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Female Slaveholders in British America  

Christine Walker

Women actively contributed to the expansion of chattel slavery in British America. During the colonial era, female inhabitants living in every region claimed by Britain, from the northernmost colonies to the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, held other people in bondage. As enslavers, women exercised their authority over captives in various capacities. Female slaveholders treated enslaved people as personal property that could be bought, sold, or rented out in the marketplace. They commanded enslaved people to perform diverse types of labor. Some worked in households as servants, cooks, and laundresses, while others labored in taverns, shops, fields, and on waterways. Women also bequeathed captives to descendants, often preferring to transfer enslaved people along female lines. Inheritance became an important mechanism for women to maintain control of, and benefit from, slaveholding. Finally, women exercised their authority by subjecting enslaved people to a spectrum of abuses ranging from corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and transportation, to starvation and execution. Early modern gender inequalities intensified women’s participation in slavery, offering them an alternative form of support, profit, and command. By offsetting the economic, legal, and social limitations imposed by patriarchal societies, slaveholding thus empowered women.

Article

The Urban League  

Adam Lee Cilli

White and Black progressives established the National Urban League (NUL) in October 1911 to meet the growing social service needs of inner-city African Americans. Under the leadership of the league’s first executive secretary, George Edmund Haynes, the NUL established its core mission and tactical posture while developing league affiliates in cities across the country. Urban League staff committed themselves to building alliances across racial and class lines to promote Black economic advancement and ensure that African Americans had access to adequate housing and health care. These services became all the more imperative as hundreds of thousands of rural Black southerners made their way to cities during the Great Migration. Urban Leaguers welcomed migrant newcomers, helped them find lodging and employment, provided vocational training courses, sponsored programs to improve health and hygiene, and performed a variety of other functions that collectively provided a social safety system in Black neighborhoods. While retaining the league’s core social service mission, Urban Leaguers broadened their civil rights goals over time as new possibilities emerged. During the mid-1930s, as the Congress of Industrial Organizations formed with the goal of unionizing all industrial workers, regardless of race or ethnicity, the league developed workers’ councils across the nation to facilitate the entry of Black workers into the labor movement. Urban Leaguers joined the March on Washington Movement during World War II to protest discriminatory hiring practices at industrial firms with defense contracts. Later, the league served as one of the “big five” civil rights organizations orchestrating the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Through these eras and up to the early 21st century, the Urban League has retained its original commitment to expanding economic opportunities for Black Americans and improving health and wellness in inner-city neighborhoods.

Article

Washington, DC  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

Since its founding as the nation’s capital in 1800, Washington, DC, has been typified by an atypical urban history—a city that was home to the federal government and a diverse population of local inhabitants. This local–federal dynamic has shaped nearly every aspect of its history. The central industry has always been the federal government, local governance has ebbed and flowed, and federal officials have exerted authority in moments of political strife. Washington is the only major US city devoted to administration rather than commerce, industry, or finance. At times, policies in the nation’s capital were envisioned as programs that could be implemented across the country, while at other moments, Washington fell behind other cities. As the nation’s capital, Washington has attracted a diverse group of residents, giving the city a distinctive, cosmopolitan presence. Washington began as a Southern city, and then shifted to become a Northern one, and by the mid-20th century, it became national and global. Since its founding, multiracial Washingtonians waged sweeping campaigns for social justice, often inspiring national movements but were tempered by the persistent lack of statehood, an ongoing struggle.

Article

Detroit  

Ryan S. Pettengill

From its earliest origins through the 21st century, Detroit was a capitalist venture that was tied to the global economy. Throughout the pre-Columbian period, Detroit served as a meeting point where a diverse confederation of Native Americans came together to conduct business and diplomacy. Later, the city became a contested territorial holding that the Western imperial powers of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States fought over, as it represented a critical gateway that opened up trade to the central and western regions of North America. Between 1835 and 1929, capitalists built wharfs, railroad lines, factories, warehouses, and other forms of industrial infrastructure, attracting throngs of working-class job seekers and causing Detroit’s population to boom from approximately 1,100 in 1819 to more than one million in 1930. The population peaked at nearly two million in 1950 and, by 2020, it had declined to approximately 700,000. Detroit’s history might be thought of in three distinct periods: a pre-Columbian period where the region consisted of a preindustrial space that was occupied by Anishinaabeg peoples, later to be claimed by European colonists; a long industrial era in which businessmen, such as Henry Ford, centralized production within the city; and a slow period of economic decline as the city struggled to adapt to different trends in a global economy. As Detroit entered the 21st century, the city faced a declining population, rising budget deficits, and a crumbling infrastructure. Still, as several multinational corporations based their operations out of Detroit, the city remained a capitalist venture fundamentally tied to the global economy.

