Freedom’s Racial Frontier: African Americans in the Twentieth-Century West ed. by Herbert G. Ruffin II, Dwayne A. Mack
Freedom’s Racial Frontier, edited by Herbert G. Ruffin II and Dwayne A. Mack, can serve as a valuable primer for students and scholars interested in exploring the experiences of African Americans in western communities. Through an introductory chapter, fifteen essays, appended documents, and a bibliographic essay, it offers glimpses into black community formation, culture, and politics in an array of places including Houston, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Spokane as well as Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Alaska. Ruffin and Mack place this anthology within a larger historiography that examines the black West, and they seek to contribute to it both chronologically and topically by focusing on twentieth-century urban life.
In the introduction, the editors deliver a survey of black western history that provides a helpful framework for appreciating the essays that follow. They divide this brief but informative sketch into three sections that explore the black experience in the West from the end of [End Page 393] Reconstruction to the twenty-first century. For example, the first section discusses early black migration to the West, the difficulties of sharecropping, and the formation of all-black towns like Nicodemus, Kansas. Later, the editors explain how the NAACP and African Americans in border states like Texas and Oklahoma waged successful battles against unequal education that laid the groundwork for the 1954 Brown v. Board decision.
Curiously, the editors emphasize the importance of “the West” without explaining how the region influenced black culture, politics, and community formation. Instead, they often treat common urban experiences as distinctly western. For instance, they assert that in the postwar period “the black West meant enjoying family recipes,” listening to “cutting-edge jazz and R&B,” and attending churches that “extended salvation beyond the sanctuary to the civil rights arena and the streets” (p. 10). Yet African Americans in the East enjoyed family recipes as well; for years New York’s Harlem and Pittsburgh’s Hill District featured the best jazz music in the country; and black churches everywhere served as centers of political mobilization. Likewise, what the editors describe as a “western color line . . . in employment” from 1950 to 1970 similarly constrained poor blacks in the inner-cities of the Midwest and Northeast, and African Americans across the country suffered from the effects of deindustrialization, the decline of unions, redlining, and white flight (pp. 12–13). In stressing the distinctiveness of the black experience in the West, Ruffin and Mack seem to overlook more salient similarities across urban communities.
The fifteen essays in this anthology sometimes vary considerably in depth and rigor. For instance, the first chapter offers detailed scholarly analysis of the formation of black Houston during the first half of the twentieth century. Over its twenty-six pages, it provides compelling evidence and arguments demonstrating black agency in a major city. The second chapter is a transcript of an oral history interview with an African American woman remembering life in Las Vegas. While this piece could have served as the centerpiece of a scholarly article on the city, or as one of the anthology’s appended documents, by itself it leaves major topics unexamined and lacks the comprehensiveness of the preceding essay. The third chapter, which explores in five pages the history of African Americans in the North Bay area since World War II, seems equally superficial in its coverage.
This anthology also has some minor organizational problems that might make it less approachable for undergraduate readers. In several instances, the editors place chapters and documents into thematic groups that feel forced, either because they lack meaningful connective [End Page 394] ties or their content relates more intuitively to other parts of the anthology. The essays in Part Five, “Reconsiderations,” which the editors organized around the theme of transdisciplinary methodology, offer several examples. Chapter thirteen explores the development of the black community in Albuquerque, New Mexico; in almost every respect it has more in common with chapter one’s examination of black Houston than it does with its companion pieces on transdisciplinary scholarship. Likewise, chapter fourteen, on the ways that representations of the West in mass culture have excluded African Americans, seems better suited for the preceding unit entitled “Entertainment and Representation.” Part Five concludes with an interview transcript drawn from the same methodology as the oral history from Part One.
Despite these limitations, this anthology contains a wealth of helpful historical and bibliographical information on the often-underrepresented experiences of African Americans in the urban communities of the West. Ruffin and Mack deserve credit for taking on the important and difficult task of assembling this material for the benefit of the next generation of scholars.
ADAM LEE CILLI is a lecturer of history at Texas A&M University in San Antonio, where he teaches courses in U.S. and African American history. His research reexamines how middle-class black reformers negotiated the challenging racial landscape of urban communities outside the Jim Crow South. He has published his work in the Journal of Urban History and is currently writing a book on African American activists in interwar Pittsburgh.