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Schools in US Cities  

Ansley T. Erickson

“Urban infrastructure” calls to mind railways, highways, and sewer systems. Yet the school buildings—red brick, limestone, or concrete, low-slung, turreted, or glass-fronted—that hold and seek to shape the city’s children are ubiquitous forms of infrastructure as well. Schools occupy one of the largest line items in a municipal budget, and as many as a fifth of a city’s residents spend the majority of their waking hours in school classrooms, hallways, and gymnasiums. In the 19th and 20th centuries urban educational infrastructure grew, supported by developing consensus for publicly funded and publicly governed schools (if rarely fully accessible to all members of the public). Even before state commitment to other forms of social welfare, from pensions to public health, and infrastructure, from transit to fire, schooling was a government function. This commitment to public education ultimately was national, but schools in cities had their own story. Schooling in the United States is chiefly a local affair: Constitutional responsibility for education lies with the states; power is then further decentralized as states entrust decisions about school function and funding to school districts. School districts can be as small as a single town or a part of a city. Such localism is one reason that it is possible to speak about schools in U.S. cities as having a particular history, determined as much by the specificities of urban life as by national questions of citizenship, economy, religion, and culture. While city schools have been distinct, they have also been nationally influential. Urban scale both allowed for and demanded the most extensive educational system-building. Urban growth and diversity galvanized innovation, via exploration in teaching methods, curriculum, and understanding of children and communities. And it generated intense conflict. Throughout U.S. history, urban residents from myriad social, political, religious, and economic positions have struggled to define how schools would operate, for whom, and who would decide. During the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. residents struggled over the purposes, funding, and governance of schools in cities shaped by capitalism, nativism, and white supremacy. They built a commitment to schooling as a public function of their cities, with many compromises and exclusions. In the 21st century, old struggles re-emerged in new form, perhaps raising the question of whether schools will continue as public, urban infrastructure.

Article

Immigration Policy and US Foreign Policy before 1945  

Benjamin C. Montoya

A fear of foreignness shaped the immigration foreign policies of the United States up to the end of World War II. US leaders perceived nonwhite peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Europe as racially inferior, and feared that contact with them, even annexation of their territories, would invite their foreign mores, customs, and ideologies into US society. This belief in nonwhite peoples’ foreignness also influenced US immigration policy, as Washington codified laws that prohibited the immigration of nonwhite peoples to the United States, even as immigration was deemed a net gain for a US economy that was rapidly industrializing from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, this fear of foreignness fostered an aggressive US foreign policy for many of the years under study, as US leaders feared that European intervention into Latin America, for example, would undermine the United States’ regional hegemony. The fear of foreignness that seemed to oblige the United States to shore up its national security interests vis-à-vis European empires also demanded US intervention into the internal affairs of nonwhite nations. For US leaders, fear of foreignness was a two-sided coin: European aggression was encouraged by the internal instability of nonwhite nations, and nonwhite nations were unstable—and hence ripe pickings for Europe’s empires—because their citizens were racially inferior. To forestall both of these simultaneous foreign threats, the United States increasingly embedded itself into the political and economic affairs of foreign nations. The irony of opportunity, of territorial acquisitions as well as immigrants who fed US labor markets, and fear, of European encroachment and the racial inferiority of nonwhite peoples, lay at the root of the immigration and foreign policies of the United States up to 1945.

Article

Antisemitism in US History  

Britt P. Tevis

Antisemitism in the United States—whether acts of violence, social exclusion, cultural vilification, or political and legal discrimination—has resulted from antidemocratic currents refracted through bigoted beliefs about Jews. Prejudiced conceptualizations of Jews positioned them as outsiders to the nation, emphasizing Jews’ refusal to accept the supremacy of Christ; depicting Jews to be racially distinct (i.e., inferior or dangerous); and imagining Jews as greedy, dirty, untrustworthy, scheming, manipulative, powerful, and dangerous. Antisemitism has consistently been (and continues to be) connected with anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. Throughout US history, non-Jews deployed bigoted ideas about Jews for personal, professional, social, and/or political gain. As a result, with degrees of variation, Jews in the United States endured personal hardships, faced collective discrimination, and confronted political intolerance.

Article

Politics of Reproductive Rights in 20th-Century America  

Rickie Solinger

The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival. Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services. During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.

