Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation's Capital 1880-1920.
From shortly after the Civil War to the present, Washington, D. C. boasted one of the nation's largest African American populations; as home to many key race leaders and such leading institutions as Howard University, the city became a major center of black culture. In his seminal study, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920, Willard Gatewood concluded that from the end of Reconstruction to World War I, Washington was the capital of the nation's black aristocracy. Jacqueline Moore's Leading the Race provides a detailed study with valuable insight into changing conditions, ideologies and institutions of this very important group of Washingtonians.
Where previous studies have stressed the break between an older aristocratic elite and a new emerging professional one during the period from 1880 to 1920, Moore finds these distinctions less clear cur. Rather she reports that changed conditions altered elite ideologies and strategies while many of the new professionals were the children of the older aristocratic generation. "It was not that the old elite was displaced, it was that in the process of coming to terms with new realities, the black elite redefined itself on a more permanent foundation." (8) Ultimately she finds that while the old elite had sought to distance themselves from the masses, they and the new professionals, pushed by growing racism and Jim Crow as well as pulled by internal pressures, drew "closer to the masses" and thus became "true race leaders." (2) Their emerging ideology and programs of racial uplift provided a means for this to take place.
The book's organization follows a largely topical one. The first chapter traces the elite in the 1880's, while successive chapters consider family; culture and leisure; the church; primary and secondary education; Howard University and higher education; occupation and enterprise; charitable, professional and fraternal organizations and race and racial uplift.
In the 1880's Washington's black aristocrats, which included the Wormley family (hoteliers), the Cook's, Terrell's, Grimke's as well as the Bruce's and Douglass's, sought "recognition of their elite status in the white community"; in doing so they distinguished "themselves from the rest of the black community through their manners and behavior." (12) They "prided themselves on their free ancestry, both black and white, on their connections to the white community, on their familial affiliations, and on their occupations." (214) Excluded from white social clubs they formed their own social organizations which focused on the fine arts as well as churches; both were distinct from the masses. These efforts resulted from the hope that they would eventually assimilate into white society.
As racism grew significantly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, black elites realized that assimilation was less likely and that their fate "was inextricably tied to that of the entire race." (213) The social elite's children who never experienced the hope of assimilation, targeted their careers within the African American community, adopted the rhetoric of racial solidarity and worked to promote racial uplift. The latter took place on a series of organizational fronts including segregated schools, the church, separate professional and business organizations and separate charitable and fraternal organizations. For example, elite Black women helped found the Colored Social Settlement, which "certainly reinforced the middle-class morality accepted by both elite blacks and whites", but "went beyond these efforts to truly improve the situation of the black working classes." (166) Moore concludes that these efforts "proved highly effective in reducing poverty and providing alternatives to crime for poor black youths." (213) Eventually the new elite "became less an aristocracy and more of a class of people trained in their responsibilities as leaders of their race." (214)
This is a fine and nuanced study. Moore provides thoughtful insight into the complexities of social class within the Washington African American communities where occupation and wealth alone did not determine status. More narrative and descriptive than analytical, the book is especially effective tracing the elite's organizational and family life. These chapters are rich in detail and draw effectively on the manuscript collections in the Library of Congress, especially the Booker T. Washington collection, and Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, including the Mary Church Terrell Diary and papers. The Washington Bee and the Colored American provide other important sources. It is less successful tapping the extensive secondary literature on Washington.
Leading the Race tends to be narrowly framed. Despite its occasional references to Gatewood's Aristocrats of Color, it neither attempts a comparative framework nor places the story in the context of other cities. This makes it difficult to determine Washington's uniqueness or how Washington's black elite, as trendsetters, might have influenced developments elsewhere. The book does not draw on recent monographs on comparable black elites in other cities or those on Washington's white social elite; nor does it utilize a social science social class perspective. Moore focuses almost exclusively on black elites and their perspective. While she makes extensive claims for their good works it is unclear how other African Americans viewed them or their uplift endeavors. Moore seems to credit elites almost exclusively for uplift efforts while non-elites' roles, as those of Nannie Burroughs, are understated.
The study does not consider elite residential patterns or their significance for community, class identity and racial uplift. In 1880, U. S. Senator Blanche K. Bruce, an "aristocrat", lived adjacent to 35 of the city's poorest black families while later "professionals" lived in more exclusive neighborhoods. The formation of elite black residential neighborhoods like LeDroit Park represented another level of organization that brought professionals together and perhaps aided their uplift efforts while separating them spatially from the larger black community.
Finally, the topical structure with a temporal thesis makes for a difficult and occasionally repetitive organization. Nonetheless, this is a fine study that draws effectively on extensive primary research, carefully analyses its case study and is well written.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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