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The Separate City: Black Communities in the Urban South, 1940-1968.

The Separate City is an engaging and well-written study that examines the physical and political development of African-American communities in three southern cities, Atlanta, Georgia, Memphis, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia. The choice of cities is particularly good because each city presents a different context for understanding the rise of what the authors call "the separate city" and the eventual development of African-American political ascendancy in the urban South. Not only did the timing of when African Americans emerged as the dominant actors in local politics differ significantly among the cities, but Atlanta, Richmond, and Memphis all had different political cultures, ranging from the machine politics of Memphis, to the effective use of biracial coalitions in Atlanta, to the white upper-class control exhibited in Richmond. In essence, each city represents a different point on the political continuum, thereby allowing the authors to address both similarities and differences in the development of the black community under different circumstances, giving a truly representative view of developments in the urban South.

Relying on a wide range of both primary and secondary sources, the authors examine developments in three key areas: education, urban planning and growth, and black political empowerment. Silver and Moeser suggest that the political success eventually obtained by African Americans in Richmond, Memphis and Atlanta arose initially in response to the movement for educational desegregation and widespread white opposition to it. The intentional concentration of African-American neighborhoods as part of the planned, overall growth and expansion of southern cities and the African-American community's reaction to these pressures further strengthened the development of African-American political power by providing African-American leaders with an effective political base.

The physical manifestation of segregation in the early twentieth-century South resulted in the creation of a separate city inhabited almost exclusively by African Americans. Concentrated in the worst neighborhoods and restricted in their economic and political opportunities, African Americans in the urban South were mostly poor and politically powerless. Since black votes were not sought within the mainstream political process, African Americans developed independent political organizations to target special issues like access to jobs or seats on school boards. Although they were not a deciding factor in determining overall urban leadership, African Americans tried to procure a fair share of urban resources for their communities through their involvement in the political process. Operating within the strict confines of segregation, African-American political leaders in all three cities tended not to challenge the status quo of racial discrimination in housing. As Silver and Moeser explain, African-American political leaders "emphasized instead the need to broaden the array of choices and to secure improvements for blacks within the context of an expanding separate black city." (p. 9) According to the authors, this limited, but independent political stance helped lay the foundation for the success of the separate city and the eventual political ascendancy of African Americans in the 1980s and 90s.

In Silver and Moeser's analysis, school desegregation was the central issue that mobilized black political participation throughout the urban South. Although the black community in each city responded differently, in each case, new leadership arose that challenged the more accomodationist policies that had helped nurture and create the separate city in the first place. In addition, in each of the cities examined, the black community's response to the city planning initiatives involving the location and construction of public housing, highways, and various other urban renewal projects helped further transform political protest into political power. By providing the base from which black activists and community organizers could mobilize African-American voters, the existence of the separate city was essential in helping African Americans achieve eventual political dominance. As Silver and Moeser indicate, by concentrating "African-American citizens in a racially defined geographic area, the separate city provided the institutional networks and communication systems necessary for mobilizing an aggrieved people." (p. 124)

One of the ironies of African-American political success is the effect it has on the social dynamics of the black community. Silver and Moeser suggest that the internal complexity of the African-American community became more apparent as black political culture matured in the 1960s and 70s and the separate city expanded to become nearly "coterminous with the city itself." (p. 9) No longer needing the solidarity imposed by trying to maintain the existence of a separate city, the social and economic divisions that had existed all along manifested themselves in black middle-class flight to the suburbs and the continued concentration of the poorest segments of the community in the downtown core. The loss of the resources and networks that helped the larger African-American community achieve its political success left the poorest of the poor stuck in neighborhoods where "the institutions that once nourished the neighborhoods and sustained the economic, religious, and cultural life of the residents are collapsing." (p. 185) The resulting structural inequalities, not just between blacks and whites but within the black community itself, provide the challenges for the public policy initiatives of the 1990s and beyond. In many ways, the authors conclude, the very success of the separate city has led to its greatest failure.

Well-researched and well-documented, Silver and Moeser's analysis of the major issues confronting urban America at the end of the twentieth century is clear and convincing. The comparative nature of the analysis strengthens their conclusions considerably and provides a model for other studies of important urban issues. The charts, graphs, and tables provided to document the changing demographics and spatial organization of each city are particularly helpful. Although this study would have benefited from the inclusion of several maps detailing the sites and locations discussed in the text, the analysis of the politics and policies involved is excellent. The Separate City makes an important contribution to our understanding of the process of American urbanization and the development of African-American communities in the urban South, and will prove valuable reading for scholars and policy makers alike.

Steven J. Hoffman Southeast Missouri State University
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Author:Hoffman, Steven J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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