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  • Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White by William Sturkey
  • Mark Newman
Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White. by William Sturkey (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2019) 442 pp. $29.95

In this well-written study, Sturkey aims "to tell the story of the rise and fall of Jim Crow in Hattiesburg, Mississippi" by discussing the experiences of whites and African Americans in alternating chapters (7). Drawing from the papers of prominent individuals, civil-rights organizations, and activists; oral histories and interviews; institutional records; and [End Page 617] newspapers, Sturkey focuses on white political and economic leaders and the African-American Smith family, who were "heavily involved in local black business, religious, educational, and civic organizations" (6). To a lesser extent, he also considers trends in the everyday experience of the mass of Hattiesburg's people, especially African Americans. Neither his sources nor his methodology venture outside the discipline of history.

Founded in 1880, Hattiesburg's prosperity centered on lumber, railroads, manufacturing, and the military, and it depended on northern investment and federal government support, which "often resulted in subtler alterations to Jim Crow" (8). Migration to segregated Hattiesburg from rural Mississippi and other southern states enabled African Americans "to develop their own societies and institutions that enriched black life" and afforded them some degree of autonomy, despite underfunded black public schools, exclusion, disfranchisement, lynching, and widespread economic dependence on whites (9). Blacks shared "communal values of racial uplift and self-help" that sustained them (186). Eventually, many of them sought to escape new forms of racial oppression that had accompanied modernization, such as segregation and lynching, by moving to northern cities, sometimes migrating in organized groups.

Beginning in the late 1940s, an increasing northern black vote put pressure on the "federal government whose authority rapidly expanded between the 1930s and 1960s" to dismantle Jim Crow (8). A more favorable federal climate encouraged Africans Americans in Hattiesburg to move from seeking improvements within segregation to challenging discrimination outright. When outside civil-rights activists arrived in the early 1960s, they stimulated a distinctive movement that was characterized by direct action and organized through black institutions and networks that were by-products of segregation.

Sturkey is refreshingly frank in his analysis. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy served to assuage damaged southern white pride but paid "homage to a failed nation whose primary objective was the maintenance of black slavery" (77). Segregation led to the creation of black middle-class leadership rooted in business, schools, and churches and of African-Americans institutions that improved black education, employment, and prospects, while insulating some blacks from many of the worst features of white oppression. Yet, life for many African Americans in Hattiesburg, although better than sharecropping or tenancy, was often limiting, humiliating, harsh, insecure, and dependant. White leaders courted northern and federal investment but appealed to states' rights whenever such aid threatened to undermine white supremacy. Segregationists lambasted federal civil-rights support as an abuse of power but urged the Federal Bureau of Investigation to examine the tax-exempt status of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, Inc.

Readers familiar with the racial history of the New South will not find any new revelations in this book, and Sturkey rarely contextualizes [End Page 618] his findings within historiography. He argues for a short civil-rights movement confined to the 1960s but does not link it to the debate among civil-rights historians about the movement's longevity, composition, and goals. He devotes only one of his twelve chapters to the movement and ends with Freedom Summer in 1964. His conclusion briefly considers subsequent developments, and he admits that "this book is far more concerned with Jim Crow itself than with the more widely celebrated history of the civil rights movement" (5).

Although Sturkey claims to have selected "representative individuals," the lives of local leaders in the black and white communities were by their nature atypical (5). Without explanation, he argues, unconvincingly, that "this very exceptionalism and the historical documentation that they left behind . . . makes the Smith family such an ideal lens through which to document black life" (6). Alternating chapters between whites and...


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