Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lifting as They Climbed

Leslie Brown, Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Leslie Brown’s Uplifting Black Durham is the kind of deep-bore social history that really should be better known beyond academe. If it were, there would be a lot less confusion in the land about the realities of race in the country’s past. In examining the history of black Durham from Reconstruction to the mid-twentieth century, Brown shows us how a New South North Carolina community developed “behind the veil”—that is, within a system of segregation bounded by violence that kept political aspirations in check while accommodating a carefully evolving ethic of black success. Taking a cue from E. Franklin Frazier’s essay on black Durham’s dynamic black business reputation in Alain Locke’s landmark 1925 anthology The New Negro, Brown traces the roots and evolution of that success but also its limits and costs.

Throughout her study, Brown looks at the story through the lenses of gender and class within a segregated city, and finds much to admire and to mourn. In particular, the uncomfortable situation of aspiring black middle class women is striking. Paid less than men for equivalent professional work, indeed paid less than many tobacco factory workers, they nevertheless shouldered the burden of moral example for everyone in the community by virtue of their gender and their respectable work. Whether as teachers, nurses, or employees of North Carolina Mutual, largest black life insurance company in the South, these women had to embody personal and community virtue. This effort to lift up working class Durhamites by example and church work while climbing the ladder of respectability is a thread that runs throughout Upbuilding Black Durham. That tradition produced the likes of civil rights activist Pauli Murray, part of the generation that emerged at midcentury to replace the town’s survivalist elders. They demanded a new kind of autonomy—that of individuals rather than a segregated community led by a few businessmen acceptable to the white power structure. Brown is also attentive to those factory workers, describing extremely difficult working conditions as well as a tradition of labor activism that pushed for reform faster than black community elders were willing to go.

Brown, associate professor of history at Williams College, was on my dissertation committee at Washington University in St. Louis, so even if Upbuilding Black Durham had not won the prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book from the Organization of American Historians, I would be partial to her work and grateful for her help with what became Blue Notes in Black and White.  She is a dedicated mentor whose students benefit from her famous raised eyebrow and good humor. With Anne Valk, she has also published Living with Jim Crow: African American Women and Memories of the Segregated South (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), an oral history collection based on work they did for Duke University’s Behind the Veil project, housed at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies.

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