Article

Asian and Asian American Women in the United States before World War II  

Shirley Hune

Asian women, the immigrant generation, entered Hawai’i, when it was a kingdom and subsequently a US territory, and the Western US continent, from the 1840s to the 1930s as part of a global movement of people escaping imperial wars, colonialism, and homeland disorder. Most were wives or picture brides from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and South Asia, joining menfolk who worked overseas to escape poverty and strife. Women also arrived independently; some on the East Coast. US immigration laws restricting the entry of Asian male laborers also limited Asian women. Asian women were critical for establishing Asian American families and ensuring such households’ survival and social mobility. They worked on plantations, in agricultural fields and canneries, as domestics and seamstresses, and helped operate family businesses, while doing housework, raising children, and navigating cultural differences. Their activities gave women more power in their families than by tradition and shifted gender roles toward more egalitarian households. Women’s organizations, and women’s leadership, ideas, and skills contributed to ethnic community formation. Second generation (US-born) Asian American women grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and negotiated generational as well as cultural differences. Some were mixed race, namely, biracial or multiracial. Denied participation in many aspects of American youth culture, they formed ethnic-based clubs and organizations and held social activities that mirrored mainstream society. Some attended college. A few broke new ground professionally. Asian and Asian American women were diverse in national origin, class, and location. Both generations faced race and gender boundaries in education, employment, and public spaces, and they were active in civic affairs to improve their lives and their communities’ well-being. Across America, they marched, made speeches, and raised funds to free their homelands from foreign occupation and fought for racial and gender equality in the courts, workplaces, and elsewhere.

Article

Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Americans  

Gregory D. Smithers

Settler colonial studies have enjoyed rapid growth as a field of scholarly inquiry since the 1990s. Scholars of settler colonialism distinguish it from other forms of colonialism—for example, extractive, planation, or trade colonialism—by positing that settlers move en masse to foreign lands with the intention of staying or permanently settling. Settlers therefore covet the land, not the labor, of Indigenous people, a structural dynamic that precipitates the “elimination” of Indigenous communities. Settler colonial studies have proven particularly germane to analysis of the Anglophone world during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the study of global systems and transnational histories. While elements of settler colonial studies can illuminate historical understanding of North American history since 1492, the diversity of historical experiences in what became the United States means that American historians have approached this body of scholarship with caution. As is the case with any theoretical construct, historians are well advised to engage settler colonial studies with an active and critical eye before considering how they might best incorporate it into their teaching and research.

Article

American Indian Activism after 1945  

Bradley Shreve

American Indian activism after 1945 was as much a part of the larger, global decolonization movement rooted in centuries of imperialism as it was a direct response to the ethos of civic nationalism and integration that had gained momentum in the United States following World War II. This ethos manifested itself in the disastrous federal policies of termination and relocation, which sought to end federal services to recognized Indian tribes and encourage Native people to leave reservations for cities. In response, tribal leaders from throughout Indian Country formed the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944 to litigate and lobby for the collective well-being of Native peoples. The NCAI was the first intertribal organization to embrace the concepts of sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural preservation—principles that continue to guide Native activists today. As American Indian activism grew increasingly militant in the late 1960s and 1970s, civil disobedience, demonstrations, and takeovers became the preferred tactics of “Red Power” organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), the Indians of All Tribes, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). At the same time, others established more focused efforts that employed less confrontational methods. For example, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) served as a legal apparatus that represented Native nations, using the courts to protect treaty rights and expand sovereignty; the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) sought to secure greater returns on the mineral wealth found on tribal lands; and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) brought Native educators together to work for greater self-determination and culturally rooted curricula in Indian schools. While the more militant of these organizations and efforts have withered, those that have exploited established channels have grown and flourished. Such efforts will no doubt continue into the unforeseeable future so long as the state of Native nations remains uncertain.

