Places of Their Own
From The Mason Historiographiki
Andrew Wiese. Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2004. Pp. 422. $37.50. Cloth: ISBN 0226896412
Lisa Harry, Spring 2007
Ten-room house, at least 60 years of age, badly in need of repair and redecoration. House is cold in winter and hot in the summer. Conveniently located near smoky factories, noisy railroad yards and receives frequent fragrance from nearby stockyards. The neighborhood is highly deteriorated and is well supplied with all the factors that encourage crime and delinquency. Heavy truck traffic in area. No nearby playgrounds. Firetrap school house within walking distance. Best thing available for nice Negro family at exorbitant rent. - Mock advertisement for African American housing, NAACP (1948)
Places of Their Own examines the driving forces behind the suburbanization of African Americans during the twentieth century and the obstacles they faced while doing so. According to Wiese, this study is of great importance because “by virtue of numbers alone, black suburbanization is one of the most important demographic movements in the twentieth century United States.”(1) It established the suburbs as an “indispensable context for the study of African American life.”(1) In addition, the movement signaled an important historical change in American society. The “suburban boom heralded the emergence of a new black middle class, larger and more economically secure than any black elite in the past.” (3) It also revealed a change in long-standing patterns of racial inequality: “a loosening of the shackle between race and class and a breaching of residential barriers” that had prevented African Americans for generations “from the most economically vibrant localities and confined them to areas where locational disadvantages reinforced racial inequality.”(5) Wiese makes the case that, as it did with the white population, suburbanization played a significant part “in the making of “African American identities in the twentieth century.”(7)
Suburbanization was a chance for African Americans to create a place of their own. In the white dominated metropolitan areas they wanted to use suburban areas to their advantage, “to satisfy their needs as well as their aspirations.”(8) This intention existed on many levels. For many, the place in question was “a home that they owned, evidence of permanence, a marker or achievement, and the satisfaction of a long-deferred dream in the black South.”(8) For others, suburban space was a way to gain economic security, even independence: “a lot with a spreading garden, chickens in the yard, and a house they had built with the help of friends and neighbors.”(9) For some, it was a black community, “a place of social comfort and cultural affirmation if not racial pride, a safe place” to educate and raise their children.(9) It also served as a symbol of resistance to white supremacy. Their suburban homes were a place of refuge, “a shelter from the pressures of white racism.”(10)
The book is divided into three parts, which describe the process of African American suburbanization in the twentieth century chronologically. The first part, which contains three chapters, looks at the years from 1900 to 1940. During this period there was a swell of African American migration to metropolitan areas. Part two examines the 1940s and 1950s, which were a time of transition in African American suburbanization history. Wiese asserts that "while the number of black suburbanites doubled, the socioeconomic standing of the new migrants changed."(141) By the end of the 1950s, the majority of new suburbanites were members of a growing middle class. Part three addresses African American suburbanization in the 1960s and 1970s. During these years, African American suburbanization "became a truly mass movement, outstripping rates of growth among whites and amounting to a total migration as large as any in African American history."(255) Weises argues that by the end of the century, "suburbia, once a symbol of white supremacy and exclusion, had become a fundamental setting for African American life."(278)
The Great Migration, which began in 1916, resulted in over 400,000 black men and women moving to urban areas outside the South. They were driven to migrate from the South because of its “crippling social and economic conditions: it’s plantation agriculture and the certainty of mass poverty that entailed plus the straightjacket of race, second class citizenship with a lifetime guarantee.”(38) Those migrants that decided to journey to the North did so for many reasons: “higher paying work, a less oppressive racial climate, the opportunity for self-improvement, or simply general better conditions.”(39) By 1940 almost 500,000 African Americans lived in suburban areas outside the South. They made up less than 5% of the United States’ total suburban population. The African American suburbs before 1940 were mainly “blue-collar communities in which residents often worked as well as lived.”(15) On average, “suburbanites had less education and lower incomes than African Americans in central cities, and a higher proportion worked in low-skilled jobs.”(16) The majority of black suburbs were also visually different from white middle-class suburbs. They were built on cheap, often “nuisance prone” land.(16) They were often geographically isolated, cut off by railroad tracks or other physical barriers, “reflecting in almost every case a history of black struggle to acquire and hold space.”(17) Most of the early black suburbs were unplanned, unregulated, and lacked basic infrastructure: paved streets, sewers, gas, electricity, or city water. According to Wiese, most new suburbanites settled in four kinds of suburbs, “loosely defined by the dominant sources of local employment, residents’ socioeconomic status, and their modes of access to land and housing.”(23) Industrial Suburbs were the places that the majority of Great Migration-era suburbanites moved to. These places were usually home to the four main employers of black industrial labor before World War II: auto making, metal manufacturing, railroads, and meatpacking.
