NEH Summer 2015 Seminar

August 25, 2014

Rethinking Black Freedom Studies in the Jim Crow North

Deadline: March 2, 2015
Dates: June 15-June 26 (2 weeks)
Project Directors: Komozi Woodard, Sarah Lawrence College, and Jeanne Theoharis, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Location: Bronxville, NY
For more information: (914) 395-2427

Supported by a grant from the  National Endowment of the Humanities

Many faculty working in this area, particularly younger scholars, would like to deepen their knowledge of this burgeoning field of study as well as work on their own scholarship in the company of others versed in the subject. Thus, the time is ripe to reform the college curriculum on the Black Freedom Struggle and to convene a summer workshop specifically devoted to producing scholarship in this area.

For decades the academic disciplines focused exclusively on the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the Jim Crow South, neglecting the rich and critical legacy of the Black Freedom struggle from the Jim Crow North to the Jim Crow West. This seminar would introduce the emerging paradigm in Black Freedom Studies that is replacing the old master narrative in terms of leadership, geography, chronology, economy, and polity.

The old paradigm of Civil Rights as an exclusively Southern history and Black Power as a predominantly Northern phenomenon has been powerfully challenged by a new generation of scholarship that analyzes the Civil Rights & Black Power movements in several regions and numerous locations in the United States. The old North-South and Civil Rights-Black Power dichotomies blinded scholars to serious problems in the logic of geography, chronology, economy and policy, as well as stories of leadership and culture that blended approaches. In fact, similar to the lives of many of the activists who worked in both the South and North, the story is intertwined. For instance, the 1950s Montgomery Bus Boycott was preceded by the Harlem Bus Boycott of the 1940s. Angered by the bus boycott and Northern hypocrisy, the Montgomery Advertiser, the main Montgomery newspaper, took to running articles during the boycott year on Northern towns with attitudes and practices similar to Montgomery. Rosa Parks herself was forced to leave Montgomery and moved to Detroit—“the promised land that wasn’t” as she termed it—where she would spend the second half of her life challenging racial inequality in the city. Yet, in the old master narrative, that half of her life was historically invisible.

One longstanding key issue is school segregation. In fact, segregated education has longer roots in the Jim Crow North, where civil rights activists and abolitionists fought the exclusion and segregation of black students beginning decades before the Civil War. From New York and Canterbury to Boston and New Canaan, New Hampshire, blacks and whites were schooled separately, and those who dared to create interracial spaces were often met with violence. Between Independence Day and Labor Day in 1835, white mobs in New Canaan attacked the interracial Noyes Academy, bringing a number of oxen in order to pull the school off its foundation and dump it into a swamp. Similarly, white mobs stormed out of church in order to attack Prudence Crandall’s interracial girls-academy in Canterbury, Connecticut; and the Quaker Prudence Crandall was imprisoned and exiled for the crime of educating Black girls. In Boston, parents and abolitionists attacked educational segregation in the courts, starting a legal history that runs through the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision to the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education II Supreme Court decision and into the 1970s Boston Busing Crisis.

Similarly, in the Jim Crow West, Donna Murch discovered a decisive linkage between the public education for African Americans migrants and the massive development of the California juvenile detention system. In other words, the children of Black migrants, particularly the boys, were socialized in a new juvenile version of the penal system, which Murch suggests is part of the hidden transcript of the Black Revolt in the Jim Crow West. Was there a similar linkage between the public school crisis, juvenile detention systems, and rising Black Power movements in the Jim Crow North and the Jim Crow Midwest? Such issues are part of the new research agenda developing in Black Freedom Studies as scholars look at Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago with new eyes.

Thus, the research agenda for Black Freedom Studies has changed dramatically not only in terms of public policy issues but also geography and chronology in order to understand the roots and branches of Jim Crow America. The racism found in the North was presumed to be a weak transplant from the South, not rooted in the systems and power structures beyond the South—but as scholars have amply shown, that view was resoundingly mistaken and the problem was deeply entrenched in the structures and systems of Northern municipal governance, schooling, housing policy, and policing. Consequently, scholars have discovered that the Black Revolt in the Jim Crow North challenged American Apartheid not only in education and real estate but also in governance and the administration of justice.

