“Before Brown”: A CBFS Interview

African American Women Military Nurses, England, August 21, 1944 (LOC)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn C. Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion “Before Brown” scheduled for February 1st, we are highlighting the scholarship of three of the guests.

Dr. Matthew Delmont is the Frank J. Guarini Associate Dean of International Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies and the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History. An expert on African-American History and the history of Civil Rights, he is the author of Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (Viking Books, 2022), which received the Ansfield-Wolf Book Award. He is also the author four previous books: Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers (Stanford University Press, 2019); Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (University of California Press, 2016); Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (UC Press, 2016); and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia (UC Press, 2012). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Public Scholar Award to support this research. In addition to these books, he regularly shares his research with media outlets, including the New York Times, NPRTheAtlantic.comWashington Post, and The ConversationDr. Delmont has spoken and consulted with Fortune 500 companies, universities, colleges, and community organizations regarding African American history, civil rights, and how to reckon with the history of racism in America.

Cookie Woolner is a cultural historian of race, gender, and sexuality in the modern U.S. She is an Associate Professor in the History department at the University of Memphis. Her recently published book, “The Famous Lady Lovers:” African American Women and Same-Sex Desire Before Stonewall (UNC Press), explores the lives of of Black women who loved women in the Interwar era.

Dylan C. Penningroth specializes in African American history and in U.S. socio-legal history. His first book, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), won the Avery Craven Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His articles have appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, the Journal of American History, the American Historical Review, and the Journal of Family History. Penningroth has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the Stanford Humanities Center, and has been recognized by the Organization of American Historians’ Huggins-Quarles committee, a Weinberg College Teaching Award (Northwestern University), a McCormick Professorship of Teaching Excellence (Northwestern), and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Before joining UC Berkeley in 2015, Dylan Penningroth was on the faculty of the History Department at the University of Virginia (1999-2002), at Northwestern University (2002-2015), and a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation (2007-2015). Penningroth’s new book is entitled Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Civil Rights (Liveright, 2023). Combining legal and social history, and drawing from a large sample of trial court records, the book explores how ordinary Black people used and thought about law in their everyday lives, and how Black legal activity and Black legal thought helped shape American law and Black social movements from the 1830s to the 1970s.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): Why is it important that our understanding of the Black Freedom Movement encompasses struggles before 1954?

Matthew Delmont (MD): Starting the story before 1954 gives us a better understanding of the trajectory of the Black Freedom Movement. Black Americans were fighting for freedom well before WWII, but the scale of activism increased during and immediately after the war.  A. Phillip Randolph and the March on Washington Movement demonstrated Black political power and the NAACP expanded dramatically during the war—going from 350 branches and 50,000 members in 1940 to nearly 1,000 branches and 450,000 members by the end of the war—thanks largely to the organizing efforts of Ella Baker.  This helped to build the infrastructure of the civil rights movement, fueling both grassroots activism and giving the NAACP the resources to fight larger and more complex legal cases. After the war, Black veterans returned to continue fighting for Double Victory and many became civil rights leaders.  As one veteran put it, they went from fighting in the “European Theater of Operations to the Southern Theater of Operations.” Thinking about 1954, one of the five school desegregation cases that was combined into Brown v. Board case, was Briggs v. Elliot, which was brought by US Navy veteran Harry Briggs Sr. and his wife Eliza Briggs.

Cookie Woolner (CW): Because the struggle for freedom also occurred outside of formal organizations, in everyday interactions and relationships. In the 1920s and 30s, Black queer women boldly sought the freedom to craft relationships and social networks that centered their desires, despite pressures to appear heterosexual and therefore respectable. Performers like Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley, writers like Dorothy West and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and educators like Lucy Diggs Slowe were just some of the better known “lady lovers” who came to the fore in the decades before the Black Freedom Movement.  Further, many important Civil Rights era figures, like Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin, were involved in pre-1954 Black queer literary and theatrical circles; such spaces bolstered the Movement.

Dylan Penningroth (DP): Out of the struggles of the 1960s came two stories that tend to dominate the way we think about Black people and the law. One is about deep struc­tural flaws in the law, what we might today call “systemic racism.” The other is cultural: a story about people rich in folk wisdom but so alien­ated from the legal system that they were ignorant of their rights. These twin stories aren’t wrong, but as my research across the decades reveals, they are far too narrow. If we want to learn from our shared history, then we must open up our vision of Black legal lives beyond the Constitution and the criminal justice system. That, in turn, opens up our vision not just of Black legal lives but of Black life in general. It allows us to see race relations as just one part of a much bigger story, one that is centered on Black people’s relations with each other.

