Blog Post

Reflecting on “Race, Power, and Urban Spaces” and the Changing Landscape of African American Urban Communities

Mary N. Elliott

“There’s a lot of chocolate cities, around

We’ve got Newark, we’ve got Gary

Somebody told me we got LA

And we’re working on Atlanta

But you’re the capital, CC”

Parliament Funkadelic,

Lyrics – Parliament Funkadelic, Chocolate City, Chocolate City LP (Casablanca, 1975)

Lyrics to Parliament Funkadelic’s “Chocolate City” from their 1975 album of the same name rang in my ear as I sat at the Future of the African American Past Conference, waiting for the panel on “Race, Power, and Urban Spaces” to begin. I kept thinking about my city. Though I was born in Oklahoma City, I was raised in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area—I like to claim DC as home.

The timely and relevant panel discussion took place in the heart of my city, the nation’s capital, once considered “Chocolate City” (“CC”), just a few blocks from the White House now occupied by the nation’s first African American president. It took place in the center of a city with a rich African American history; a city in the midst of transition, where predominantly black urban spaces that are Congressionally controlled are being impacted by gentrification and turning less and less “chocolate” as time marches on. Indeed, DC is a city that in some ways serves as a good case study for a discussion on race, power, and urban space.

The panel opened with a thorough overview of the historiography of the issues up for discussion. Panel chair Thomas Sugrue took conference participants on a thoughtful journey through the many ways that scholars have wrestled with the ever changing issues facing African Americans in urban centers throughout the nation and across the globe. He touched upon the Great Migration, as well as the themes of transplantation and community transformation. He reminded the audience of the important scholarship regarding African American community organizing and institution building that served as tools to combat racism and systemic discrimination. Discussing the importance of considering the experiences and impact of black landlords and the history of black suburbanization, Sugrue, however, also cautioned against romantic notions of unity in the urban black community. He noted that scholars are beginning to re-explore scholarship on the “ghettoization” of urban spaces and institutions of control and power from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and to use it as a lens through which to consider current day issues such as policing in African American urban spaces, predatory lending, and racist housing policies. Sugrue refers to this scholarly examination as “racial pessimism” and suggested it is best explored in the writings of author TaNehisi Coates. As the panel chair segued to introducing the panelists he asked them to consider what is unfolding today in places like Baltimore and Ferguson in relation to the past processes of racism and discrimination.

Panelist Leslie Harris provided a comprehensive look at the history of African Americans in urban spaces and posed several questions including “What is a successful city?” and “How . . . should historians look at the experiences of African Americans in US cities?” Harris pointed out that the nation measures its success by the success of its cities, but often disregards the urban African American experience. She stated that cities “that are judged to be incidental to their state’s, region’s or nation’s success” face limited economic opportunity; lack the ability to maintain infrastructure further fractured by the lack of state or federal financial support; and when faced with “catastrophic disasters” find little or no support or “responsibility [for prevention] or redress.” Harris noted that African Americans in urban settings are often considered harmful to the success of cities and are referred to as the “underclass” that is the face of urban failure and aligned with “crime, political corruption, [poor] schools and joblessness.”

Despite this perspective, Harris pointed out that African Americans have historically looked at urban settings as places to gain freedom and build communities. Born out of these communities are longstanding “institutions [including] churches, schools, fraternal orders [and] political organizations” that helped African Americans maintain their sense of self, place, and belonging, despite the racism and inequality that they faced.

The next panelist, Nathan D. B. Connolly discussed the role of land-owning African Americans during the Jim Crow era and issues of class and status. He specifically examined how black land owners sided with government and local municipalities to maintain their landownership and obtain status, collateral, and limited economic and political power. Property ownership, which seemed tenuous at best, gave black land owners a sense of serving as gate-keepers of the black community who could dictate to others how to best maintain their citizenship. Connolly proposed that their actions were often thinly veiled by their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The result of this abuse of power was their unintentional support of Jim Crow policies and practices.

Joseph Trotter passionately discussed the evolution of perspectives on segregation. I had a chance to speak with him after the panel discussion. We spoke about his conference paper and discussed his remarks on earlier scholarship that has documented how European-nationality groups often saw the “ghetto” as a throughway or temporary experience or space due to the hopeful sense of moving beyond one’s status. The term “ghetto” in regards to African Americans, however, refers to a controlled, contained and isolated space that is more permanent and less hopeful.

The final panelist to present was Carl Nightingale who spoke about the ongoing importance of studying the African American urban experience and the impact of segregation and black resistance from a global perspective. Nightingale reminded scholars to link the experience of segregation and urbanization of people of color throughout the diaspora.

As I reflect on the panel discussion and the thoughtful questions that followed, I consider my hometown. African American contributions to DC history are being erased at a rapid pace. For some time black residents have been shut out from participating in revitalization projects and from access to funding and decisions regarding historic preservation. As historic buildings are removed and replaced with new structures and historic markers, long term residents recount their personal stories, contributions, and impact on the city, in hopes that they might keep the history in the narrative of their communities. Eventually, scholars should consider the impact of the efforts of the “creative class” in historically black urban communities and the impact of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Main Streets” initiative, in transforming cities throughout the nation. They should consider the various ways gentrification has changed the urban landscape economically, politically, demographically, and culturally. Scholars must also continue to observe the ways affluent African Americans have unintentionally contributed to local gentrification.

“Hey, CC!

They say your jivin’ game, it can’t be changed

But on the positive side,

You’re my piece of the rock

And I love you, CC.

Can you dig it?”

Parliament Funkadelic,

Lyrics – Parliament Funkadelic, Chocolate City, Chocolate City LP (Casablanca, 1975)

My city, the original Chocolate City and the site of the highly anticipated Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, is where the conversation on race, power, and urban spaces will continue. Here is where we will have a chance to consider more deeply what it means to be American whether in urban or rural settings and from as early as slavery up to today; where Americans will be able to reflect on freedom, the power of place, community building, and making a way. Ongoing scholarship is key to such reflection.


Mary Elliott is a museum specialist and co-curated the Slavery and Freedom inaugural exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.


SESSION 3: Race, Power, and Urban Spaces