Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Silkenat, David
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Brown, Leslie
Accession Number: 230778730
Full Text: Upbuilding Black Durham: Gender, Class, and Black Community Development in the Jim Crow South. By Leslie Brown (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. xiii plus 451 pp. $24.95).

In her 2004 Presidential Address to the Organization, of American Historians, Jaoquelyn Dowd Hall urged historians to probe more deeply into what she described as the "Long Civil Rights Movement," to move beyond a conceptualization that limited the struggle for black equality to the decade between Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), and to construct narratives that emphasize individual and collective African American agency in the lengthy struggle against Jim Crow. (1) In this nuanced, deeply researched, and long awaited study, Leslie Brown examines how African American residents of Durham, North Carolina sought to construct social and economic institutions between emancipation and the New Deal. Central to Brown's argument is the idea that "upbuilding of Black Durham," a phrase she borrows from W.E.B. Du Bois, manifested internal tensions within the African American community over class, generation, and especially gender.

Black leaders and intellectuals heralded Durham as an exemplar of African American economic and social achievement. Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and E. Franklin Frazier praised the city as the "Capital of the Black Middle Class" and as a symbol of the "progress of the Negro American." The success of Durham's black community, Brown argues, comes in large part from a willingness by the city's black leadership to accept segregation and construct, financial and social institutions "behind the veil" of Jim Crow. As a consequence, black financial institutions, such as the Mechanics and Farmers Bank and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and social institutions, such as Lincoln Hospital, the Tubman YWCA, and the North Carolina College for Negroes, survived when comparable institutions in other cities became targets for white violence.

Despite the progress of the black community in Durham, the benefits of upbuilding were not distributed equally. Black women, particularly working class black women, did not benefit as much as black men from Durham's black institutions. Working in tobacco factories, as domestic servants, and as teachers, working class black women who suffered the most under Jim Crow found that Durham's African American elite often stymied their efforts for equal wages and undermining unions. The significantly smaller number of well-educated black women who worked at North Carolina Mutual and other financial institutions also found themselves under the watchful eye of their employers, who associated propriety and respectability with uplift and demanded a strict observance of proscribed gender roles. Younger African Americans who aligned themselves with the NAACP and sought to combat Jim Crow in the courts also found their efforts obstructed by the established black elite who had cultivated and defended a detente with Durham's white leaders.

Given Brown's attention to detail, two lacunae in Upbuilding Black Durham are worth noting. First, despite the detailed analysis the Brown provides for working class, middle class, and elite black women and for a number of prominent black men, she does not offer much of a portrait of working class black men. While Brown notes that Durham's black population was predominantly female, the absence of working class black men (outside of their role as soldiers in World War I) is striking. Second, Brown never provides a thorough explanation for the book's chronological hounds and its somewhat abrupt ending in the 1930s. The reader is left wondering how the tensions expressed in Upbuilding Black Durham contributed to or hindered later civil rights efforts. While Brown makes allusion to their effect in the conclusion, more direct connections would have been illuminating. These minor caveats do not significantly detract from an otherwise excellent book.

Upbuilding Slack Durham provides a well-researched, textured, and eloquent community study that highlights the forms of cooperation and conflict between white and black Durhamites and within Durham's black community. This useful and stimulating addition to the literature should be read by those interested in the complexity of the African American experience under Jim Crow.


(1.) Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," Journal of American History (Match 2005).

David Silkenat

North Dakota State University
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