Domestic Service Employment Suburbs popped up along the rail and trolley lines leading from almost every American city. The dependence on rail commuting and the scarcity of alternative transportation limited the flow of goods, services, and labor to many places, which resulted in suburbs that were “known for wealthy commuters often housed bustling communities of shopkeepers, mechanics, industrial workers, and the servants who made it possible to live comfortably in the palatial homes that made these places famous.”(26) These suburbs represented both home and workplace for thousands of low paid African American workers and their families. The domestic workers were forced to settle in the cheaper parts of town, places that were undesirable to middle-class whites. Unplanned Subdivisions were residential neighborhoods in outlying territories where African Americans were able to buy cheap land and build for themselves homes from whatever materials they could find, often a room or two at a time. These “inexpensive allotments sprang up on the outskirts of cities across the country.”(27) Over time, the residents of these places also built churches and small stores. Bungalow Suburbs were “well-groomed” residential subdivisions that were opened up by real estate developers for the nation’s diminutive black middle class. Weise asserts that other than the fact that the buyers were African Americans, there "was little to distinguish them from hundreds of suburban subdivisions constructed for middle-class whites before the Great Depression."(31)
As African American suburbs peaked in population, structural conditions that had nurtured them began to change. According to Wiese, “rapid white suburbanization after World War II led to the extension of land-use controls to formerly unregulated areas.”(91) The zoning and building ordinances “curtailed informal home building” and raised the prices of a suburban home for working-class and poor families.(91) The racist application of these regulations prevented future development in many areas and the enforcement of sanitary codes led to the demolition of a great deal of existing black housing restrictions on domestic production.(91)
At the same time, “federal intervention in the housing market and the development of a welfare state eased some of the economic insecurity that had shaped early working class suburbanization.”(92) African Americans gained social security, unemployment insurance, and entrance into unions. The Federal Housing Administration oversaw the building of tens of thousands of modestly priced houses for African Americans during the late 1940s and 1950s. During this time African American family incomes rose because of "national economic expansion and the opening of new occupations."(112) According to Wiese, as African American living standards improved, “black expectations for life in an affluent society expanded and strategies of working class subsistence that had served prewar suburbanites failed to support a standard of living satisfactory to most urban-born African Americans.”(92) While pioneer suburbanites preferred a lifestyle reminiscent of the South, their children and grandchildren saw “these places as the boondocks.”(92)
Wiese asserts that by the end of the 1950s, the majority of new suburbanites were members of this growing middle class. The improvement in their economic circumstances meant that they could afford to move into better neighborhoods than those occupied by earlier genertions. These better neighborhoods were predominantly white and at first a great deal of these white suburbanites were unwilling to share their neighborhoods. African Americans moving into these "white suburbs" were often subjected to vandalism and hate crimes. Still, African Americans continued to move into these houses. Between 1940 and 1960 the number of African American suburbanites in the United States grew by one million. These African Americans were determined to fight for their right to move away from "the boondocks" and make a nice life for their families in a clean, safe suburb.
