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Reviewed by:
  • African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives
  • Rob Ruck
African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives. By Joe William Trotter and Eric Ledell Smith (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. xv plus 519pp. $40.50/cloth $17.50/paper).

I would have bought this book simply for Joe Trotter’s historiographic essay about African Americans in Pennsylvania during the last century and a half. But after reading the nineteen essays that comprise this work, I realized that any half dozen of them would have been worth the price. Eric Ledell Smith and Joe Trotter have fashioned an illuminating history of African Americans in Pennsylvania by bringing together a set of articles that, taken together, tell a larger story than any one of them attempts by itself. [End Page 202] This book will accomplish its goals of making important work originally published in academic journals accessible to a wider audience and providing scholars a sense of the state-of-the-research in the field. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives will also serve as an extremely useful research tool that the next generation of graduate students and scholars exploring the African American experience will exploit in their endeavors. But I am not so sure that this book will accomplish a third goal, that of facilitating “the writing of a new synthesis of the state’s African American experience” (xiv). That uncertainty is not because of any shortcomings in this volume but the daunting nature of the project itself.

The essays are grouped into four sections: the commercial economy (1684—1840) during which Africans were transformed into African Americans; the industrializing era (1840—1870) in which the meaning of freedom was defined; the industrial epoch (1870—1945) in which class and ethnicity joined race as major factors affecting the African American experience; and the post-industrial era (1945—1985) during which deindustrialization entered the historical equation. They are preceded by Trotter’s review of the literature investigating African Americans in Pennsylvania, which serves as a microcosm of the study of African Americans in the nation. Trotter analyzes and critiques this body of work with the special talent he has displayed in review essays elsewhere on labor and African American history. He shows how the writing of African American history evolved, where it has been most successful, and what remains to be done. Along with the essays, Trotter’s introduction will be the jumping off point for many future studies. The endnotes and the rich sources they detail will save researchers countless hours of digging.

The first essay, Gary Nash’s “Slaves and Slave Owners in Colonial Philadelphia,” revises conceptions about the role of slavery in British North America’s largest city. Urban slavery, he finds, was both more widespread and critical to the economy than previously thought. It was also part of a larger labor market that included both free and unfree, German and Scot-Irish, laborers and indentures. Jean Soderlund’s “Black Women in Colonial Pennsylvania” and Emma Jones Lapsansky’s “Since They Got Those Separate Churches” supplement Nash’s study by describing the roles that African American women and the church played in this era. This section focuses on Philadelphia, as well it might, given the city’s sizable black population (the biggest in the North in 1830) and its critical role as a center for white and black abolitionists.

Three of the six pieces in the second section also focus on Philadelphia; two of the remaining three are excellent surveys on the African American communities in Lancaster and Harrisburg, “No Balm in Gilead” by Leroy Hopkins and “Two Steps Forward, a Step-and-a-Half Back” by Gerald Eggert. Pennsylvania, which had the largest free black population in the North in 1850, was rocked by the Fugitive Slave Law. Read together, these six essays illuminate the status of black communities across the state before and after this political watershed. Theodore Hershberg’s “Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia,” a model of social history methodology, offers a wealth of information about black Philadelphia as it traces the reversal of fortunes this community suffered from 1830 until the Civil War. Richard Blackett’s “Freedom or the Martyr...

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