creole cottages with four square rooms, most with a front room louvered door and “a shuttered casement window that peered out on the street like some heavy lidded favorite uncle.”[12] The increased number of freed slaves, while under Spanish rule, though not welcome, were eventually accepted by slave owners since “replacement costs were defrayed by cash provided by self purchaser whom the new slaves were replacing. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the road to freedom was paved with the millstones of bondage”[13] One could go on with other examples.

Admittedly, women make far fewer appearances than men. Powell devotes several pages to the efforts and political stature of the Ursuline Nuns and there is some discussion of women in more general terms be they enslaved, free women of color, or white, but whether due to lack of sources or scholarship on the subject, they remain largely a secondary focus, not exactly ignored but also not at the forefront.

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Currier and Ives, The city of New Orleans, and the Mississippi River Lake Pontchartrain in distance, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

In the end, The Accidental City accomplishes quite a lot. For anyone starting their work on New Orleans or who issimply interested in dipping their toe into the city’s rich history, the book offers much. Powell’s love for the city comes through clearly. He believes it to be a singular contribution to global society. More than “a mere entrepot for a continent” the city emerged as a “state of mind built on the edge of disaster. The people of three continents of innumerable races and ethnic backgrounds “were forced to crowd together on slopes of the natural levee and somehow learned to improvise a coexistence whose legacy may be America’s only original contribution to world culture.”[14]

 

[1] Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), 55.

[2] Jennifer Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2009); Emily Epstein Landau, Spectacular Wickedness: Race, Sex, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2013), 34.

[3] Powell, The Accidental City, 72-73.

[4] Powell, The Accidental City, 74.

[5] Powell, The Accidental City, 97.

[6] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[7] Powell, The Accidental City, 286.

[8] Powell, The Accidental City, 205.

[9] Powell, The Accidental City, 207.

[10] Powell, The Accidental City, 294-296.

[11] Powell, The Accidental City, 120.

[12] Powell, The Accidental City, 202.

[13] Powell, The Accidental City, 283.

[14] Powell, The Accidental City, 163.

Member of the Week: Kenvi Phillips

kenvi RadKenvi Phillips, PhD

Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

Among the topics I am currently interested in is the Colored Y Campaign lead by Rev. Jesse E. Moorland in the early 20th century. The efforts of the national and local YMCA offices, local communities, and the Rosenwald Fund acquired enough money to have more than 20 YMCA buildings built for African American men across the country. The construction of these buildings helped to shape urban space and opportunities for its members. I first became interested in Moorland and the Young Men’s Christian Association a few years ago while I was working at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. There I came across one of Moorland’s scrapbooks from the St. Louis campaign. In the book was a photo of the organizing committee on an urban block with which I was unfamiliar. As a native of St. Louis, I thought that I was aware of all of the city’s neighborhoods, but this photo introduced me to an entire community that I had heard of in passing but had never before seen. These organizations through these buildings transformed both the physical and metaphysical landscape for African American men in urban centers across the country.

Describe what you are currently curating. How does this work relate to your scholarship?

I am the Curator for Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. As a curator I am working to expand one of the nation’s best collections on American women to be more inclusive. This means exploring communities, organizations and individuals that have been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in archives and subsequently in scholarship. Uncovering the lives and stories of underrepresented women, many of them from or influential in urban communities across the nation, is critical to understanding the development of the American city as well as the suburb. Curators and collections managers are constantly uncovering and sometimes rediscovering past people and events that alter our understanding of American culture. Additionally, through our collecting we get to influence the direction of future research and scholarship. Women that we encounter today whose stories we archive, via oral histories, diaries, correspondence, publications and more will be the subject of current and future research.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, and Daphne Spain’s Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I would advise young scholars interested in both public and academic tracks not to be dismayed by the broadening of their professional interests because all things are related. A course that you teach on Second Wave feminism or an exhibition that you need to develop on 19th century cooking can and should be influenced by urban history. Making those connections often times will ignite your passion for urban history allowing you to make it more accessible to wider audiences.

What texts or readings would you recommend on the topic of your research?

There are not that many secondary sources that cover the history of the colored YMCA. There are quite a few Progressive era texts and primary source materials that I use. However, Nina Mjagkij has done an awesome job with the following two titles: Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, and the book she co-authored with Margaret Ann Spratt, Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and YWCA in the City.