Article

Asian American Activism  

Vivian Truong

Activism is a defining element of Asian American history. Throughout most of their presence in the United States, Asian Americans have engaged in organized resistance even in the face of violent exclusion and repression. These long histories of activism challenge prevailing notions of the political silence of Asian Americans, which have persisted since the rise of the model minority narrative in the mid-20th century. Examining Asian American history through the lens of activism shows how Asian Americans were not simply acted upon, but were agents in forging their own histories. In the century after the first substantial waves of migration in the 1850s, Asian Americans protested labor conditions, fought for full citizenship rights, and led efforts to liberate their homelands from colonial rule. Activism has been a key part of determining who Asian Americans are—indeed, the term “Asian American” itself was coined in the 1960s as a radical political identity in a movement against racism and imperialism. In the decades since the Asian American movement, “Asian America” has become larger and more diverse. Contemporary Asian American activism reflects the expansiveness and heterogeneity of Asian American communities.

Article

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study  

Susan M. Reverby

Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service (PHS) ran the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro in Macon County, Alabama, to learn more about the effects of untreated syphilis on African Americans, and to see if the standard heavy metal treatments advocated at the time were efficacious in the disease’s late latent stage. Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection and can be passed by a mother to her fetus at birth. It is contagious in its first two stages, but usually not in its third late latent stage. Syphilis can be, although is not always, fatal, and usually causes serious cardiovascular or neurological damage. To study the disease, the PHS recruited 624 African American men, 439 who were diagnosed with the latent stage of the disease and 185 without the disease who were to act as the controls in the experiment. However, the men were not told they were to participate in a medical experiment nor were they asked to give their consent to be used as subjects for medical research. Instead, the PHS led the men to believe that they were being treated for their syphilis by the provision of aspirins, iron tonics, vitamins, and diagnosis spinal taps, labeled a “special treatment” for the colloquial term “bad blood.” Indeed, even when penicillin became widely available by the early 1950s as a cure for syphilis, the researchers continued the study and tried to keep the men from treatment, however not always successfully. Although a number of health professionals raised objections to the study over the years, while—thirteen articles were published in various medical journals, it continued unobstructed until 1972, when a journalist exposed the full implications of the study and a national uproar ensued. The widespread media coverage resulted in a successful lawsuit, federal paid health care to the remaining men and their syphilis-positive wives and children, Congressional hearings, a federal report, and changes to the legislation concerning informed consent for medical research. The government officially closed the study in 1972. In 1996, a Legacy Committee requested a formal apology from the federal government, which took place at the White House on May 16, 1997. Rumors have surrounded the study since its public exposure, especially the beliefs that the government gave healthy men syphilis, rather than recruiting men that had the disease already, in order to conduct the research, and that all men in the study were left untreated decade after decade. In its public life, the study often serves a metaphor for mistrust of medical care and government research, memorialized in popular culture through music, plays, poems, and films.

Article

Police and Crime in the American City, 1800–2020  

Simon Balto and Max Felker-Kantor

The relationship between policing and crime in American history has been tenuous at best. In fact, policing and crime are imperfectly correlated. Crime is understood as a socially constructed category that varies over time and space. Crime in the American city was produced by the actions of police officers on the street and the laws passed by policymakers that made particular behaviors, often ones associated with minoritized people, into something called “crime.” Police create a statistical narrative about crime through the behaviors and activities they choose to target as “crime.” As a result, policing the American city has functionally reinforced the nation’s dominant racial and gender hierarchies as much as (or more so) than it has served to ensure public safety or reduce crime. Policing and the production of crime in the American city has been broadly shaped by three interrelated historical processes: racism, xenophobia, and capitalism. As part of these processes, policing took many forms across space and time. From origins in the slave patrols in the South, settler colonial campaigns of elimination in the West, and efforts to put down striking workers in the urban North, the police evolved into the modern, professional forces familiar to many Americans in the early 21st century. The police, quite simply, operated to uphold a status quo based on unequal and hierarchical racial, ethnic, and economic orders. Tracing the history of policing and crime from the colonial era to the present demonstrates the ways that policing has evolved through a dialectic of crisis and reform. Moments of protest and unrest routinely exposed the ways policing was corrupt, violent, and brutal, and did little to reduce crime in American cities. In turn, calls for reform produced “new” forms of policing (what was often referred to as professionalization in the early and mid-20th century and community policing in the 21st). But these reforms did not address the fundamental role or power of police in society. Rather, these reforms often expanded it, producing new crises, new protests, and still more “reforms,” in a seemingly endless feedback loop. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this evolution demonstrates the inability of reform or professionalization to address the fundamental role of police in American society. In short, it is a history that demands a rethinking of the relationship between policing and crime, the social function of the police, and how to achieve public safety in American cities.

