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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

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.

Article

Railroad Workers and Organized Labor  

Paul Michel Taillon

Railroad workers occupy a singular place in United States history. Working in the nation’s first “big businesses,” they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, came from a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, included both men and women, and performed a wide range of often esoteric tasks. As workers in an industry that shaped the nation’s financial, technological, and political-economic development, railroaders drove the leading edge of industrialization in the 19th century and played a central role in the nation’s economy for much of the 20th. With the legends of “steel-driving” John Henry and “Cannonball” Casey Jones, railroad workers entered the national folklore as Americans pondered the benefits and costs of progress in an industrial age. Those tales highlighted the glamor and rewards, the risks and disparities, and the gender-exclusive and racially hierarchical nature of railroad work. They also offer insight into the character of railroad unionism, which, from its beginnings in the 1860s, oriented toward craft-based, male-only, white-supremacist forms of organization. Those unions remained fragmented, but they also became among the most powerful in the US labor movement, leveraging their members’ strategic location in a central infrastructural industry, especially those who operated the trains. That strategic location also ensured that any form of collective organization—and therefore potential disruption of the national economy—would lead to significant state intervention. Thus, the epic railroad labor conflict of the late 19th century generated the first federal labor relations laws in US history, which in turn set important precedents for 20th-century national labor relations policy. At the same time, the industry nurtured the first national all-Black, civil-rights-oriented unions, which played crucial roles in the 20th-century African American freedom struggle. By the mid-20th century, however, with technological change and the railroads entering a period of decline, the numbers of railroad workers diminished and with them, too, their once-powerful unions.

Article

Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.