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Article

The Department Store  

Traci Parker

Department stores were the epicenter of American consumption and modernity in the late 19th and through the 20th century. Between 1846 and 1860 store merchants and commercial impresarios remade dry goods stores and small apparel shops into department stores—downtown emporiums that departmentalized its vast inventory and offered copious services and amenities. Their ascendance corresponded with increased urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and the mass production of machine-made wares. Urbanization and industrialization also helped to birth a new White middle class who were eager to spend their money on material comforts and leisure activities. And department stores provided them with a place where they could do so. Stores sold shoppers an astounding array of high-quality, stylish merchandise including clothing, furniture, radios, sporting equipment, musical instruments, luggage, silverware, china, and books. They also provided an array of services and amenities, including public telephones, postal services, shopping assistance, free delivery, telephone-order and mail-order departments, barber shops, hair salons, hospitals and dental offices, radio departments, shoe-shining stands, wedding gift registries and wedding secretary services, tearooms, and restaurants. Stores enthroned consumption as the route to democracy and citizenship, inviting everybody—regardless of race, gender, age, and class—to enter, browse, and purchase material goods. They were major employers of white-collar workers and functioned as a new public space for women as workers and consumers. The 20th century brought rapid and significant changes and challenges. Department stores weathered economic crises; two world wars; new and intense competition from neighborhood, chain, and discount stores; and labor and civil rights protests that threatened to damage their image and displace them as the nation’s top retailers. They experienced cutbacks, consolidated services, and declining sales during the Great Depression, played an essential role in the war effort, and contended with the Office of Price Administration’s Emergency Price Control Act during the Second World War. In the postwar era, they opened branch locations in suburban neighborhoods where their preferred clientele—the White middle class—now resided and shaped the development and proliferation of shopping centers. They hastened the decline of downtown shopping as a result. The last three decades of the 20th century witnessed a wave of department store closures, mergers, and acquisitions because of changing consumer behaviors, shifts in the retail landscape, and evolving market dynamics. Department stores would continue to suffer into the 21st century as online retailing exploded.

Article

American Opposition to South African Apartheid  

David L. Hostetter

American activists who challenged South African apartheid during the Cold War era extended their opposition to racial discrimination in the United States into world politics. US antiapartheid organizations worked in solidarity with forces struggling against the racist regime in South Africa and played a significant role in the global antiapartheid movement. More than four decades of organizing preceded the legislative showdown of 1986, when a bipartisan coalition in Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto, to enact economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Adoption of sanctions by the United States, along with transnational solidarity with the resistance to apartheid by South Africans, helped prompt the apartheid regime to relinquish power and allow the democratic elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power in 1994. Drawing on the tactics, strategies and moral authority of the civil rights movement, antiapartheid campaigners mobilized public opinion while increasing African American influence in the formulation of US foreign policy. Long-lasting organizations such as the American Committee on Africa and TransAfrica called for boycotts and divestment while lobbying for economic sanctions. Utilizing tactics such as rallies, demonstrations, and nonviolent civil disobedience actions, antiapartheid activists made their voices heard on college campuses, corporate boardrooms, municipal and state governments, as well as the halls of Congress. Cultural expressions of criticism and resistance served to reinforce public sentiment against apartheid. Novels, plays, movies, and music provided a way for Americans to connect to the struggles of those suffering under apartheid. By extending the moral logic of the movement for African American civil rights, American anti-apartheid activists created a multicultural coalition that brought about institutional and governmental divestment from apartheid, prompted Congress to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, and increased the influence of African Americans regarding issues of race and American foreign policy.

Article

Suburbanization in the United States after 1945  

Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese

Mass migration to suburban areas was a defining feature of American life after 1945. Before World War II, just 13% of Americans lived in suburbs. By 2010, however, suburbia was home to more than half of the U.S. population. The nation’s economy, politics, and society suburbanized in important ways. Suburbia shaped habits of car dependency and commuting, patterns of spending and saving, and experiences with issues as diverse as race and taxes, energy and nature, privacy and community. The owner occupied, single-family home, surrounded by a yard, and set in a neighborhood outside the urban core came to define everyday experience for most American households, and in the world of popular culture and the imagination, suburbia was the setting for the American dream. The nation’s suburbs were an equally critical economic landscape, home to vital high-tech industries, retailing, “logistics,” and office employment. In addition, American politics rested on a suburban majority, and over several decades, suburbia incubated political movements across the partisan spectrum, from grass-roots conservativism, to centrist meritocratic individualism, environmentalism, feminism, and social justice. In short, suburbia was a key setting for postwar American life. Even as suburbia grew in magnitude and influence, it also grew more diverse, coming to reflect a much broader cross-section of America itself. This encompassing shift marked two key chronological stages in suburban history since 1945: the expansive, racialized, mass suburbanization of the postwar years (1945–1970) and an era of intensive social diversification and metropolitan complexity (since 1970). In the first period, suburbia witnessed the expansion of segregated white privilege, bolstered by government policies, exclusionary practices, and reinforced by grassroots political movements. By the second period, suburbia came to house a broader cross section of Americans, who brought with them a wide range of outlooks, lifeways, values, and politics. Suburbia became home to large numbers of immigrants, ethnic groups, African Americans, the poor, the elderly and diverse family types. In the face of stubborn exclusionism by affluent suburbs, inequality persisted across metropolitan areas and manifested anew in proliferating poorer, distressed suburbs. Reform efforts sought to alleviate metro-wide inequality and promote sustainable development, using coordinated regional approaches. In recent years, the twin discourses of suburban crisis and suburban rejuvenation captured the continued complexity of America’s suburbs.

