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William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America.

Roger Lane is one of the most forceful proponents of the position that capitalism of the modern city and the political economy of the twentieth-century state have had a stronger influence on the condition of African-Americans than did chattel slavery. This book reiterates that theme. As its title would suggest, it has two parts - a long, comprehensive section on the Gilded Age followed by a shorter expository one on the twentieth century. The first is based mainly on a dazzling collection of primary materials assembled by William Henry Dorsey from the early 1870s to the early twentieth century and discovered in the 1970s among the affects of Dr. Leslie Pinckney Hill, longtime president of Lincoln University. Using Dorsey's exceptionally rich palette as well as daubs of color from other sources, Lane paints one of the most textured pictures we have of an African-American community. His tableau is filled with revealing biographical sketches of leading African-Americans, detailed accounts of schools, churches, and fraternities, and inspired discussions of African-American culture, not the least of which is a truly artful analysis of the cakewalk.

Such institutions and cultural forms took shape within a particular social context. Consciousness of color gradation, Lane says in answer to those who have found a caste system within black Philadelphia, was there but didn't matter much to African-Americans, who saw a polar world of black and white.(1) Their own community, however, was no amorphous mass, but a mix of long-term residents and recent migrants from the South, Protestants of various sects and some Catholics, ordinary people and better-off folk. Its occupational structure was simpler than white Philadelphia's, but more complex than black Philadelphia's in antebellum times. The elite was now larger and more visible, a sort of "talented tenth" (if it came to that) of doctors, lawyers, petty entrepreneurs, and government employees along with some waiters and coachmen, all of whom owed their status to wealth, family pedigree, participatory spirit, or all three. Of the remaining ninety percent, most were poor and growing poorer because of confinement to casual labor and service work. Lane poignantly observes that such unskilled blacks were not found in the city's great and expanding complex of workshops and factories, the hothouses of the second industrial revolution that paid industrial craftsmen well and offered common laborers the possibility of modest advancement on long occupational ladders. Racist employers and employees conspired to restrict industrial work to their own kind, forcing black men and women into the worst jobs in the shadows of the mills.

Readers familiar with Lane's last book on black Philadelphia know that he has invoked this employment pattern to account for differing crime rates between the races. Briefly, his argument is that the discipline and regularity built into industrial work acclimated factory workers to social order and thus reduced their crime rate; conversely, industrial discipline eluded blacks, whose crime rate rose as a result.(2) While Lane repeats that dubious claim here, he makes a stronger case for cost of racism on other aspects of black life. Exclusion from industry, he correctly observes, helps explain chronic black poverty and the special features of the black elite. The mounting racism of the 1890s, for instance, drove white customers from black-owned businesses, all but destroying caterers who had traditionally formed the core of the black elite.

White racism had other implications. The prejudice that limited occupational choice for African-Americans necessarily shortened the social distance between the top and bottom of their social structure. The sharp class differences that underlay much of the social unrest that wracked white America in the Gilded Age was foreign to a black community whose first citizens counted their incomes in hundreds of dollars, often worked at menial service jobs, and couldn't easily pass on their status to sons and daughters. Subtler social distinctions persisted but never carried much salience, partly because of the unifying force of white racism and partly because of the cohesion encouraged by black Philadelphia's dense web of churches, clubs, and fraternities. The sprawl of this network, Lane tells us, was so vast that it embraced nearly all adults from every walk of life and thus had a profound social impact. The communal feeling of black fraternalism helps explain why in spite of a rising crime rate the poorest African-Americans didn't slip into the despair and social irresponsibility of an underclass.

Nonetheless this is a decidedly uneven book. The first section overlooks features of the African-American experience other scholars find to be decisive. Lane refers to generational differences within the elite, but never really develops this insight, possibly because he prefers to keep the accent on unity.(3) His elites, moreover, never quite achieve an articulate voice, so that we often do not know where they stood on some of the burning issues of the day. It would have been instructive indeed to have had a sampling of black opinion on the views of Booker T Washington, among other key leaders. Finally, the last section of the book tries to accomplish too much, too quickly. It lacks the thick description of William Dorsey's city, and drifts from its Philadelphia moorings to national matters. Lane paints this century in broader strokes to capture cyclical trends, noting the prosperity of the post World War 11 years (a sort of "golden age" roughly similar to the last third of the 19th century) when blacks finally entered basic industry. He stresses the social polarization of the black community during the post-Vietnam era, when a large African-American middle class emerged in tandem with a surging underclass of down and out people, who "are increasingly unable to participate even when given a chance, and cannot survive on their own," which may be an unfortunate way of putting it (p. 352, emphasis added).

The remaining two chapters focus on this underclass and what to do about it. It serves no useful purpose here to review Lane's policy proposals. It is enough to say that his proposed combination of public programs and private initiative reveal the thinking of a sensitive liberal, deeply troubled, as we all are, by the horrifying crime wave that grips our cities. It should also be said, however, that two aspects of this analysis are especially disappointing. First, while Lane is aware of the corporate origins of the modern black middle class, he never does explore the larger ramifications of such a development. After all, the social polarization he describes so well not only represents a radical departure from Dorsey's day, but also seems to have very different political implications. Second, it is not entirely clear how the black underclass emerged. Lane simply posits a loose link among enduring racism, the emergence of the service economy, crime, and illegitimacy. More surprising still, he never mentions the insidious drug empire. We don't know if drugs are a cause of the underclass, a consequence, or both. What we do sense is that the business and culture of drugs suffuse everyday life in the inner city. We need to historicize both aspects of the problem.

Put another way, William Dorsey's Philadelphia has never looked clearer; our Philadelphia is murky. Perhaps we're still too close to it to grasp it all.


(1.) See, for example, Theodore Hershberg, "Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia: A Study of Ex-Slaves, Freeborn, and Socioeconomic Decline," and Hershberg and Henry Williams, "Mulattoes and Blacks: Intragroup Color Differences and Social Stratification in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia," in Hersberg, ed., Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family, and Group Experience (New York, 1981), pp. 368-434.

(2.) Roger Lane, Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900 (cambridge, MA, 1986).

(3.) Peter Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1985-1980 (Philadelphia, 1984).
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Author:Laurie, Bruce
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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