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Sense of Place, Sense of Place, 0817309691, 0-8173-0969-1, 978-0-8173-0969-5, 9780817309695,

Sense of Place
Birminghams Black Middle-Class Community, 1890-1930
by Lynne Feldman

Quality Paper
1999. 328 pp.
Price:  $34.95 s

This portrait of a thriving middle-class African American community showcases the way its citizens overcame racial hostility and developed a sense of place and collective identity.  

In the early 20th century, city boosters in Birmingham, Alabama, annexed the town of Smithfield as part of a larger effort to enlarge the city and broaden its tax base. While the area attracted both whites and blacks seeking to escape the city's cramped living conditions, African Americans, especially, found Smithfield enticing. Here, separated from the city where Jim Crow laws restricted their day-to-day activities, middle-class blacks found they were able to assert considerable influence over their home environments. 

Lynne Feldman draws from a wealth of primary sources, including personal interviews, to demonstrate how such a community developed and thrived. She finds that middle-class blacks, guided by a philosophy of self-improvement, racial solidarity, and economic independence, actively shaped the world around them, developing black businesses, private clubs, and institutions that promoted community pride and provided refuge from racial discrimination. Blacks developed a workable relationship with white benefactors to achieve some of these important civic improvements. 

The community certainly struggled with internal conflicts. Feldman's study, for example, reveals how middle-class blacks separated themselves socially from lower-class blacks, while relying on them to patronize their businesses. In general, however, African Americans in this protective environment could assert their independence, nurture personal relationships, and develop strategies to implement progress. 

Although their lives unfolded against the backdrop of prejudice and discrimination, middle-class African Americans worked to improve an environment over which they had significantly more control. Feldman concludes that a strategy of self-segregation worked for the community as gains were realized in a variety of arenas including business, education, and civic reform.  


Lynne B. Feldman is an independent scholar living in Toronto.

"Lynne Feldman's meticulous use of manuscript sources, oral interviews, rare published materials, and legal documents carefully reconstructs the lives and activities of Birmingham's black middle class at the turn of the century. Feldman is sensitive to issues of intraracial class conflict and gender concerns. Her brief biographical  sketches  of  the  city's leading  black  businessmen,  clergymen, club  women,  and  other  civic  leaders, as  well  as  the   institutional  histories  of  black businesses, churches, and Masonic  groups,  makes  this  an important  study  for  all  historians interested  in  the period. "
—Glenn T. Eskew  Georgia State University

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