According to Wiese, during the 1960s and early 1970s, with the backing of the Civil Rights movement, African American suburbanization "became a truly mass movement, outstripping rates of growth among whites and amounting to a total migration as large as any in African American history."(283) He concludes that "by the end of the century, suburbia, once a symbol of white supremacy and exclusion, had become a fundamental setting for African American life."
Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007
Wiese has taken a very large assignment in attempting to trace the history of the movement of African Americans to the suburbs throughout the country during the twentieth century. By taking such a broad approach, his book gives us an overview of trends in the black suburban movement, while he also tells some of the individual stories of blacks who moved into the suburbs. Since the period he covers is so long, the examples he uses must be supported by more encompassing statistics which Wiese uses skillfully to make his larger arguments.
If there is a weakness in the book, it focuses on large metropolitan areas where the greatest number of blacks moved to the suburbs. In particular, he chose to focus on Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas in the South leaving the stories of the numerous smaller southern cities with large black populations untold. Wiese emphasizes the exceptional pattern of southern suburbanization where he asserts that whites conceded land in the suburbs to blacks to maintain segregation. Without stories from such areas as Petersburg, Virginia, Macon, Georgia, or Montgomery, Alabama where blacks outnumbered whites, Wiese’s theories about compliant whites seems incomplete.
Perhaps one of the better parts of Wiese’s research concerns the early movement of blacks from the South the northern suburbs. Here Wiese explains that many blacks brought with them a belief that ownership of land equated to freedom. The early migrants used the suburban land to grow gardens and keep chickens and livestock and their houses to keep borders. Ownership of real estate became a source of insurance against bad economic times. These people were eventually moved from the land by local redevelopment plans, but Wiese does not offer clear evidence of whether African American survival instincts were damaged by this redevelopment.
Because the book covers such a large time span and is national in scope, numerous additional questions could be asked. But, as an overview of African American movement to the suburbs, the book is excellent. The issues that could be developed further merely reflect the need for greater research in this area.
Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011
Suburban scholarship focused on the physical, social, and political development of the suburbs. Starting with Sam Bass Warner, Jr.’s Streetcar Suburbs, scholars have examined issues of transportation, real estate practices, and federal involvement in facilitating suburban development. However, much of the existing historiography painted a portrait of the suburbs as a community of middle-class to elite whites, namely works like Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier and Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias. As Fishman declared, “[s]uburbia…expresses values so deeply embedded in bourgeois culture that it might also be called the bourgeois utopia” (4). Andrew Wiese, however, believed that the existing studies presented a narrow view of the suburbs, insisting that scholarship must examine the suburbs from a different perspective. As a result, Wiese shifted the focus on black suburbanization. He relied extensively on government reports, population data, and property records to argue that African American suburbanization represented a major demographic shift in post-war American society, facilitating the emergence of a larger, more economically-sound black middle class (1, 3, 259).
Wiese’s study examined suburbanization from a national perspective, though he only pays scant attention to the western suburbs. For example, he showed the process of black suburbanization in northern towns like Philadelphia, which he chronicled in part through the experiences of the Braithwaite family. He also examined black suburbanization in southern places like Atlanta, where African Americans discouraged white developments by placing advance claims on suburban properties (110, 184-7). Wiese’s national perspective offered a helpful look at black suburbanization, highlighting the efforts African Americans undertook in order to gain places of their own. However, Wiese provided very little focus on western suburbs. He does examine western towns like Pasadena in some detail, but his attention to other western suburbs appeared lacking (26, 34-6, 58, 77, 85). Here, Wiese’s analysis could have been strengthened had he offered a more detailed examination, especially because African Americans often had to compete with Mexicans and Chinese for suburban lands. Nonetheless, Wiese’s scant attention to the west represented a minor quibble to an otherwise valuable study.
