Discussions of race and community relations in all facets of American life are often limited to generalized attitudes that are at base, interracial. That is to say, the dominant, or white culture, sets standards for the perceived subordinate culture. The expectation is that all cultures that make up the United States must adhere to what is American in order to benefit from the promises of America and its Constitution, that of liberty and prosperity. To complicate matters, the dominant culture also dictates who reaps the benefits of Americanism, despite behavior.
Throughout American history there have been many folks who challenge such notions for the sake of a single cause. Whether it is the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, or education and housing reform, protest, or the ability of an oppressed group to say “no” to injustice and lack of choice grounded this nation. While on the surface such protests are commendable and admirable, an undercurrent exists that is usually left unchecked. Freedom to earn money and prosper as well as own land is within ones rights as an American that have been upheld as “self-evident.
What complicates such a simplistic and arguably accessible accomplishment is that one group determines how far another group can go, the extent its members can be successful. This notion of superiority is seen within cultures in this country as well. When discussing the history of Blacks in America, the legacy of slavery must be acknowledged as a constant line feeding into ideas of superiority. Such ideas permeate attitudes of whites towards blacks, yet ironically; it also nourishes beliefs within the black community and causes the drawing of class distinctions.
Adopting the attitudes and beliefs of ones oppressors and pinning such expectations –not being open to examining and maintaining ones own culture in the midst of or in spite of a dominant culture contributes to the holding back of progress. It can be construed that uplifting the race, based on white paternalistic notions of respectability serves a very limited purpose. Ignoring or attempting to eradicate free black Americans relatively young past in order to accept and uphold standards designed for another culture, namely the dominant one, only serves to polarize an already fragmented culture.
Since before freedom, free blacks in the North established class lines comparable to their white counterparts. There was a clear black aristocracy made up of well-educated, wealthy and professional blacks. Many determined that the closer they were to white culture the more superior, much like the stratification that existed on slave plantations when the slaves who possessed the lighter complexions found themselves working closer to the master and his family. Such slaves often experienced privileges that the darker-skinned slaves could not even imagine. The legacy of slavery is most prevalent as class distinctions are drawn among blacks.
Where this is seen even more, ironically at time just a half-century beyond slavery, is during the Great Migration. Many established northern blacks saw themselves as successful, having achieved middle class status. While working on uplifting the race to a level of respectability, that is, a most acceptable group among middle class whites, they adhered to faith, hope, and charity. Faith occurred in the form of the church, hope in the manner in which many experienced prosperity, and charity, that which was offered the less fortunate migrants fresh from the cotton fields, who needed to be groomed for proper behavior.
Even with faith, hope, and charity, like their white counterparts, the sense of superiority among the established black community made it clear that only a select few would reap the benefits of the liberty and prosperity promised to all. Eastern cities like Washington, DC had a clear distinction between free blacks and the black aristocracy. The lines were drawn with regard to churches one attended, clubs in which one belonged, and neighborhoods where one could purchase homes. Likewise, whites, too, determined class lines based on what they deemed appropriate behavior of the Negro.
For example, in 1916 Mary Church Terrell, daughter of one of America’s first black millionaires, was refused service at a drug store soda fountain. She and her husband formally protested to the store manager, who immediately apologized for the clerk and said, “We do not care to serve people of any race at our fountain who are not genteel, but such objection certainly could not obtain against your wife, yourself and any high class colored person” (Gatewood 67). Clearly for some whites the aristocrat of color warranted different and better treatment than did ordinary blacks.
In black communities throughout the US, old established families occupied a position of aristocracy. As a black observer noted, “almost all communities possess a few thoroughbred families who glory in lineal ancestry and carry wherever they go the tone and flavor of unconscious refinement, pride, that manifest their culture, achievement, behavior, and ancestry. Family trees genealogical charts often included an assortment of European noblemen, white American statesmen, African kings, and Indian Chieftains. Even Chicago where there is nothing old, I found the same spirit” (Higgenbotham 70).
In Chicago the black population in 1880 was 6480 and increased seven-fold by 1910. There were groups called the 400, the upper 10’s, and the high-toned people. (Higgenbotham 117). Stratification in black society, one Chicago editor noted was “proceeding along its natural course exactly analogous, or at least similar to, the formation of social groups of the white race in this country” (Gatewood 124). The Great Migration forced the established Black community in Chicago to make major adjustments and accommodations.
Historically, black churches and civic groups had, like their counterparts in the South, resisted any involvement in social issues. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, however, simply could not be ignored; churches, being African- Americans richest and most influential institutions, were quickly called to action in the effort to help migrants properly adjust themselves to life in Chicago. Blacks already living in Chicago, Old Settlers were aware of the implications of the Great Migration. The Old Settlers strove to establish respect from whites and a sense of equality within the city’s socio-economics system.
With the arrival of southern blacks, most of whom were unfamiliar with urban mores, the Old Settlers feared that the progress they had achieved would be dashed. They feared that all whites would equate all blacks with the rural and uneducated migrants. Moreover, the Old Settlers realized the enormous strains placed on many of the migrants who arrived lacking a place to live or a sense of direction in the achievement of personal stability. This is where the church and civic organizations played a big role in offering shelter, food, and clothes to the migrants until they could do for themselves.
These organizations provided services for migrants, such as assisting them in obtaining a job. They did it for charity yet the self-interest; yet capitalism was ever present. Borrowing from ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, the church and civic groups adopted the lifting as we climb approach. For men it was good for business, for the women, status was most crucial so they were motivated by position in the community to be charitable. This is many ways mimics the white progressives whose Christian-based affect was prevalent in their charitable work.
Likewise, a certain sense of hypocrisy and fear of association influenced the intentions and efforts to Americanize, or make the migrants Chicagoans, the people they were assisting, often resulted in a miscarriage of sensitivity to the values of an established culture. Gwendolyn Wright in her text Building the Dream offers that such reformers “did bring much genuine concern, but they brought moralistic middle-class biases to their crusade” (Wright 129). This attitude had an impact on the housing issue for blacks in Chicago as lines were drawn, gates were built, and people were shut out.
For so many, Chicago was the land of promise and potential. The dream of liberty and prosperity seemed very close at hand as hopeful migrants left their homes in the Deep South. They met many established Blacks in Northern urban centers who “visualized the progress of their race in terms of education, personal economic success, judicious political action, and co-operation with powerful and influential white people” (Drake 51). From 1890 to 1920 economic, political, and social lives of blacks in Chicago underwent tremendous transformation. (Knupfer 30).
It was believed that the influx of blacks had “Negroes rapidly replacing foreigners as Chicago’s problem” (Drake 60). Given this information, advancing the race became an issue and many aristocratic and middle-class blacks felt the dichotomy of being black in America much like their foreign counterparts; allegiance to an ethnic group as well as to America. The result of this duality lead to the class divisions reminiscent of the days of slavery. The select few living life much like the whites or aspiring to do so and many left behind eating the scraps, when they could get them.
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