“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.
Ansley T. Erickson
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy
For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.
It is virtually impossible to understand the history of the American experience without Protestantism. The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism, of course, is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture. Protestantism, with its emphasis on the belief that human beings can access God as individuals, flourished in a nation that celebrated democracy and freedom. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism went hand in hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they also extolled the religious freedom that they had to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture. Protestantism, of course, is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions and millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the last four hundred years.
Slave narratives emerged in the 18th century to testify to the inhumanity of the practice of slavery. Often autobiographical accounts, but sometimes written by others or dictated to an amanuensis who took dictation, these accounts were celebrated in the United States as a powerful new genre, and they became associated primarily with slavery in the United States. Published both before and after the abolition of slavery, the narratives were never devoted solely to the abolition of slavery. Rather, they were attempts to represent the experiences, and argue for the authority, of those who experienced first-hand the ideological contradictions and the racial oppression fundamental to the maintenance of the system of slavery. These were stories deeply relevant long after the legal end of slavery—but the slave narratives were for many years either overlooked or decidedly dismissed as reliable historical sources, and they were not recognized as valuable literary documents for even longer. Eventually, historians and literary scholars alike began to embrace this genre of writing and recognized as well that it was a genre defined less by form than by purpose. Although often associated with book-length autobiographies by such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, or Booker T. Washington, the genre of slave narratives has come to include virtually any testimony of the enslaved, related in whatever form. What has come to matter, in the end, is precisely the authority of the enslaved that early writers struggled to establish.
Jennifer M. Spear
On December 20, 1803, residents of New Orleans gathered at the Place d’Armes in the city center to watch as the French flag was lowered and the flag of the United States was raised in its place. Toasts were made to the US president, the French First Consul, and the Spanish king (whose flag had been lowered in a similar ceremony just twenty days earlier), and the celebrations continued throughout the night. The following day, however, began the process of determining just what it meant now that Louisiana was a part of the United States, initiating the first great test for the United States of its ability to expand its borders, incorporating both territories and peoples. The treaty ratifying the transfer, signed in Paris the previous April 30th, promised that “the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States” where they would experience “the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.” These inhabitants included thousands of people of French and Spanish descent, several thousand slaves of African descent, and about fifteen hundred free people of at least partial African ancestry; most of these inhabitants spoke French or (far fewer) Spanish and practiced Catholicism. In addition, the territory was home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples, many of whom still lived on traditional territories and under their own sovereignty. For a few inhabitants of what would become the Territory of Orleans and later the state of Louisiana, incorporation did lead to “the enjoyment of all these rights” and gave some small grain of truth to Thomas Jefferson’s hope that the trans-Mississippi region would undergird the United States as an “empire of liberty,” although even for Europeans of French and Spanish ancestry, the process was neither easy nor uncontested. For most, however, incorporation led to the expansion of the United States as an empire of slavery, one built upon the often violent dispossession of native peoples of their lands and the expropriated labor of enslaved peoples of African descent.
D. Bradford Hunt
Public housing emerged during the New Deal as a progressive effort to end the scourge of dilapidated housing in American cities. Reformers argued that the private market had failed to provide decent, safe, and affordable housing, and they convinced Congress to provide deep subsidies to local housing authorities to build and manage modern, low-cost housing projects for the working poor. Well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy decisions encouraged large-scale developments, concentrated poverty and youth, and starved public housing of needed resources. Further, the antipathy of private interests to public competition and the visceral resistance of white Americans to racial integration saddled public housing with many enemies and few friends. While residents often formed tight communities and fought for improvements, stigmatization and neglect undermined the success of many projects; a sizable fraction became disgraceful and tangible symbols of systemic racism toward the nation’s African American poor. Federal policy had few answers and retreated in the 1960s, eventually making a neoliberal turn to embrace public-private partnerships for delivering affordable housing. Housing vouchers and tax credits effectively displaced the federal public housing program. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration encouraged the demolition and rebuilding of troubled projects using vernacular “New Urbanist” designs to house “mixed-income” populations. Policy problems, political weakness, and an ideology of homeownership in the United States meant that a robust, public-centered program of housing for use rather than profit could not be sustained.