Wiese succeeded in chronicling the lives of African Americans as they sought out their own suburban frontiers. In doing so, he deftly showed that African Americans controlled their destinies. This could be clearly seen in Wiese’s examination of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. After leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to a world championship in 1956, Robinson and his family had difficulties finding a home in a suburban area where he held celebrity status. Robinson’s exploits on the field became off-set by his second-class status in society. Nonetheless, as Wiese noted, Robinson and his family eventually “found a house across the state line in Stamford, Connecticut, ‘due to the strong efforts’ of several white families there” (99-100). Robinson’s plight in Brooklyn eerily foreshadowed the problems Frank Robinson faced in Baltimore ten years later, as his addition to the Orioles made the team the odds-on favorite to win the American League pennant. Even after Robinson led the Orioles to their first world title in 1966, he continued to face racial discrimination in the Baltimore suburbs, which he sidestepped by having his real estate agent purchase the desired property and transfer it to the Robinson. Wiese’s skill in examining black suburbanization enabled him to achieve his lofty objectives, advancing suburban scholarship by examining from a different, but fruitful, perspective.
Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012
Wiese was successful overall in his goals of creating a narrative which showed the long roots of African American suburbanization, the combination of individual and group decisions which created this movement, and in linking space to the formation of both race and class throughout the twentieth century.
Though this book was successful overall it did have a few shortcomings. In showing the various paths to suburbanization Wiese looks at changes across all classes and geographies to show how African Americans approached suburbanization over time. However, this expansion of what suburbanization means and who is a part of it may have gone too far. For example, in dealing with Southern suburbanization from 1940 to 1960 Wiese says that “much of postwar residential expansion in the South... took place inside the newly drawn limits of a central city.” (pp 173) If urban growth is also considered a part of suburban development then it is not clear what “suburbanization” means for the purpose of this study, making the impacts of suburban growth muddied. Another weakness was in neglecting to deal with either crack or gang violence when describing social and economic problems which hurt the black urban communities of the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite these shortcomings, overall this book was well written, argued, and researched. One great strength of the research was in using diverse case studies from across the country. A truly national narrative, Weise used examples from 1920s Los Angeles, California; 1930s Cincinnati Ohio; 1950s Atlanta, Georgia; 1960s Chicago, Illinois; 1990s Prince George’s County, Maryland and many more to show both change and consistency as African Americans moved into suburbs. Another strength of this book was showing the combination of individual experience, political change, economic change, and spatial reality in shaping the way that black communities were able to grow. This nuanced approach revealed not only simple demographics shifts, but also the changing preferences, ideals, gender roles, and lived experiences of different classes within the black community. A good example of this approach which was used throughout the book can be seen with the example of Theodore W. Wheeler and his family in the Oak Park, Illinois neighborhood outside Chicago. (pp 232-243)
Using this work as I move forward with my own research, I would hope to keep the national narrative, the use of personal experiences in combination with large national forces, and the importance of spatiality in mind while also adding a more in depth discussion of architecture and the environment within these homes.
Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013
By examining African American suburbs over the twentieth century, Wiese successfully demonstrates how scholarly attention to recent suburbanization has obscured the diversity of kinds of suburbs and the demographic makeup of these spaces. He diverges from Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier seminal conception of the suburb by arguing that African Americans moved to and shaped suburban spaces nationwide, and placed an emphasis on homeownership typically attributed to white, middle-class suburbanites.
Suburbs served as spaces for African Americans to express their social and class identities. Whereas working-class blacks in the prewar period were able to make claims based on their status as homeowners, in the postwar period the black middle-class came to dominate the suburbs as spaces that reinforced their status to white Americans through particular house designs and neighborhood configurations while creating a figurative and physical buffer from the black working-class. Wiese deftly demonstrates the tensions among African Americans and the lack of a monolithic experience, by drawing attention to the circumstances around class, gender, and racial tensions. For example, in Chapter Two Wiese examines the domestic worker communities that featured significantly greater employment opportunities for black women, placing them in a position of "suburban pioneers" not commonly discussed in narratives of twentieth century suburbanization.
