Linked directly to social status, identity, and citizenship, access to educational resources has been a pressing issue for generations of African Americans since the antebellum era. Following emancipation, during the short-lived epoch of Reconstruction and the long-drawn-out era of Jim Crow segregation, African Americans’ enduring odyssey for knowledge and educational capital through a variety of institutions—such as primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, literary societies, and libraries—became even more important. In distinct yet complementary ways, the two books under investigation here pertain to how African Americans, with little or no federal and local funding, struggled to acquire knowledge and education, to establish viable independent institutions, and to resist white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Hilary Green’s Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865–1890, probes how two urban African American communities in collaboration with well-meaning, progressive white allies conceptualized, founded, and maintained an identifiable and vibrant “system of education” (an urban-centered movement that differed from Booker T. Washington’s more rural-concentrated crusade) during Reconstruction and the early years of “the nadir” of black life (162). Organized chronologically, Green’s study is shaped largely by how these various campaigns for high-quality education gradually transformed over time. Cheryl Knott’s award-winning Not Free, Not for All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow explores another black-education creation story: the founding and preservation of “public library collections and services” for (and sometimes established by) blacks in the South during the first six decades of the twentieth century. Unlike Green’s thorough microstudy, Knott’s wide-reaching narrative consists of numerous examples from throughout the nation for more than half a century. For African Americans during the era of Jim Crow, Knott argues, libraries served as significant conduits of education and identity formation, “universities of the people,” and “secular social spaces” (3, 167). Green uses the port cities of Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama, as case studies to examine what she terms “Educational Reconstruction,” a complex process that entailed “urban African Americans’ process of building networks to yield a sustainable system of schools for the largely under- and uneducated masses from emancipation to the failed passage of a federal funding bill in 1890” (2). According to Green, the undertheorized period that she investigates is vital to understanding later developments and was an epoch, despite the period’s overtly anti-black mood, during which African American educator-activists’ various campaigns for high-quality education were in some measure a successful starting point for future reform movements. Her work not only sheds light on the under-acknowledged efforts of local educator-activists, but she bridges the fields of African American history, U.S. educational history, and urban history. Written in a straightforward manner and free from academic jargon and unnecessary shout-outs to scholars, Educational Reconstruction is logically subdivided into four parts and eight tight and focused chapters. The two chapters in each part separately treat black Richmonders’ and Mobilians’ struggles. Part I explores the concept of “Educational Reconstruction” under the Freedman’s Bureau in Richmond and Mobile, highlighting the varied relationships between this institution, African American educator-activists, philanthropists, school administrators, local politicians, and white supporters and detractors. Part II focuses on the daily grind and campaigns of African American public school teachers and their activist-oriented progeny in Mobile’s Emerson Normal school and Richmond Colored Normal. Part III forthrightly builds upon the previous section by stressing how black Richmonders and Mobilians sought to, despite monumental challenges, create “enduring institutions.” In part IV, Green showcases the challenges that her educator-activists faced from the early 1880s until the failed Blair Education Bill of 1890, which, along with the ascendency of Booker T. Washington, signaled the end of “Educational Reconstruction.” In the end, for Green, her African American subjects—with help from a group of white allies—paved the way for future struggles. Green meticulously draws upon a range of sources including traditional archives, newspapers, speeches, creative musings, and organizational records to tell her story. In doing so, she introduces her readers to many lesser-known and even obscure (to most) black educator-activists—such as William D. Harris, Daniel Webster Davis, Rosa Dixon, Sara Stanley Woodward, William Aymar Caldwell, John Oliver, John W. Cromwell, Robert L. Dabney, and countless other ministers, local community spokespersons, parents, students and graduates, and educator-activists. Green’s study is not simply a praise song to educational reformers, whom she clearly admires. She provides examples of debates within the black community and of intraracial conflict, as exemplified with Mobile’s creoles of color. In this microhistory, Green intermittently situates the experiences of black Richmonders and Mobilians in a broader national context. Indeed, readers can glean from her work the significance of salient themes in the black experience such as educational reform, representation, resistance, community building and organizing, leadership, coalition building, economics, political mobilization, and, of course, the enduring struggle for citizenship and freedom. Yet those particularly interested in black life in Richmond and Mobile from emancipation until the dawning of the Gay Nineties will benefit most from Educational Reconstruction. Written more like a trade-press narrative with engrossing photographs than a conventional historical monograph, Knott’s Not Free, Not for All can appeal to scholars in many fields, from African American history to black studies to library and information science. Her passionate claims are big and unambiguous: “The history of racially segregated libraries has the potential to change our theories of print culture, our assessment of library history and information policy, and our story of the civil rights movement” (3). In essence, Knott’s goal is to “counter the hegemonic narrative of white public library history” (16). Following a compelling introduction that engages with several library and information science–studies theories and overviews the growth of U.S. libraries during the Jim Crow era, Knott canvases how African Americans resisted white supremacy by creating their own libraries, using white libraries, and challenging the racist system of denied intellectual access from the late nineteenth century through Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and a bit beyond. For Knott, at bottom, the creation of black libraries was “a result of their desire for an intellectual and political life” (60) and these libraries constituted “purpose-built structures” and “secular social spaces” that had monumental symbolic and practical value for black communities (153, 167). Although at times Knott’s engaging narrative jumps back and forth between time periods, her study is subdivided into nine brief, chronologically organized chapters. For those unfamiliar with this fascinating history and books like Eliza Atkins Gleason’s pathbreaking The Southern Negro and the Public Library: A Study of the Government and Administration of Public Library Service to Negroes in the South (1941), the wide array of information that Knott unearths is almost bewildering. Nevertheless, she unquestionably nuances further how African Americanists in particular have conventionally been socialized to interpret the Jim Crow era. The smallest details that she presents provoke thought; at least they did for this reviewer. For instance, Knott notes that in 1916 there were only thirty-five libraries open to black people in the South (41), that by 1947 only 225 public libraries in the Southeast (38 percent of the total there) served black people (151), and that it was not until 1959, five years after Brown v. Board, that the first African American person checked out books from the city of Atlanta’s main library (254). Among other provocative details and phenomena, Knott unpacks the deep history of African Americans’ quest for literacy and its connections to libraries within the context of the southern education movement, the history of black book publishing and print culture, the at times thorny yet impactful African American library–related efforts of the Carnegie Corporation and the Rosenwald Foundation, the gradual desegregation of southern public libraries, the contents of various black library collections, and even the reading materials that more than a few African American borrowers checked out from libraries in the South. Like Green, Knott also profiles the endeavors of many African American activists who fought for their people’s right to have equal access to educational raw materials and capital. I found her discussions of the black library movement in Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; Houston, Texas (following the establishment of the Colored Carnegie Library in 1913); New Orleans, Louisiana; and Tulsa, Oklahoma (before and after the devastating 1921 race riot that left most of Greenwood in ashes), to be particularly captivating and informative (65). Green’s and Knott’s books both end on rather somber notes. In her final chapter, “Opening Access,” Knott points out that while some libraries in the South were desegregated in the 1940s and later by Brown v. Board, others were much slower to grant access “to all.” Echoing Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” mantra, Knott suggests that the history of racially segregated public libraries is directly related to some of the educational disparities that persist in today’s digital era. This reviewer would have appreciated more discussions of the past’s connections to the present. Educational Reconstruction and Not Free, Not for All certainly differ in terms of subject matter, style, scope, and chronology. They do, however, complement one another. In the simplest terms, they both contribute significantly to how we interpret African Americans’ struggles for equal access to knowledge acquisition, education, and, fundamentally, basic civil and human rights during the era of Jim Crow segregation. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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