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H. Raphael-Hernandez on A. D. Nieves and L. M. Alexander’s “We Shall Independent Be”: African American Place Making

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1Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander. Eds. “We Shall Independent Be”: African American Place Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2008. xvi + pp. 538.

2In their collection of essays, Angel David Nieves and Leslie M. Alexander offer a space to twenty contributors who explore the history of the African American search and struggle to claim particular public places in the United States that were necessary for African American survival and transformation. The essays range from the antebellum United States to present time, covering diverse terrains such as urban and suburban places to swamps and forests. Scholars in history, architecture, women’s studies, Black theology, and city planning explore locations such as burial grounds, courtrooms, schools, churches, and street cars. Despite their incredible diversity of locations, historical periods, and scholarly approaches, most of the essays are connected because of their convincing nexus: by identifying and examining the stories of contested sites, they intend to demonstrate the power of African-American self-definition and agency when staking claim to public space.

3While Nieves’s assertion in his introduction to the novelty and the pioneering contribution of the collection that “even today, there is relatively little literature that critically considers African Americans as active agents of their own social change through space making in the face of racial segregation and political disenfranchisement” (4) sounds a bit overdone for a 2008 publication and can easily be contested—one just has to glance through the catalogues of the University Presses of recent years—, the editors still offer an indispensable collection. Preceded by Nieves’s introduction, the twenty essays are organized in six parts.

4Part I, “Community Building,” begins with two excellent antebellum New York City essays, one of the editors’, Leslie Alexander’s, own analysis of the Seneca Village 1825-1857, followed by Carla Peterson’s look at the draft riots in 1863. Both argue that America still has to understand and admit that place, property, and community have always been defined largely in racial terms. Moving Alexander’s and Peterson’s claim into the 20th century, Mark Santow examines Chicago’s Woodlawn Organization in the 1960s, “one of the largest and most powerful African American community groups in the nation” (72).

5Part II, “Intellectual and Political Space,” makes the reader look anew at specific examples of the classroom, the courtroom, and the institutional space with Michael Dennis offering in his essay a portray of Luther P. Jackson, a professor at Virginia State College in Petersburg, and his voting right advocacy, and Derrick White examining in his essay the Institute of the Black World, founded 1969 in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Georgia. In his fascinating and well-documented essay “Claiming the Courtroom: Space, Race, and Law, 1808-1859,” Scott Hancock demonstrates how African Americans in Massachusetts began to claim the lower courts as their public space, thus marking “a place for [themselves] in a key public space of the legal system by tapping into the law’s multiple ideologies about order, citizenship, and equality” (138).

6Part III, “Segregated Spaces,” presents one of the strongest and most coherent parts of the collection. In her engaging and provocative essay, Ann Denkler looks at an agitprop and counter dedication action to a purported slave auction block in Luray, Virginia in 1998. She suggests that while “some current academic theories claim that the practice of heritage is false, misguided, and saturated in nostalgia […] this block is proof that notions of heritage are paramount to personal and community identity, and that African American public history and material culture have the power to subvert the status quo by their very presence” (189). At first glance, Kevin Kruse’s look at Atlanta’s residential segregation in the 1940s in his “Going Colored: Struggle over Race and Residence in the Urban South” seems not to offer anything novel to current scholarship. However, his discussion suggests the new perspective that the struggle over the neighbourhood of Atlanta’s Mozley Park helped Black leaders to learn a larger lesson for future struggles to come. Kruse argues, “Sensing the stakes of the games, they now realized the degree to which black expansion would be bitterly resented and resisted by local whites. Accordingly, they adopted a stronger determination to fight for their rightful places—physical, political, social, and legal—in southern society” (216). Investigating early Black suburbanization with the case study of Chagrin Falls Park, Ohio, Andrew Wiese argues that the early presence of African American suburbanites in northern suburbs suggests that “we need to reconceptualize suburbanization to mean the whole expansion of American cities beyond their bonds, not just the celebrated decentralization of the white middle class” (225). Finally, Megan Kate Nelson returns to a historical place in the pre-Civil War United States; in her poignant “Hidden Away in Woods and Swamps,” she looks at fugitive slaves and swamplands in the southeastern borderlands from 1739-1845.

