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  • Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capital 1880–1920
  • James Borchert
Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capital 1880–1920. By Jacqueline M. Moore (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999. viii plus 257pp. $37.50).

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 cut. 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) [End Page 503] 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...

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pp. 503-505
Launched on MUSE
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