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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Community

Okfuskee County School playgrounds, Boley, Oklahoma, 1922
Community as Place
- R. Edgar Iles, "Boley: An Exclusively Negro Town in Oklahoma," essay, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, August 1925 (PDF)
- James Weldon Johnson, "Harlem: The Culture Capital," essay in Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro, 1925 (PDF)

Two very different places: one small and rural, the product of deliberate separation; the other large and urban, the product of massive integration. Yet both are black communities, emblems of racial pride and self-sufficiency.

In the years after the Civil War, many African Americans tried to create safe havens for themselves in the South by establishing all-black towns. Mound Bayou, Mississippi, for example, was founded in 1887 by former slaves. Others left the South and built towns in areas less hostile to their aspirations (see 1880 testimony on the "Negro Exodus from the Southern States" in The Making of African American Identity, Vol. II). As the Great Migration got underway in the early twentieth century, blacks continued to construct racially homogeneous towns, particularly in the West. Oklahoma proved especially hospitable to such efforts, at one time accommodating over fifty all-black towns. Boley, the largest, was founded in 1903 and incorporated in 1905. It was essentially a Southern, rural, agricultural community transplanted to the West. In the article offered here, R. Edgar Iles, who lived in Boley for four years, describes the town and what it meant to the roughly 3,500 people who lived there in 1925. It boasted an active civic life, an independent school district, and the first black national bank in the U.S. But county politics placed it under the sway of a racist Democratic Party; the town's size made municipal improvements expensive, and job shortages made earning a living difficult. Nonetheless Boley survived. The 2000 census estimated its population at 1,126—55% of whom were African American.

In 1925, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) could call Harlem "the greatest Negro city in the world." Johnson was a man of enormous and multifaceted talent. He achieved success in fields ranging from poetry to politics. Perhaps best known as an author of the Negro national hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which he co-wrote with his brother, and as the author of God's Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, he was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His essay "Harlem: The Culture Capital" appeared in Alain Locke's 1925 anthology The New Negro (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS) In his description of Harlem, Johnson focuses on many of the same details that Iles examines in his profile of Boley. However, when it comes to assessing how each community will fare in its engagement with white America, Johnson and Iles reach decidedly different conclusions. (10 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What implicit definitions of community are contained in each essay?
  2. How do regional differences—Boley as Southern, Harlem as Northern—manifest themselves in each definition?
  3. How are Boley and Harlem similar? How are they different?
  4. What are the principal sources of cohesion in each community?
  5. How independent are Boley and Harlem from their surrounding communities?
  6. What messages do Boley and Harlem send to white society?
  7. How does Boley's "isolation from the main currents" of American life benefit its residents? How does it work to their detriment?
  8. How does Harlem's integration into the life of New York City benefit its residents? How does it work to their detriment?
  9. In what ways are Boley and Harlem distinctly black communities? In what ways are they quintessentially American?
  10. In 1925, how were Boley and Harlem "large-scale laboratory experiments in the race problem"? Which experiment pointed more accurately to the future?
  11. Compare James Weldon Johnson's portrayal of Harlem with those offered by Rudolph Fisher in "The City of Refuge" and William H. Johnson in Moon Over Harlem, both in Theme II: MIGRATIONS. How do those works comment on Harlem as a community? What do they say about the Great Migration's impact on social cohesion among blacks?
  12. How did Harlem globalize the notion of black community?
  13. What conceptions of African American identity lie behind Boley and Harlem?

Framing Questions
  •  How has the African American community defined itself?
  •  How has the African American community functioned in the lives of its members?
  •  How have changing notions of African American identity affected definitions of African American community?

Boley:  6
Harlem:  4
TOTAL 10 pages
Supplemental Sites
Boley, Oklahoma, overview in (Quintard Taylor, University of Washington-Seattle)

Boley, Oklahoma, overview in The African American Registry

Harlem, 1900-1940: An African American Community, online exhibition from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

The Harlem Renaissance and the Flowering of Creativity, in African American Odyssey (Library of Congress)

A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials, from the Library of Congress

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

-Okfuskee County School playgrounds, Boley, Oklahoma, 1922. University of Virginia Library, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, Jackson Davis Collection. © Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Permission pending.
-Children playing in Harlem streets, ca. 1930, photograph by Victor Volnar. Reproduced by permission of the New York Public Library, Collection: Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s.

1. Community as Place   2. Community on Film
  3. Community & Self-Help   4. Image, Community 1939   5. Race as Community
6. Community & the Folk   7. Community & Memory
8. Community & Culture   9. Image, Community 1968   10. Global Community

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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