- Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey by Walter David Greason
With his new book, Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey, Walter David Greason has managed to say something new and important about African American history and urban development. There are two keys to the book. First, he covers the entire twentieth century. That includes large events, like the Great Migration of the World War I era and the rapid growth of the suburbs following World War II, which aren’t usually presented together. Second, he looks at New Jersey. When most historians look at the Great Migration they see it as a rural-to-urban phenomenon. African American sharecroppers and agricultural laborers leave the south to take industrial jobs in the urban north. Similarly, later suburban development is often [End Page 537] thought of as white Americans leaving the city while African Americans stayed behind.
New Jersey, though, was a different sort of a place. In the early twentieth century large parts of the state were agricultural. There were also the seaside resorts based primarily on a tourist economy. African Americans who came to these more rural areas had a very different experience than migrants to industrial cities. One example Greason gives is that because the size of the African American community in the cities was higher, it was possible for people to become divided over the best tactics to use in fighting oppression. At the time the NAACP pushed for social equality, while the Urban League focused more on economic achievement, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association advocated a version of Black Nationalism. In the smaller, nonurban communities of New Jersey Greason found that the membership of all three civil rights groups overlapped. African American ministers and schoolteachers formed a leadership group that belonged to all three groups and tried to both draw on them as resources for local efforts and lend legitimacy to their struggle against racism.
Nonurban African Americans in New Jersey usually coalesced around a civil rights message emphasizing education, thrift, self-respect, and community cohesion. They usually had some success in chipping away at formal discrimination. Part of this was because African Americans were not socially accepted by white residents, they did need them. New Jersey farmers needed agricultural laborers to toil in their fields. Seaside resort owners knew their upper middle-class guests expected to be served by African American porters, maids, and waiters. The combination of economic necessity and dignified protest created the grounds for change, such as creating more opportunities for higher education.
One of the strengths of this part of the book is Greason’s use of oral histories and personal memoirs as evidence. Most small communities and religious or civic organizations have these sorts of records, but they’re rarely drawn on by academic historians. The history of African American in the rural north has not received much attention. Greason does a good job of showing how it might be done.
After World War II, New Jersey changed. Overt racism, like the African American community had faced earlier, was no longer considered appropriate. Greason gives a great deal of the credit to the changes caused by the civil rights organizations that grew out of the earlier African American churches [End Page 538] and schools. Many other groups, like Jews and Eastern Europeans, who had been seen as outsiders by the dominant culture were now being accepted as part of a broader white community. At the same time, middle-class whites began to leave Philadelphia and New York City for the new outer suburbs in New Jersey. This migration created a variety of problems for African Americans. Economically, African Americans saw their jobs disappear. White farmers who turn their acreage into housing lots don’t need agricultural laborers. As the seaside resorts shifted from serving an upper middle-class clientele to one that was more working class, the expectation of being...