In Their Own Interest

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Earl Lewis. In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. University of California Press, 1991. ISBN 0-520-06644-8, cloth.


Earl Lewis, author of In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-century Norfolk, Virginia, is a native of the city and as such this book is both a community study and a tribute to his hometown. He writes as someone who well knows “the sights, sounds and smells of Afro-American life and culture” of Norfolk (p. 91). Lewis examines the dichotomy of the workplace and the home sphere. The workplace is limited not only to places of employment, but also encompasses the larger world of the fight for social equality. Similarly, the home sphere includes the immediate community, neighborhood, and church. The juxtaposition of home and workplace provide a history of Norfolk through the lives and experiences of the African Americans who lived there.

The narrative is divided into seven chapters that begin with a brief overview of the years between the end of the Civil War and the dawning of the twentieth century. Former slaves from Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia migrated to Norfolk after emancipation. The following chapters are both chronological and thematic. The years 1910 to 1930 are examined through the impact of urban work as blacks continued to migrate to the jobs offered by the growing industries in the Norfolk area. Lewis provides quantitative data that illustrates both male and female occupations by race. The largest number of black men was employed in either manufacturing or transportation, while four in five black women worked as domestics. Other women worked in low paid piecework jobs in manufacturing that were available to them. Other chapters look at race relations, the development of the home sphere, and culture and the family. A black middle class emerged from the business community. Leaders believed that they must provide services and employment for their own people rather than relying on the white community. Lewis stresses that this was not an easy road. Lack of start-up capital created a volatile environment of short-lived businesses.

The years 1929 to 1941 are covered in chapters on unemployment and the depression. According to Lewis, black Norfolk felt the affects of the depression sooner than white Norfolk. Some turned to activism in interracial unions or took part in Communist party marches in an effort to enact change and bring improvement to their economic plight. Lewis considers Communists to have been the “architects of a new belief system” as well as early champions of civil rights (p. 129).

The war years, 1941 to 1945, comprise the content of the final chapter. The influx of war-related jobs at military installations, the ship building industry and harbor did not necessarily help the African American population that was already in Norfolk. The many people who did come for these jobs added stress to a bad situation as housing was already in short supply and substandard. The inhabitants also faced hiring quotas in both the military and private sector. Adding to the economic pinch, the cost of living in Norfolk rose at a rate even higher than the national average. Lewis is emphatic that black culture existed and survived the transition from slavery to freedom in Norfolk. He believes that the African-American community responded to segregation with congregation. He states that congregation “symbolized an act of free will, whereas segregation represented the imposition of another’s will (p. 92).” Through church membership, participation in athletics, and entertainment, blacks in Norfolk created a community of their own design.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

A community study should give a sense of both the place and the people who lived there and this book is more successful than most. Lewis’ study would have gained from a greater emphasis on a few individuals or families to give the reader a feeling of connection with their stories and to link the themes together. More detailed maps would have also been helpful to visualize the layout of the wards and the breakdown of population by race. The author does provide some tables showing percentage of black population by ward and statistics on white and black employment, but it was difficult to grasp the geographical outlines of the areas being discussed. The chapter on culture and the family is perhaps the most successful and informative. Lewis provides a strong image of how “congregation” was created and relates song lyrics to the experiences of Norfolk’s black inhabitants, emphasizing the importance of the culture they forged and preserved.

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