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Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 (Black Community Studies)

by Willard B. Gatewood

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Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

In the forty years following Reconstruction, African Americans in the United States developed a distinct set of intraracial classes, with a black aristocracy occupying the upper echelons of the community. As he seeks to identify this black elite, Willard Gatewood pays specific attention to its self-image, conduct, values, plans, and relationship to the rest of society. In the end, he argues that such “aristocrats laid claim to elite status within a subgroup, the black Americans, by defining themselves in terms of prestige, tradition, culture, and other considerations reflective of values drawn from the white majority of American society€? (x). This self-definition, according to Gatewood, centered on the aristocratic nature of the subgroup, focusing particularly on issues of ancestry, respectability, lifestyle, culture, and achievement and only nominally on the issue of color. In short, members of this black elite saw themselves as aristocrats who were black, with the emphasis in that order.
The primary strength of Gatewood’s work is the detailed portrait he paints of the many members of this aristocratic class. After tracing the birth of their aristocratic ideology, he provides both a geographic and an institutional image of these black elites. Whether they lived in the north, south, east, or west, members of the black aristocracy “withdrew into a world of their own, often as separate from that of other blacks as from that of whitesâ€? (37). Gatewood persuasively demonstrates how this network of upper class African Americans lived in urban environments across the entire nation, claiming that while not numerically powerful, they were a force with which to reckoned. He then presents an intriguing appraisal of the primary concerns of this black elite, noting what they deemed important to make them who they were. From color to conduct to community to education to religion to activism, these black aristocrats constructed a new identity for themselves (and possibly for the entire race). In the end, however, this identity was not able to provide the opportunities for the race that many of the black elite dreamed it could. Instead, a new economic black elite emerged atop the hierarchy of the black community, effectively ending the reign of the aristocrats of color.
While Gatewood’s portrayal of the class structure within the African American community of the Jim Crow era is insightful and convincing, he also offers a rather incomplete picture of this group. First, one can read his account and come away with the notion that this black aristocracy was not affected by the racial discrimination so common to other African Americans of the period. Though he claims that black aristocrats were “perhaps most acutely sensitive to racial discrimination,â€? he rarely, if ever, demonstrates how such discrimination touched their lives. Granted, he notes that at times members of the black upper class were inconvenienced with not being allowed to ride particular train cars, but the realities of Jim Crow seemingly do not exist in this book. Where are the lynchings and beatings? For that matter, where are the degrading names and insults? Perhaps they are absent due to the fact that these black aristocrats separated themselves from the surrounding world, both black and white. One wonders if the separation was really that distinct, or if it even could be. Second, Gatewood fails to analyze the social clique he describes, especially how and in what ways they used their status to promote change among their race. Though he often appeals to their commitment to racial uplift, he never clearly demonstrates what they did to elevate the race.
Overall, Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920 is an interesting compilation of interconnecting biographical sketches of some of the African American community’s most influential leaders during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. It does not, however, go much beyond such sketches. Gatewood adequately describes what the aristocrats of color were, but one is left confused as to what they did.
  rbailey | Oct 7, 2005 |
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