If the old paradigm emphasized cultural poverty in the Jim Crow North, then the new scholarship tracing Northern racial discrimination from colonial slavery to the 1960s foregrounds the real estate and banking industries as well as housing and job markets not behaviors and family structure as the key determinant to Black ghetto life. Meanwhile, the burgeoning research in cultural history has enriched our understanding of the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Black Renaissance, and the Black Arts Renaissance; and that formidable cultural and social history supplants the threadbare theory of cultural poverty. If cultural poverty was not the problem of the Jim Crow North, then what was the problem? The new scholarship suggests the answers are located in public policy and political economy from the New Deal to the Cold War, including works such as Ira Katznelson‘s When Affirmative Action Was White and Mary Poole‘s The Segregated Origins of Social Security, as well as Thomas Sugrue‘s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty. The New Deal transformed Social Citizenship propelling many white working households from renting urban tenements to suburban homeownership, providing GI Bill scholarships to turn workers into professionals and technicians. By contrast, those same programs routinely excluded Black America from the bounty of New Deal Citizenship.

Above all, the new history informs us that countless grassroots leaders fought their own War on Poverty. In The Business of Black Power, Laura Hill and Julia Rabig have gathered stories of tenant leaders and welfare activists who developed a remarkable number of affordable housing units in Newark, New Jersey; unemployed workers who fought for construction jobs in Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and Black youth organizations that opened their own independent schools with new curricula emphasizing science and math. Moreover, scholars found the same pattern of history from Las Vegas to Baltimore. In Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought their Own War on Poverty, Annelise Orleck tells the stories of the remarkable grassroots leaders that transformed communities in Las Vegas; and in The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality, Rhonda Williams reveals the impressive accounts of the grassroots housing reforms in Baltimore shaped by tenant organizations. This inspiring work has enriched and complicated the narrative of Civil Rights and Black Power, making the cultural poverty narrative nearly implausible.

The new scholarship—which we will survey in this two-week seminar— paints an epic portrait of the Black Freedom Movement, where important ideas and impressive programs of self-emancipation and self-respect circulated in the Jim Crow North between Philadelphia and Boston, in the Jim Crow Midwest between Detroit and Milwaukee, and in the Jim Crow West between Oakland and Los Angeles—not to mention, the cross-fertilization of ideas like the bus boycotts that occurred between the North and South.

We will ask each participant to bring an article-length portion of their project to work on and workshop over the two weeks. Certain days, we will meet at the Schomburg Center so that part of the seminar will include time for researching in those collections and meeting with Schomburg staff. Most projects on the Black freedom struggle require resources from the Schomburg’s vast archival collections so this will be an added benefit of locating the seminar in New York City.

The project website will house not only syllabi but also lesson plans and the visual library outlined above and other books and articles suggested by the participants. At the end of the seminar we will have a rich bibliography online so that other professors, teachers, and students can draw from it. The website will be designed so that teachers and professor may also stream videos of Conversations on Black Freedom Studies and the International Symposium on Black Power Studies. Such scholarly conversations should be helpful to teachers and professors who are developing curriculum and lessons in this field. Furthermore, we hope to pull together an anthology out of the work produced in the seminar. Our editor is eager for more work in the field and we have worked with her on our previous three anthologies.

Program of Study

The seminar will be held the last two weeks of June. Many professors use June for their own research and July-August for family vacations—which is why we want to schedule it in June. Also, the Sarah Lawrence College facilities are available during that period.

The heart of this two-week seminar is to advance the historiography and scholarship of the participants who are writing and teaching in Black Freedom Studies. And, the seminar aims to strengthen the teachable texts in the field; thus, the workshop method that we will employ emphasizes the linkage between teaching and writing. The participating scholars will examine the seminar readings, at one level unpacking the contributions of the writing in terms of argument, propositions and organizational design as well as narrative, plot and character development. At another level, discussion will also focus on analyzing gaps or flaws in the research or analysis or places where further research or analysis might be warranted.

The seminar will incorporate readings in the field and participant writing workshops, research and informational sessions, as well as discussion of processes from research to publication. Once selected and before the seminar begins, each participant will also suggest one article or chapter that is a model for the kind of research, analysis, or approach that s/he is working towards that will be incorporated into the recommended readings for the seminar. Each session will encompass readings in the field and work-shopping. We will also interspace workshops on the writing process itself and bring in various guest lecturers.

In turn, seminar participants will exchange drafts and present evaluations of the effectiveness of each person’s writing in terms of argument, propositions and organizational design as well as narrative development; then they will suggest improvements with editorial recommendations.