CBFS: What led you to write your recently published books and what do you hope readers take away from them?

MD: When I was working on my last book, Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African American Newspapers, I kept coming across pictures and stories about the more than one million Black men and women who served in WWII. These weren’t famous people, just average Americans from New York, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and other cities and towns. I’d never seen this many examples of Black Americans serving in the war, and it made me curious.  I wanted to learn more about what the war meant for Black people. By telling the story of WWII from the Black American perspective, I hope readers will come away with a new understanding of the chronology of the war and about the contributions Black troops made to Allied victory. In terms of chronology, for Black Americans the war started before Pearl Harbor in 1941. They recognized the dangers that Hitler, the Nazi regime, and fascism posed to the world, and Black newspapers were sounding alarms about this from 1933 on. And for Black Americans the war didn’t end in 1945, because although the Nazis had been defeated on the military battlefield, Black people were still fighting against white supremacy in the U.S. In term of the military story, the book shows how Black troops were the backbone of the U.S. supply and logistical forces, and since WWII was a battle of supply, the US and the Allies could not have won the war without Black troops.

CW: When this project began, there were not a lot of studies at the intersection of African American history and LGBTQ history, and that was a gap I hoped to help fill. Thankfully, many books have come out in the meantime, but there has still been a dearth of research specifically on Black queer women before the 1970s. Initially, I had planned to focus just on the classic blues women and the Black popular entertainment world. But as I began to come across many remarkable “everyday women” in newspapers and archives, my topic expanded to the emergence of Black queer women’s social networks in the urban North against the backdrop of the early Great Migration, when women who loved women were known as “lady lovers.” As far as take aways, a central one is that Black queer women have been important makers and shapers of American culture for over a century, with communities that began to coalesce in the 1920s and 30s.

DP: I hope readers take away a sense that Black history is more than race relations, or a struggle for freedom. It is also about how Black people loved each other, fought each other, exploited each other, and helped each other; about how they dealt with getting old, getting right with God, and getting ahead, and just getting by. Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves and our long-buried legal history provides a fascinating view from which to see this story.

CBFS: In what ways does the history you write about speak to the present moment?

MD: Many of the issues that we’ve seen in the news in the past several years—voting rights, police brutality, access of jobs, and economic inequality—are all things that people were fighting over during and after the war. This is a reminder that this isn’t a simpler time in U.S. history to which we can return and helps us understand the urgency of these struggles in the present.  People’s great-grandparents and grandparents were fighting many of the same battles in the same streets decades ago. At the same time, the history of the desegregation of the military provides an example that significant institutional change is possible.  There was not strategic or tactical reason for the military to be racially segregated during WWII, it was only done to maintain racial hierarchies and satisfy white racial prejudice. Still, by 1948, thanks to significant organizing and political pressure, as well as the performance of Black troops during the war, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that led to the desegregation of the military. Racism didn’t magically disappear from the armed forces, but the institution became more equitable because people in positions of power showed political courage and held people accountable.

CW: In so many ways that it’s frankly disturbing. The 1920s and 30s was an era of increasing queer visibility in mainstream society, yet at the same time, queer people and their mainstream emergence received pushback from pundits and experts who viewed them as symbolic of the devolution of society and “the race.” We can see this today with the censorship of LGBTQ and African American history books and laws being passed to restrict the medical care trans people can access. And of course, the 1920s and 30s was also a time of rising fascism, and today again we see both increasing visibility of Black queer people in popular culture at the same time as police violence is rising and childbearing people are losing their reproductive rights, to give just a couple examples. However, the fact that Black lady lovers still crafted the unconventional relationships and communities they desired, despite the repressions of the Jim Crow era, can inspire us to fight for freedom in our own troubling time.

DP: There are lots of ways, but I’ll point to just one. This long history of Black people thinking about and using the rights of property and contract and the powers of incorporation helps explain why Black people put their faith in law when the Movement came—and why the Movement succeeded as much as it did. At a time when the leader of one of our country’s major political parties is actively undermining the rule of law, that is worth contemplating.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.