- Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow Cityby Tyina L. Steptoe
Over the course of the twentieth century, Houston, Texas, became the fourth-largest city in the United States and one of the nation's most ethnically and racially diverse metropolitan areas. Yet the city too often remains on the periphery of histories of race, migration, and twentieth-century American urban development. Tyina L. Steptoe's Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow Cityoffers a welcome corrective to this historiographical oversight by examining, in fine detail, the centrality of migration to understanding Houston's history. The city became an important site of contact for English-, Spanish-, and French-speaking migrants who brought with them complex and dynamic understandings of race that challenged the black/white binary of the Jim Crow regime. Steptoe reveals how black East Texans, Creoles, Tejanos, and Mexican migrants transformed the city's spatial and cultural landscape between World War I and the 1960s.
Building on the work of David R. Roediger and other scholars of whiteness and race formation, Houston Boundoffers a sociocultural exploration of the "volatile nature of racial blackness" (p. 6). Divided into three sections, Houston [End Page 464] Boundbegins by tracing the social construction of blackness in the Bayou City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steptoe details how black migrants from East Texas, descendants of slaves, "worked to build an alternate geography over … [a] landscape of violent white supremacy" (p. 23). They built neighborhoods, such as Freedman's Town, in the city's Fourth Ward, and Independence Heights, a three-square-mile area that separated from Houston in 1915 to become the state's first '"all Negro city'" (p. 30). Such spaces, history, and increased political activism fostered a sense of shared racial identity among black Houstonians.
Creole and ethnic Mexican migrants also found themselves entangled in Jim Crow's narrow racial binary. Louisiana Creoles saw themselves as neither black nor white based on their combined French and African heritage, despite the fact that they were legally classified as black. Ethnic Mexicans, in contrast, were white by law, but their cultural practices, such as speaking Spanish and practicing Catholicism, often became grounds for exclusion from white classrooms and other public spaces. Despite such discrimination, black Houstonians resented the fact that ethnic Mexicans and other European immigrants were considered white under the law. In 1924, for example, the Houston Informercomplained of the "numerous foreigners in this city, who can barely speak our common tongue," yet had more rights as citizens than native-born black Houstonians (p. 99).
As Steptoe argues, "A person's perceived proximity to blackness (and, therefore, distance from whiteness) could also determine his or her place in the local hierarchy," particularly in a city with a growing and racially ambiguous migrant population (p. 94). A teenage Längsten Hughes, for example, successfully boarded a whites-only sleeping car traveling across Texas by purchasing his ticket in Spanish. Likewise, ethnic Mexicans passed as Italian, French, and Spanish immigrants. Creole migrants accessed white spaces by dropping their Francophone accents—some temporarily, and others permanently. For those with light complexions and linguistic flexibility, racial identity in Houston was potentially malleable and contextual. Houston Boundends by exploring how various forms of music including Texas tenor jazz, orquesta, zydeco, la-la, rhythm and blues, and soul facilitated contact and collaboration across racial, ethic, and linguistic groups in the city.
Among Houston Bound's, most important contributions is centering Houston—and the urban South—in the broader narrative of race and migration in American cities. The story of early-twentieth-century immigration too often skews toward America's coasts, and Steptoe makes a compelling case for scholars to shift their orientation south. Steptoe's focus on sound—through language and song—underscores for historians the promise of mining sources beyond the archives, and it highlights Houston's...