As noted above, Wiese uses examples from across the country to support his point that African American suburbanization occurred virtually everywhere during the twentieth century. He makes a similar argument to Becky Nicolaides and her study My Blue Heaven that suburbs existed in multiple forms, particularly before World War II, which provides a longer history and deeper contextual history for suburbanization beyond the postwar white flight described by Jackson and others. The move to a city, according to Wiese and Nicolaides, didn't necessarily mean a break from rural living, as working-class property owners, black and white, leveraged their land as sites of food production. Also, Wiese effectively shows how patterns of development in African American suburbs—from a mix of working and middle class residents and productive properties in the prewar period to primarily middle-class inhabitants and cultivated neighborhoods—were largely the same as the shifts in white suburbs. Wiese's more expansive definition of the suburbs serves to incorporate how African Americans actively participated in suburbanization; this framework serves as a useful model for further studies to examine the complexity (demographic, cultural, social, economic) of communities on the fringes of cities.
Megan Brett, Spring 2014
As Ms. Sharpe points out above, there are definite parallels between Becky Nicolaides’ 2002 work My Blue Heaven and this work, in so far as both expand the scope of the history of suburbanization in the United States beyond the domain of white, middle-class Americans to include neighborhoods with working-class Americans living in owner-built homes with a garden out back and possibly animals as well, at least in the period before 1945. Although I appreciate Wiese’s very necessary effort to expand the scholarly definition of suburb, there are points where I think his examples stretch even this re-worked definition of suburb (if neighborhoods are developed within city limits and not merely absorbed, perhaps this is reason to revisit the definitions of urban?)
One of the strengths of this work is its contribution to the conversation about class tensions and cooperation between African Americans. Wiese shows how the black middle class grew increasingly distant, both in action and in actual space, from the working class. While somewhat outside the scope of this study, it makes me curious how the growing African American middle class conceptualized gender roles, as many middle-class, suburban African American women had jobs, in contrast to middle-class, suburban white women, who were expected to be homemakers. There is an implicit narrowing of family conceptualization from the 1920s, when extended kinship networks facilitated migration, to the 1980s, but there seems to have been a continued reliance on the (racially defined) community as a resource for social and economic needs.
Spencer Roberts, Spring 2014
Andrew Wiese’s Places of Their Own fits neatly into the recent trend within historiography in which historians seek to recover the experiences of people whose stories were not commonly found in histories from the past half century. In Particular, Wiese is concerned that histories of suburbanization, much like the process itself, have excluded African Americans. In fact, Wiese seeks to challenge both of those issues by arguing not only that African American experiences should be woven into the history, but also that they were not absent from suburbanization at all, despite individual and systemic discrimination. In his introduction, Wiese lists various historians whose work on suburbanization has underrepresented African Americans. He cites Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier as a standard in the field, but criticizes Jackson’s conclusion “that suburbanization was a process in which African Americans played little part before the 1970s” (4-5). Wiese clearly admires the process that Jackson followed, however, because his book covers a similarly broad chronological scope, though it remains more narrowly focused on particular cities such as Atlanta and Dallas.
One of the most compelling aspects of Wiese’s research is his depiction of black suburban life before the 1940s, which was usually occupied by blue-collar blacks pushed to the margins of the city. Interestingly, Wiese claims that these early black suburbanites worked in the suburbs, but does not explain where they worked (15).
Like Jackson, Wiese follows the growth of suburbs, but from the perspective of African Americans. Ultimately, Wiese concludes that African Americans sought suburban homes for many of the same reasons as whites, but were forced to negotiate numerous barriers erected by discrimination, violence, legislation, and racism. Any student of suburban life in America should read Wiese, not only because he provides a perspective largely dismissed in other texts, but because his evidence complicates any received knowledge about suburban growth in the twentieth century.