Karla Slocum is Thomas Willis Lambeth Chair of Public Policy, professor of anthropology, and director of the Institute of African American Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Free Trade and Freedom: Neoliberalism, Place, and Nation in the Caribbean (University of Michigan Press, 2006) and Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
Black Towns, Black Futures: The Enduring Allure of a Black Place in the American West
The University of North Carolina Press
Black town history is little known as is literature on black towns (although that seems to be changing in recent years due to some great, emerging scholarship). The late geographer, Harold Rose, is one of the first to theorize what black town development looked like. He breaks it into phases and so thinks about different town typologies based on different periods of their development. Even though he doesn’t look at the towns in Oklahoma, the article—published in Geographical Review in 1965—was the beginning of my looking at how black towns have been defined in scholarly literature. Rose, whose work Black Geographies’ scholars have been drawing more attention to lately, lets us think about how that understanding has taken shape over time. For me, his article is an important way to become acquainted with black town history in a broad sense as well as theoretical scholarship on black towns.
The work of my grandfather, Mozell Hill, was influential for me for the obvious reasons. It was personal—in effect, a way to learn more about myself—but it was also important for me to understand black towns in Oklahoma and understanding them through humanistic social science. He had a number of articles and a book that I relied on but I always came back most often to the dissertation, completed at the University of Chicago in 1946. It’s in the dissertation that the ethnographic detail is richest, giving extended description of the towns and expansive quotes from his interviews. There’s much to learn about black town development and meaning as there is to learn about 1940s sociology in this work.
Lynell L. Thomas
While I first began my research one of the first things I did was to take an organized history tour of black towns. I ended up taking several and studying the way the tours narrate black town history which then led me to understand how the compelling narrative of black town history is a source of the towns’ enduring attractiveness. That narration—which tells of what counts for important black town history and what does not—is both oral and spatial. Many works explore what is said in tours but Lynell Thomas’ article (published in American Quarterly in 2009) speaks to the spatial design of heritage tours and how—by virtue of the ways tours are organized across space—they craft a particular story about blackness and history.