Book Review: ‘Hattiesburg, An American City in Black and White’ by William Sturkey

William Sturkey, Hattiesburgh, An American City in Black and White (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2019), £21.95

“Day after day I lived with segregation,” remembered Douglas Conner years later. “It was a part of my community; it was a part of my life. Being black meant a life of subordination, a life of limited goals and expectations.” (188)

It is recollections such as Mr Conner’s that interlace the narrative of Hattiesburg – An American City in Black and White. William Sturkey, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has steadfastly dissected archives and recordings to bring alive the history of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a Deep Dixie South lumber town, inviting the reader in through a page-time continuum. The skilful use of recorded interviews gives his narration a personal note, leading an alternating discourse through the experience of Hattiesburg’s white and black residents. Sturkey emphasizes the South’s survival being crucially tied to the growing number of African Americans settling in. The Hattiesburgers were exceptional citizens whose civil rights were severely and unlawfully abused and abandoned. Sturkey notes how the black residents of Mobile Street were examples of fortitude and perseverance, and how their “civil rights movement revolutionized race […] through countless of acts of individual resistance.” (295) Even when discussing the white experience, Sturkey’s emphasis remains on the inequality and brutality as directed toward the black residents of the lumber town, where the realities of the black and white citizens of Hattiesburg could not have been more passionately different and where “every component of Jim Crow was reinforced by the threat of violence.” (85) Not even the smallest racial oppression imposed upon Hattiesburg’s black citizens is left out; such as the recollection of Osceola McCarty, who at a young age of twelve had to “trade the pencils and paper of a student for the iron and washboard of a laundress” (83) as the young girl’s help home was needed more than her education. The weaning and waning of the city become more tangible as Sturkey entwines the history with memories of one black family in particular – the Smiths.

 The Smith family’s experience becomes an example of the black resilience and determination for forging a more equal future as they face “countless customs of racial submission […] by law or tradition [that] black people were required to adhere to.” (84) The Smith family enables the reader to grow with Hattiesburg as memories are united by Hammond Smith, the second son of the Smith family. Hammond’s memories personify the black townsfolk’s daily fear of violence, the struggles to find work, and to secure opportunities of equal employment, education and other aspects of daily life. Many black citizens were forced to work below their own capabilities for the survival of the family and to ensure their children would have the best possible opportunities. The Smith children are the embodiment of the persistence that leads to the eventual acquisition of equal education and offers potential for a growing black middle- and upper-class. By providing African-Americans work opportunities beyond plantations, whites were making black members of the population self-sufficient while simultaneously making themselves reliant on them.

In order to secure “a modicum of dignity, being dismissed, degraded, abused and blocked from partaking in many of the basic pleasures of modern life in Hattiesburg,” (84) black citizens had “little choice but to construct a parallel society of their own,” (88) with their own doctors, groceries, banks, entertainment facilities, streets and even sport teams. As much as Hattiesburg oppressed its ultimately invaluable black citizens, it also provided fresh opportunities for dozens of ambitious black entrepreneurs and professionals when the need for black-only providers grew in the Jim Crow Dixie South. Fascinatingly, as Sturkey notes, it was this segregation that forced Hattiesburg’s black citizens to create a parallel society of their own, one that was an inclusive haven away from prejudice, and was done through “dozens of public demonstrations and countless acts of individual resistance [as] local African Americans excised Jim Crow from their society.” (295) It also fell upon the shoulders of the ordinary black citizens to impose and ensure the enforcement of federal legislations – as surely no federal or local white body was about to do it. Sturkey emphatically notes; “there was never a time in Southern history when black people were not active.” (296) And yet, the steady and persistent stance against “the formalized segregation within the daily customs of Jim Crow” (86) in Hattiesburg was never as palpable as it was during the great migration of 1916. Black citizens had grown tired of “an omnipresent culture of white supremacy […] ground relentlessly into the bodies and souls of black people.” (86) Hundreds upon hundreds of Hattiesburg’s black citizens left Dixie forever for Chicago, as “the blooming lumber trade which had offered comparable fortunes and comfort to those previously enslaved, had now lost its shine.” (93) Sturkey draws on the history of Dixie South’s insistence on recreating the glory days of the American South before the – perceived – Northern aggression in the “War Between the States” – only to recollect on how a saw mill owner ran after the departing black workers, begging them to stay on; a scene that brings on an especially titillating moment in Hattiesburg history that speaks volumes of the desperate circumstances.

William Sturkey’s Hattiesburg – An American City in Black and White examines the causal relationships of black and white residents in a quintessential Dixie town. And it is the Smith family that gives Sturkey’s record multigenerational agency as residents of Hattiesburg led a tireless struggle against white supremacism and in favour of equality of opportunities, making it possible for the subsequent generation to push decisionmakers further still. The most empowering message to be taken from Hattiesburg is the reminder of the town’s deep roots in the African-American civil rights struggle, as Sturkey evolves to reset the record, putting the movement into an alternate perspective of decades of active resistance, participation and lobbying of black Southern political activism which led to the adoption and federal uphold of the 1964 and 1965 Acts.

About Aija Oksman

Aija Oksman is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. After an MLitt in Publishing (University of Stirling) and MSc (University of Edinburgh) on radical self-representation of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, her current research focuses on African American women writer’s literary and counterliterary experience with the FBI. Her research interests are interdisciplinary and intersectional with focus on women’s and other marginalised groups’ literary, cultural and socio-economical interactions and counteractions.
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