Article

The 1950s  

Jennifer Delton

The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.

Article

Black Nationalism  

Mark Newman

The popular media often illustrate black nationalism with images of Malcolm X and black leather-jacketed, Afro-wearing, armed Black Panthers in the 1960s, and, in later decades, Louis Farrakhan and hip-hop artists such as Public Enemy. Although historians disagree about black nationalism’s composition and origins, they argue that it has a long pedigree in American history, traceable at least to the first half of the 19th century, if not earlier. While men were most often black nationalism’s public exponents, and some emphasized manhood and female subordination, black nationalism also appealed to many black women, some of whom also exercised leadership and organizational skills in its service. Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, led the first mass black nationalist organization in the United States, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), during the 1920s. Like 19th-century black nationalists, Garvey advocated an independent state for people of African descent, black uplift, and the “civilizing” of Africa. Although not original to him, his emphasis on the right to self-defense, independent black economic development, and pride in African history boosted the UNIA’s popularity. Garvey fell victim to state oppression in the United States, but some former Garveyites joined the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA) and probably also the Nation of Islam (NOI), both of which rejected Christianity, identified blacks as Asiatics, and adopted particularist interpretations of Islam. In the 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X, the charismatic son of Garveyite parents, became the Nation’s chief recruiter. Personal differences with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader since the 1930s, eventually led to Malcolm X’s departure in 1964. Although he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X’s calls for armed self-defense, self-determination and black pride, and identification with anticolonial struggles heavily influenced Black Power advocates. Some civil rights organizations and workers, who were disillusioned by intransigent white racism and distrustful of white liberals, championed Black Power, which was multifaceted and sometimes more reformist than nationalist. In the early 1990s, polls suggested that black nationalist ideas were more popular than during their supposed heyday in the late 1960s, before internal dissension and state repression undermined many Black Power groups.

Article

Domestic Workers in U.S. History  

Vanessa May

Domestic work was, until 1940, the largest category of women’s paid labor. Despite the number of women who performed domestic labor for pay, the wages and working conditions were often poor. Workers labored long hours for low pay and were largely left out of state labor regulations. The association of domestic work with women’s traditional household labor, defined as a “labor of love” rather than as real work, and its centrality to southern slavery, have contributed to its low status. As a result, domestic work has long been structured by class, racial, and gendered hierarchies. Nevertheless, domestic workers have time and again done their best to resist these conditions. Although traditional collective bargaining techniques did not always translate to the domestic labor market, workers found various collective and individual methods to insist on higher wages and demand occupational respect, ranging from quitting to “pan-toting” to forming unions.

Article

The Great Migrations and Black Urban Life in the United States, 1914–1970  

Tyina Steptoe

During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities. Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.

Article

Dayton, Ohio  

Janet Bednarek

In 1796, twelve white settlers traveled north from the Ohio River into what became known as the Miami Valley. There, they established a small settlement on the banks of the Great Miami River, not far from where the Mad River, the Stillwater River, and Wolf Creek empty into the Great Miami. They named their new town after Jonathan Dayton, a Revolutionary War veteran, investor in land in Ohio, and the youngest signer of the US Constitution. Though the settlement grew slowly at first, once connected by canal (1829), railroad (1851), and telegraph (1847), the city began to flourish. By the time of the US Civil War, Dayton had emerged as a manufacturing city with an increasingly diverse population. Between the 1870s and 1920s, Dayton became known for products ranging from paper to potato chips, cash registers, bicycles, and refrigerators. During this time, several individuals from Dayton rose to international prominence, including poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the inventors of the airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright. This period also witnessed the most important event in Dayton’s history, the 1913 flood. After that, Dayton became the largest city in the United States to adopt the city manager form of city government. After World War II, Dayton, like many cities in the so-called “Rust Belt,” suffered from deindustrialization and racial tensions. Dayton’s population peaked in the 1960s and, thereafter, the city lost population in every decade through the 2020s. Deep and lasting patterns of racial segregation divided Dayton’s population between an African American West Side and the largely white East and North Dayton. Local leaders embraced urban renewal and highway construction as potential answers to the city’s challenges with, at best, mixed results. As economic and population losses continued into the 21st century, the local economy shifted from manufacturing to “eds and meds.”