7Part IV, “Schools and Educational Spaces,” begins with Mary Hoffschwelle’s essay about the Rosenwald school building program in the South of the early 20th century. Her essay is a reminder of the editors’ seemingly struggle to find a nexus for all essays included. Their introductory claim that while the essays appear “with little or no connection between them” (2), they would still be all connected because of their portrayal of African American self-determination and their own active agency in white hostile environments (4) seems not to hold for this particular contribution because Hoffschwelle opens her essay with the statement that the Rosenwald school project “brought together philanthropists, educators, architects, both black and white citizens, creating new educational space for black children in fifteen southern states” (275). Yet her essay still offers a worthwhile reading. In his own essay, “We Are Too Busy Making History,” co-editor Angel David Nieves contends that African American women’s reform efforts of the 1890s were essential in creating a Black national forum. Stefan Bradley concludes Part IV with his description of the 1960s struggle between Columbia University and its neighbours over Columbia’s attempt of gaining new investment property.

8Robin F. Bachin opens Part V, “Urban Space and Leisure,” with her investigation into the struggle over social space and leisure activities during the first two decades of the 20th century in the South Side of Chicago. Convincingly arguing that while urban spaces such as Chicago’s Stroll, the section of State Street that was crowded with restaurants, theatres and cabarets and represented “a ‘Mecca for Pleasure’ for local residents as well as visitors, blacks as well as whites” (352) played an important role in shaping ideas about Black identity and race pride in the urban North, Bachin contends that these spaces also brought to light a more elusive racial boundary between public spaces in Chicago that echoed and later challenged the racial separation of sites of leisure in the urban North. Likewise, Michelle Scott offers a revisit to another ‘Mecca for Pleasure’, to Chattanooga’s Ninth Street in Tennessee in her “The ‘Sweetest Street in the World’: Recreational Life on Chattanooga’s Ninth Street.” Michael Kahan’s essay represents another example of the collection’s struggle of organizing the essays into their respective parts. Kahan moves his readership back into antebellum North America in his “Rights of Passage: The Integration of Philadelphia’s Streetcars and Contested Definitions of Public Space, 1857-1867” and outlines this city’s Black community’s struggle to form organizations and institutions to uplift the race. However, while one cannot really see the connection to “Leisure,” his essay is still worthwhile reading.

9Similarly, Part VI, “Churches and Sacred Spaces,” suffers from the problem of coherence. In their last part, the editors assemble four essays that seem rather be connected in their left-over status. Nonetheless, they present important contributions to the overall focus of the collection. In his “Putting the Movement in Its Place: The Politics of Public Spaces Dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement,” Owen J. Dwyer examines the design and location of civil rights memorials in Atlanta, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee. Rural churches in the Jim Crow South represented important spaces for ethnic identity, religion, and education as Carroll Van West argues with the example of Tennessee in his “Sacred Spaces of Faith, Community, and Resistance: Rural African American Churches in Jim Crow Tennessee.” Being a bit out of place in a collection about space, Patrick Q. Mason’s essay “’In Our Image, After Our Likeness’: The Meaning of a Black Deity in the African American Protest Movement, 1880-1970” still offers a fascinating reading of the correlation between the beliefs in the racial identity of the Christian God and social protest movements among male reformers. In her essay “Reclaiming Space: The African Burial Ground in New York City,” Andrea Frohne looks at the burial ground as a place for memory making, self-definition, and political activism among Black New Yorkers.

10However, despite some of the flows of the anthology, many of its essays are very thoughtful and original, and they succeed in offering fresh scholarship for the study of race and space. One can only agree with Darlene Clark Hine who writes in her blurb that the collection reveals “the myriad ways in which African Americans struggled to claim and develop spaces and places essential to survival and social transformation.”

Heike Raphael-Hernandez, University of Maryland in Europe, Germany

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« H. Raphael-Hernandez on A. D. Nieves and L. M. Alexander’s “We Shall Independent Be”: African American Place Making… », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2009, document 17, Online since 01 November 2009, connection on 25 May 2018. URL :

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