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A Covenant of Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. (Reviews).

A Covenant of Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn. By Craig Steven Wilder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xii plus 325 pp. $35.00).

In 1977, Harold Connolly noted in his study of ghetto formation in Brooklyn that the city had been "plagued by an undeserved anonymity relative to its more prestigious neighbor across the East River." (1) Little has changed. In the historiography of New York City, Brooklyn has long been treated as a "poor relation" metaphorically as well as geographically between Manhattan and Queens, the long-favored archetypes of metropolis and suburb. Social historians, in particular, have been negligent in treating Brooklyn as a distinct environment. While a few scholars such as Steven Gregory have tackled elements of Brooklyn's demographic tensions such as the development of Corona and Elmhurst as discrete communities, none has attempted to survey four centuries of urban history with the depth accomplished by Wilder. For these reasons alone, A Covenant with Color fills a real gap in the social history of American cities and should appeal to both scholars and general readers interested in the region's history.

Wilder's work has four main sections. The first, not surprisingly, takes in Brooklyn's growth as an international commercial center in the colonial period, conveying through anecdotes and statistics the city's essential links with the southern slave trade and the effect these ties had on pre-revolutionary race relations between Brooklyn's small black community and its larger, ethnically-diverse white counterpart. While far superior to Connolly's perfunctory treatment, Wilder's analysis of the pre-revolutionary era is still the author's weakest due to his tendency to treat Brooklyn's people and daily lives as almost tangential to his analysis of race and socio-economic power. In attempting to generalize about race relations in Brooklyn, Wilder relies too heavily on the marriage and property records of a handful of slave-holding families from Brooklyn and tends to over-hypothesize from fairly predictable property transfers and accounts.

The strength of Wilder's examination of the colonial period lies in his excellent depiction of Brooklyn as an essentially southern city, both culturally and socio-economically. While Robert Albion and Harold Woodman among others have also argued this point, they have done so largely in connection with Man hattan's political or economic evolution, either for the pre-revolutionary era or for the nineteenth century. Wilder effectively links long-standing political interpretations of Brooklyn's growth with their logical social and urban consequences in a broad synthesis for both periods.

Wilder's second section examines the tumultuous antebellum period when Brooklyn moved from a colonial entrepot to an increasingly dynamic metropolitan center. The instability engendered by economic growth was made far more acute--for the larger community as well as for Brooklyn's African Americans--by the growth of an anti-slavery movement; leading abolitionists such as Arthur and Lewis Tappan and Henry Ward Beecher made Brooklyn their home. Wilder alternates between concise exposition on the basic realities of black economic opportunity and highly engaging narrative, particularly in reference to the strained tensions in Brooklyn caused by local anti-slavery activism surrounding John Brown's hanging.

The third section examines "the day after" experienced by a majority of Brooklyn's blacks when emancipation and the end of the war brought few material gains. As Wilder points out, it was during this period that white Brooklyn's ''covenant with color'' reconstituted itself to ensure continued white control. Indeed, it is here where Wilder's larger argument becomes clear and persuasive--that social power lay at the intersections of race and labor, race and housing, race and education and the other relationships African Americans had with community resources. Wilder argues that blacks were "ghettoized in housing; subordinated in employment, gerrymandered in politics and isolated in social space," and that white New Yorkers saw African American advancement as directly antithetical to their own.

Wilder's best analysis appears in the fourth section which explores the federal government's role through the Federal Home Loan Mortgage and Urban Renewal programs in creating a large urban ghetto extending from Brooklyn Heights to Brownsville with Bedford-Stuyvesant at its epicenter. While scholars such as Thomas Sugrue have examined the development of what Arnold Hirsch has termed the "second ghetto" in America's cities during the post-World War II era, Wilder's broader historical lens about its development in Brooklyn, combined with his use of real estate maps and government documents, makes this section particularly evocative.

While Wilder's study represents an important contribution to the literature on the history of urban race relations, the author missed a unique opportunity through a less-than-rigorous treatment of the relevant historiography and central theoretical issues involving class. Wilder briefly discusses in the introduction several landmark works on race in the colonial and antebellum periods including studies by Edmund Morgan, Winthrop Jordan and Barbara Fields. However, the author is oddly silent on more relevant examinations of the black urban experience. The author makes no attempt to draw comparisons with the rise of black ghettos in New York's other boroughs or, for that matter, in other cities. The works of Thomas Lee Philpott, Allan Spear, Kenneth Kusmer, and others are not referenced, and the notable omission of Gilbert Osofsky's work on Harlem is particularly troubling.

Relatedly, throughout, the author traces black Brooklynites' constrained access to work as one of the most invidious and long-standing trends in the region's history. Despite continued emphasis on labor relations, however, Wilder fails to address the growth of a black working class whose interests are distinct from those of the black elite. Wilder avoids discussing what Joe William Trotter has termed black "proletarianization." Wilder's study would have benefited from closer attention to class dynamics within the black community as discussed in the works of Trotter, Earl Lewis, Elizabeth Clark-Lewis and Kimberly Phillips. Wilder missed an opportunity to place his study within the broader literature on ghetto formation and the growth of the black working class, a more directly relevant body of work than the more general historiography of race in America.

Fortunately, Wilder's study transcends these historiographical and methodological limitations. A Covenant with Color should appeal to a broad audience of scholars and students of the African American experience both for its deft interweaving of personal with broadly demographic data and for Wilder's unusually compelling narrative style.


(1.) Harold X. Connolly, A Ghetto Grows in Brooklyn (New York, 1977), p. xi.
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Author:Day, Jared N.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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