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Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885.

Critics both within and without the discipline have long maintained that social history is essentially nothing more than reprocessed local history. The belief that all history is past politics spawns elitist notions that provincialism promotes narrow regionalism, breeds careless scholarship, and merits contempt. Such dogmatic views belie any appreciation that local history often speaks to universal issues that surpass any artificially imposed parochial boundaries of place or time. The contrived nature of this academic debate reflects more upon the fractious nature of the historical profession today than upon the strengths or weaknesses of any particular author's foray into social history.

Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1885 is a well-crafted study that deserves serious consideration on two levels - both as a vibrant local history and as a more detailed evaluation of an often-neglected socio-economic community. Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, produces a compelling social analysis that certainly debunks any notions that local history (i.e. social history) warrants a diminished presence amidst more traditional forms of historical scholarship. Powers' revisionist treatment refutes the standard political assessment which views Black society as "a dependent variable ... responding to the actions of whites" (p. 5) and finds instead an autonomous subculture that fashioned its own social and economic spheres. Though some members of Charleston's Black elite occasionally modeled the customs and mores of white society, this behavior did not preclude the creation of a unique social infrastructure based upon the exclusivity of race.

Charleston, South Carolina serves as an appropriate community for Powers' investigation. As one of the antebellum South's premier seaport towns and a major entrepot for the slave trade, Charleston evoked a cosmopolitan spirit uncommon in most parts of the South. Yet, as the principal urban center of a state where Blacks constituted a popular majority, an ever-present fortress mentality seemed to permeate the white community - perhaps best shown by the physical presence of the Citadel, a manifestation of this spirit of anxiety. The white community's struggle to be both opened and closed to the world set the stage for ambiguous roles to develop for Charleston's Blacks - both slave and free. Questions of how to relate to white society, and perhaps more subtly, how to relate to one another were serious concerns within these groups during the antebellum era - problems only exacerbated by the blurring of intra-racial distinctiveness associated with the coming of freedom after the Civil War. The intricate matrix of class stratification and social mobility which ensued makes this local history an excellent case study for understanding the dynamics of urban racial class consciousness.

Interestingly enough for a study that highlights class distinctiveness, Powers marks the chronological boundaries of his work with two events that illustrate the fluidity of racial class stratification. The first of these, the abortive 1822 Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, is somewhat anomalous in that free Blacks played a significant role in formulating a plot to liberate the slave population of Charleston and the surrounding countryside. Two disparate groups discovered common ground in the spirit of resistance. Similarly, the advent of Jim Crowism in the mid-1880s marked another communal experience as nearly all southern Blacks, regardless of socio-economic standing, experienced the burden of institutional segregation. Here too, oppressive victimization cultivated a sense of intra-racial cohesiveness.

It is often quite difficult to offer a balanced presentation of an era that spans the chasm of the Civil War and Powers struggles with this dilemma. In Black Charlestonians that meant giving equal consideration to an earlier era when the terms "slave," "free black," and "free person of color" all evoked particular meanings and to a post-Civil War era in which earlier distinctions vanished in principle as all Blacks became free citizens. Powers' approach is substantially uneven here, offering six of eight chapters on the experiences of Charleston's Blacks during the Reconstruction era and beyond. In the author's defense, these chapters include important topics as varied as labor, the Black church, and education and all combine nicely to create the sense of community-building that was present among Charleston's Black citizens. Yet, since much of the social stratification that was present in the post-war era resulted from antebellum attitudes, the imbalance in treatment is disappointing.

Powers' research for Black Charlestonians relies heavily upon primary source materials, with a special emphasis upon census demographics, government records, newspaper accounts, and specific manuscript collections. Additionally, the author reveals a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the pertinent secondary literature reflected not only throughout the manuscript but also in an extensive bibliography. Powers is a skillful writer who is quite adept at economy of space and he uses content notes effectively to elaborate on particular points or to offer alternative historiographic interpretations.

Powers' Black Charlestonians fills an important niche in the subfields of urban history and African-American history. This work evokes comparison to John Blassingame's Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (1973), and similarly, Powers' study is likely to be the preeminent work on Charleston's Black population for quite some time. Unlike previous studies that have focused upon either South Carolina's slave population or its free black population in isolation, this study's primary strength is the synthesis offered about how these often discordant sub-cultures struggled to discover common ground after emancipation. This implicit recognition that social stratification persisted through the legacy of antebellum assumptions about race and class does much to explain the tenuous condition of Black consciousness in post-Civil War Charleston.

With Black Charlestonians, Powers has produced an excellent local history that reverberates profoundly beyond the tidal basin of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Through meticulous research and with graceful style, Powers gives voice and interpretation to a previously neglected community that merits scholarly attention. Social historians can hope that additional studies of this type will follow and that comparative analyses of this urban phenomenon might result.

Junius P. Rodriguez Eureka College
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Rodriguez, Junius P.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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