To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War; Tera W. Hunter. Harvard University Press, 1997.
Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920; Glenda Gilmore. University of North Carolina Press (1996).
In Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom, and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, Black women’s experiences after emancipation are examined through their positions as workers, activists, and mothers within Southern society. Tera Hunter and Glenda Gilmore each provide comprehensive analyses of the subjects of their respective works during the period of time between Reconstruction and World War I. Both books are focused on a period of time that saw enfranchisement and then rapid disenfranchisement of Black men, through the lens of African American women’s participation in social, political, and economic spheres. Though each book largely excludes the socioeconomic group of the other in its narrative, Hunter follows Black women’s labor, primarily in Atlanta, GA, while Gilmore focused on the concepts of race and gender that helped shape the emerging middle class in North Carolina, each book provides crucial insight into the women it focuses on, and when read together, these two books reveal the nuanced, and conflicting, worlds that these women lived in.
Hunter’s examination looks not only at the type of work that was available to Black women in this period, but the wages, working conditions, and impact on their family situations that the work had. Emancipation gave Black women freedom to dictate many of the terms and conditions of their own labors that had been denied to them under slavery. Hunter is clear to describe the lack of freedom from assault, racial persecution, and gender hierarchies that working class African American women faced, and the related decrease in autonomy many African American women had because of these threats. The struggle to balance the vulnerability of Black bodies with the crucial roles that Black women filled as laundresses and domestic servants in white households provides the reader with an understanding of the tenuous place within society that these women held. Hunter does not shy away from exploring the conflict between the African American laboring women and their white employers to highlight the labor struggles and the power that these women ultimately were able to summon through the washerwomen strikes in Jackson, Galveston, and Atlanta.
Both works look at the emergence of southern progressivism, and the violent resistance to that progress. Atlanta is the center of Hunter’s analysis as it represented an intersection of urban development and rural migration; the city had a reputation of forward-thinking progressivism while at the same time was one of the breeding grounds for what Gilmore coined New Men. Gilmore credits New Men with promoting Jim Crow and escalating violence against African Americans because their white male masculinity felt threated by successful and prominent African Americans, who these New Men considered a threat to the future of democracy. Gilmore’s analysis centers on the political and feminist ties that united white and Black women in the fight for women’s suffrage as evidence of the progressivism that was present in North Carolina during this period. The expansive educational opportunities available to Black women and men, compared to those available to white women, serve as further evidence of progressive ideals at work in North Carolina. These educational opportunities allowed African American women to postpone marriage and gain higher educational levels that were deemed necessary to create the “Best” men and women to lead the next generation.
Gilmore argues that shifting concepts of masculinity, racial superiority, and political power prevailing in the post-bellum period forced African Americans to battle the creation of Jim Crow legislation by embracing Victorian ideals of Domesticity, education, and hard work. Black women, seeing their families cut off from participation in politics joined with each other and, more tenuously, with white women for reform for their communities, in the form of schools, temperance societies, and health care as activists to promote change. Using the concept of “Best men” and “Best women” to contextualize the accommodationist beliefs that Black men and women needed to act as ambassadors for their race, an idea made popular by Booker T. Washington, Gilmore explains the burden felt by the first generation of middle class African Americans after the end of slavery. It was the success of the “Best” men and women in demonstrating their equality to white middle class men and women that eventually brought a backlash of racism and violence through the New Men, who felt the established racial and gender hierarchies slipping away. Within the discussions of racial violence and oppression, Gilmore and Hunter both demonstrate the fracturing effects of Jim Crow on the African American communities, a much ignored aspect of Reconstruction history.
Women attempted to reclaim their identities from the racial oppression by engaging in recreational activities such as dancing, being active in their church communities, and forming aid groups to help their communities and to promote solidarity among their professions and class. Gilmore highlights the interplay of class divisions and racial identities in creating a nebulous boundary for “Best men” or “Best women” and the problems that emerged from those definitions in Jim Crow as younger generations of men and women came of age, and sought to carve out their own identities in society. Through leisure excursions, such as dancing and listening to jazz as a means of asserting individuality and expanding Black culture, “Best” men and women’s vision of racial uplift was challenged by this younger generation. Gilmore’s examination of gender and the formation of Best Black Men and Women highlights the double edged sword that such behavior seemed to carry, bringing criticism on younger generations of African Americans from both the white community, who, Hunter highlights, viewed Black sexuality as a threat to society and inseparable from jazz and dance, and the middle class Black community who viewed this behavior as undermining the progress of equality. Neither author fully explores this fragmentation, leaving a fascinating research path underdeveloped.
Highlighting role of class in determining the struggles and causes that these women faced in post-bellum society gave voice to silenced women in both working and middle class communities in southern societies. For Gilmore, a post-bellum generation of middle-class Black women emerged as educated diplomats to white society, focused on reform movements to improve their communities and change prevailing racial stereotypes of African Americans that were formed within antebellum society. The working class women whom Hunter focused on embraced the autonomy to move from the country to the city to escape oppressive conditions, and later the freedom to move out of Atlanta to northern cities that defined the Great Migration to seek opportunities. However, both authors focus on the struggles that existed for each group within Jim Crow, and the ways that those tensions complicate the understanding of the experiences of African American women, and more broadly African American communities, in the early twentieth century. One their own, each book is an insightful and crucial work for understanding African American, Women’s, and Social histories at the turn of the twentieth century; when paired together these two works offer a well-rounded insight into the divisions and struggles that were present within these communities, most importantly they reveal the divergent ideas of racial uplift that dominated the twentieth century in action. I cannot recommend reading these two books enough.
 Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois had well-known, and well documented, differing opinions regarding racial uplift. Washington was an accomodationist who believed that in order to earn the respect of white supremacists African Americans needed to emulate and surpass middle class white families in their behavior, education, and business acumen.