Article

New York City  

Matthew Vaz

The contemporary city of New York, comprising the five boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, covers three hundred square miles and contains almost nine million people. Often described as the center of the world, the city is home to the headquarters of the United Nations and is a hub of global media and finance. Yet New York is also a city of neighborhoods, animated by remarkably local concerns. The dense population, the complex government, the vast wealth, the archetypal urban poverty, and the intricate and impressive built environment have all taken form through a layered series of encounters among groups over the course of four centuries. The Lenape Indians, the original settlers of the area, encountered Dutch colonizers in 1624. The English seized control from the Dutch in 1664. Both the Dutch and the English imported enslaved Africans in large numbers. The natural advantages of the harbor propelled the area’s growth, attracting settlers from elsewhere in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Human-created infrastructures like the Erie Canal spurred economic growth after 1825 that attracted European immigrants from western and northern Europe in the mid-19th century and Europeans from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1898, five counties were consolidated and created the five boroughs of New York City with a population surpassing three million. African Americans from the US South and Latinos from the Caribbean migrated to New York throughout the 20th century; by 1950, the city’s population was 7.8 million. After 1980, the population began to climb again with new waves of immigration from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. For more than four hundred years, the processes of conflict and cooperation have been animated by schisms and tensions of religion, ethnicity, race, and class. As groups and individuals competed for resources and power in the city, politics and governance confronted conceptual issues such as calibrating the extent of public services, the role of religion in public life, the rights of workers, and the value of living in a multiethnic and multiracial society.

Article

The Harlem Renaissance  

Rachel Farebrother

The Harlem Renaissance or New Negro movement was an unprecedented flowering of Black American cultural production and activism in the 1920s and 1930s. Shaped by larger social shifts such as the Great Migration—the mass movement of Black Americans from rural southern communities to northern cities such as New York and Chicago—it was a period when, in Langston Hughes’s words, “the Negro was in vogue.” Dancers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson became celebrities, blues records topped the charts, and there were new opportunities for performance, publication, and artistic collaboration for Black performers, artists, and writers. Harlem became the actual and symbolic capital of the movement (and a significant setting and idea in Black American expressive art), but the outpouring of Black cultural expression spanned the United States (from cities like Chicago to the US South, which was often imagined as a wellspring of Black American folk culture). Since the publication of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), conceptions of the Harlem Renaissance have been transformed by attention to the transcultural and diasporic reach of Black cultural production. Participants in the movement, who included luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen, engaged in vigorous debate about art and its purpose; the complex relationships between culture, race, and politics; and questions of audience. The cultural experimentation for which the era is known owes much to interartistic experimentation: writers and artists drew inspiration from jazz and blues, dance, and visual art to reimagine Black American identities and experiences, and to make modernity Black.

Article

Labor and Black Power  

Austin McCoy

From the early 1960s through the 1970s, Black workers in various economic sectors organized and were inspired by Black Power principles such as community control, self-determination, and racial solidarity. This Black Power unionism utilized an array of strategies and tactics, ranging from direct action and radical class struggle to negotiation and lawsuits, to combat racial discrimination in employment. Black workers in sectors such as construction and auto and steel industries also utilized strikes, shutdowns, and other forms of protest to combat the intransigence of labor unions that failed to address segregation at the workplace, poor treatment of Black workers, and seniority policies that made work more precarious for them. While Black Power unionism enjoyed some successes—albeit often incomplete—their efforts to enact “affirmative action from below” encountered stiff opposition from employers and unions in the context of the economic and political crises of the 1970s. Ultimately, Black Power unionism exposed the limits of post-Jim Crow desegregation policy in US racial capitalism. Black Power unionism was a political movement that was as salient for Black workers as the Black Panther Party. Although its achievements were limited, its influence far outlived the Black Panther Party itself.

Article

Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies  

James F. Dator

Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.

Article

Racial Inequality and Its Remedies in the US Labor Market  

Randall L. Patton

Active social movements and the changes they wrought both through direct action and indirectly through pressure campaigns dismantled racial exclusion and diminished racial discrimination in employment, like racial apartheid in public accommodations and other aspects of American life. Social movement pressure fostered voluntary actions from the business community, government action on equal employment, and a changing climate of public opinion. Voluntary, quasi-voluntary, and regulatory (compulsory) approaches combined to improve labor market outcomes for African Americans. The term segregation as used here denotes the system of formal and informal exclusion from and discrimination in employment aimed at persons of African descent. The dismantling of exclusionary barriers and the diminishing of discriminatory practices combined with general economic growth to improve living standards for African Americans through the late 20th century. Regional variation was significant, with Black workers in the Northern states benefiting somewhat less than might have been expected. The effects of neoliberal reform, deindustrialization, and lingering discrimination, however, revealed the limits of reform and left significant economic challenges in the early 21st century.

Article

Baltimore  

David Schley

Baltimore, Maryland, rose to prominence in the late 18th century as a hub for the Atlantic wheat trade. A slave city in a slave state, Baltimore was home to the largest free Black community in antebellum America. Nineteenth-century Baltimore saw trend-setting experiments in railroading as well as frequent episodes of collective violence that left the city with the nickname, “mobtown”; one such riot, in 1861, led to the first bloodshed of the Civil War. After the war, Baltimore’s African American community waged organized campaigns to realize civil rights. Residential segregation—both de jure and de facto—posed a particular challenge. Initiatives in Baltimore such as a short-lived segregation ordinance and racial covenants in property deeds helped establish associations between race and property values that shaped federal housing policy during the New Deal. The African American population grew during World War II and strained against the limited housing available to them, prompting protests, often effective, against segregation. Nonetheless, suburbanization, deindustrialization, and redlining have left the city with challenging legacies to confront.