Neglected Book

Borchert, James, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (1980).

Published in 1980, Borchert's study of African Americans living in the inhabited alleys of the nation's capitol was in many ways a pathbreaking study which has never received the recognition it deserves. Unlike every black urban historical study that preceded it (including my own), Borchert does not focus on patterns of residential segregation, racial discrimination, or institutional development, and he spends relatively little time on work experiences. Instead, he imaginatively uses the records of housing reformers to explore the family life (including a very informative chapter on children), religious activities, and folk customs of the black migrants from the South who lived in the alleys. It would not be until 1991, when Earl Lewis published his study of Norfolk's black community, that anyone else in this field of research would pick up on some of Borchert's themes. Alley Life in Washington is perhaps the most purely anthropological community study of any kind ever written by an American historian. This interdisciplinary approach, so far ahead of its time, may be partly responsible for the neglect of this work.. Borchert's discussion of methodology and the lengthy appendix, "Photographs and the Study of the Past," are as valuable now as when they were written two decades ago. Not only African Americanists, but students of other ethnic and racial minorities--and of the working class in general-- can still learn much from this book.

Recommended by Ken Kusmer, Temple University

Kenneth L. Kusmer is professor of History at Temple University where he teaches American social history and recent American history. A graduate of Oberlin College, he received the M.A. from Kent State University, where he studied with August Meier, and the Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago, where he studied with Neil Harris, John Hope Franklin, and John Coatsworth. He is the author of (University of Illinois Press) and Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford University Press).