The Long Struggle of African American Placemaking

The Long Struggle of African American Placemaking

Continuing our roundtable on We We Eight Years in Power, today we share a post by Kelly Houston Jones, an assistant professor of history at Austin Peay State University. Her research focuses on slavery, agriculture, and the environment in the trans-Mississippi South.

Previous installments of the roundtable are available here and here and subsequent posts are available here and here.

The power of space and place persists in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new compilation, We Were Eight Years in Power. The importance of black homes and neighborhoods looms large in Coates’ reflections on white supremacy’s plundering of black families and futures. Much of that discussion, especially in “The Case for Reparations,” focuses on housing in the twentieth century. Discriminatory laws and practices directed white families to purchase homes that would increase in value and secure buyers’ financial futures, while African American prospective homeowners in and around cities like Chicago were cheated out of ownership by contract scams and relegated to redlined neighborhoods that only depreciated in value. Home ownership, a powerful symbol of the American dream, represented not only economic independence, but autonomy in space—a place where black families could love, nurture, and grow, away from the piercing eyes of white America. Simultaneously, the spaces of homes and neighborhoods served as sites of respectability (the politics of respectability admittedly frustrates Coates), displaying “middle class” values of neatness and hard work that countless black families have leveraged in the attempt to gain respect from whites over generations. It is no wonder, then, that neighborhoods became a battleground. The power of space and place is also evident in Coates’ other mentions of places like Black Wall Street, a sector of prosperous black businesses in Tulsa Oklahoma, which whites torched in 1921. That space harbored and cultivated the black entrepreneurial spirit and offered a contradiction to white supremacy.

Those complicated threads connecting space and place with autonomy, oppression, and resistance reach back to slavery, an institution that Coates refers to time and again in order to drive home the bracing fact that America’s roots are bondage and white supremacy. Reading Coates’ reflections on homes, neighborhoods and families immediately brought to my mind the influential work of the late Tony Kaye. Joining Places shows neighborhoods as the most important “terrain of struggle” for African Americans in bondage. Adjoining farms and plantations created the world in which black men and women forged family ties and a sense of community amid the horrors of bondage. The neighborhood was “the domain of all the bonds that constituted their daily routine” and it was created by enslaved people’s own sense of place—the hills, streams, and bottomlands that they paced as they move through their own social lives, not the gridded surveys that whites used to cut up acreage into fiber factories. This sense of neighborhood was always under construction, however, as slaveholders repeatedly severed ties between family and friends via moves and sales. Place making, then, remained a constant struggle.[1]

The cabins in which enslaved people dwelt also represented ongoing efforts to carve meaning and power out of space. Stephanie Camp explained the quarters as “extensions of two worlds.” Those structures made up a portion of the “public life of the plantation” as spaces to house those who labored over the cash crop and as spaces in which the next generation of laborers were conceived and born. Thus, the quarters remained part of the reproduction of labor. At the same time, those modest cabins incubated the family and community life of those held in bondage, serving as “essential elements in the rival geography.” Camp described enslaved people’s homes as political sites as well, where they contemplated freedom, and where at least a few women displayed abolitionist prints on the walls. Perhaps a far cry from the homebuyers’ activist groups that Coates describes as a pushback against the predatory contract sellers in the twentieth century, but the work of Camp and others reminds us that the story of the politics of black domestic spaces is a long one.

These slave quarters and homes are where African American families resisted the “plundering” that Coates emphasizes throughout his references to slavery and early black America. Parents nourished and instructed their children in the quarters, passing down traditions and creating new ones. Their housing could also serve as the repositories of enslaved people’s gains in hunting, fishing, or clandestinely trading. For some, the small plots surrounding their cabins might yield produce to augment diets, or, for the very fortunate, a space to grow a bit of the cash crop for sale.[2]

The Civil War changed the terrain of struggle, and the fight for the meaning of space and place took on even higher stakes. Formerly enslaved people immediately identified land ownership as central to their meaning of freedom and argued their “right to the soil,” as Coates quotes in the opening to “The Case for Reparations.” Not only had they earned it with their generations of toil, but freedpeople also understood landholding as the best hope for their economic survival and successful entrance into equal citizenship. Long before home ownership in suburbia symbolized the American dream and afforded the most obvious investment route to economic self-sufficiency, it was the ownership over one’s own farm acreage that signaled economic independence, citizenship, and autonomy for black southerners. As many Reconstruction scholars have shown, however, whites snuffed out the opportunity at landholding and rolled back black-owned acreage in the decades after the Civil War.[3] Readers might look into Pete Daniel’s Dispossession for that trend’s continuity in the mid-twentieth century, which occurred simultaneous to the northern housing discrimination crisis Coates chronicles.[4]

Space and place as theorized by historians of the Civil War era create a thread connecting much of Coates’ musings and arguments. Families carved meaningful spaces out of the sites of their bondage, ached with disappointment when blocked from the freedom and independence of land ownership in the aftermath of the great struggle with chattel slavery. While their grandchildren may have been able to flee their stagnant status in the South to pursue the promises of urban, worldly, sites up North, place making remained a dangerous struggle.


[1] Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 4.

[2] Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 93.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017), 164. An invaluable source of freedpeoples’ voices on this and other subjects is Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, Land and Labor, edited by Steven Hahn, Steven Miller, Susan O’Donovan, John Rodrigue, and Leslie Rowland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013-2016).

[4] Pete Daniel, Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Readers might also be interested in Debra Reid’s Beyond Forty Acres and a Mule: African American Landowning Families since Reconstruction (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012).

Kelly Houston Jones

Kelly Houston Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her research interests include the connections between black life, agriculture, and the environment under slavery, usually focusing on the Trans-Mississippi South. Jones is currently at work on a manuscript about slave life on the ground in Arkansas. Readers can find her work in Agricultural History and the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, as well as in several edited volumes, such as Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas, edited by John A. Kirk, and, most recently, Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas from Slavery through the 1930s, edited by Guy Lancaster.

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