Article

Religion and Race in America  

Emily Suzanne Clark

Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries. Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century. With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.

Article

Daily Life in the Jim Crow South, 1900–1945  

Jennifer Ritterhouse

Distinctive patterns of daily life defined the Jim Crow South. Contrary to many observers’ emphasis on de jure segregation—meaning racial separation demanded by law—neither law nor the physical separation of blacks and whites was at the center of the early 20th-century South’s social system. Instead, separation, whether by law or custom, was one of multiple tools whites used to subordinate and exclude blacks and to maintain notions of white racial purity. In turn, these notions themselves varied over time and across jurisdictions, at least in their details, as elites tried repeatedly to establish who was “white,” who was “black,” and how the legal fictions they created would apply to Native Americans and others who fit neither category. Within this complex multiracial world of the South, whites’ fundamental commitment to keeping blacks “in their place” manifested most routinely in day-to-day social dramas, often described in terms of racial “etiquette.” The black “place” in question was socially but not always physically distant from whites, and the increasing number of separate, racially marked spaces and actual Jim Crow laws was a development over time that became most pronounced in urban areas. It was a development that reveals blacks’ determination to resist racial oppression and whites’ perceived need to shore up a supposedly natural order that had, in fact, always been enforced by violence as well as political and economic power. Black resistance took many forms, from individual, covert acts of defiance to organized political movements. Whether in response to African Americans’ continued efforts to vote or their early 20th-century boycotts of segregated streetcars or World War I-era patterns of migration that threatened to deplete the agricultural labor force, whites found ways to counter blacks’ demands for equal citizenship and economic opportunity whenever and wherever they appeared. In the rural South, where the majority of black Southerners remained economically dependent on white landowners, a “culture of personalism” characterized daily life within a paternalistic model of white supremacy that was markedly different from urban—and largely national, not merely southern—racial patterns. Thus, distinctions between rural and urban areas and issues of age and gender are critical to understanding the Jim Crow South. Although schools were rigorously segregated, preadolescent children could be allowed greater interracial intimacy in less official settings. Puberty became a break point after which close contact, especially between black males and white females, was prohibited. All told, Jim Crow was an inconsistent and uneven system of racial distinction and separation whose great reach shaped the South’s landscape and the lives of all Southerners, including those who were neither black nor white.

Article

Working-Class Environmentalism in America  

Scott Dewey

“Working-Class Environmentalism in America” traces working Americans’ efforts to protect the environment from antebellum times to the present. Antebellum topics include African American slaves’ environmental ethos; aesthetic nature appreciation by Lowell, Massachusetts “mill girls” working in New England’s first textile factories; and Boston’s 1840s fight for safe drinking water. Late-19th-century topics include working-class support for creating urban parks, workers’ early efforts to confront urban pollution and the “smoke nuisance,” and the exploration of conservationist ideas and policies by New England small farmers and fishermen in the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, working-class youth, including immigrants and African Americans, participated in the youth camping movement and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, while working-class adults and their families, enjoying new automobility and two-day weekends, discovered picnicking, car-camping, and sport hunting and fishing in newly created wilderness preserves. Workers also learned of toxic dangers to workplace safety and health from shocking stories of 1920s New Jersey “radium girls” and tetraethyl lead factory workers, and from 1930s Midwestern miners who went on strike over deadly silicosis. The 1930s United States rediscovered natural resource conservation when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed millions of working-class youth. Lumber workers advocated federal regulation of timber harvesting. Postwar America saw the United Auto Workers (UAW), United Steelworkers (USWA), Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and other labor unions lobbying for wilderness and wildlife preservation, workplace and community health, and fighting air and water pollution, while the United Farmworkers (UFW) fought reckless pesticide use, and dissidents within the United Mine Workers (UMW) sought to ban surface coal mining. Radical organizations explored minority community environmentalism and interracial cooperation on environmental reform. Following post-1970s nationwide conservative retrenchment, working-class activists and communities of color fought toxic wastes and explored environmental justice and environmental racism at places like Love Canal, New York and Warren County, North Carolina and formed the Blue-Green Alliance with environmentalists.