Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives

by Joe William Trotter Jr. and Eric Ledell Smith, editors
The Penn State University Press and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1997 (519 pages; cloth, $45.00, paper, $19.95)

Dedicated to “the African American people of Pennsylvania” and intended to honor “the historians who have diligently worked to tell their story,” this selection of nineteen essays explores the broad sweep of black history, from the transforma­tion of Africans to African Americans, roughly from 1684 to 1840, to the issues of public housing, isolation, and the urban underclass in Philadelphia in the mid-1960s. In the foreword, Brent D. Glass observes that “one of the central themes of writ­ing about American history in the past quarter-century has been the need to call attention to social groups, particularly minorities, that had received little or no attention from historians.” From the onset of the civil rights and black power movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, much has been written about the Keystone State’s African American experience, but many of these essays, articles, and papers have appeared in books, jour­nals, and periodicals not readily accessible. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives brings together for the first time a collection of these pieces – a masterful combina­tion of scholarship and interpretation – for a broad audience, including both professional and avocational students of the black experience and history in general. African Americans in Pennsylvania offers the most comprehensive survey of the Commonwealth’s black history to date. Chapters emphasize the interplay of class and race from the origins of the Commonwealth in the late seventeenth century, through the era of deindustrialization of the late twentieth century. Readers meet not only poor and working-class people, but also edu­cated, business, and professional people. Despite the traditional focus on the experiences of African American males, this vol­ume includes significant research on black women, such as “The Forten-Purvis Women of Philadelphia and the American Antislavery Crusade” by Janice Sumler-Lewis, and Carolyn Leonard Carson’s “And the Results Showed Promise .. . Physicians, Childbirth, and Southern Black Migrant Women, 1916-1930: Pittsburgh as a Case Study.” Most importantly, though, this volume suggests a conceptual framework for a his­torical synthesis of the Commonwealth’s African American experience. African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives illustrates how ordinary people have influenced the culture, institutions, and politics of African American commu­nities in Pennsylvania and, in doing so, documents the ways blacks have influenced – and continue to influence – the Commonwealth as a whole.


Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950

by Philip Jenkins
University of North Carolina Press, 1997 (332 pages, cloth, $29.95)

In 1994, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission released a list of fifty-two white supremacist groups reported to be active in the Commonwealth, including seventeen factions or subdivisions of the Ku Klux Klan and eighteen groups of al­leged Nazi “skinheads.” The author, a former scholar in residence at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, suggests this list may be flawed. “If ‘active’ im­plies an organized and ideologically motivated group with more than a handful of members,” he writes, “then the Human Relations list should probably be reduced by 70 or 80 percent.” Even so, extreme right-wing groups have a long and com­pelling history in Pennsylvania, and Hoods and Shirts: The Extreme Right in Pennsylvania, 1925-1950, provides a powerful analysis of the origins and evolution of these organizations, with special emphasis on the years between World War I and World War II. This was an especially volatile period and by 1940, such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, the Italian Black Shirts, the Silver Legion, the German-American Bund, and Father Coughlin’s Christian Front were being taken seriously by many of the Commonwealth’s citizens – enough so that public fear of insurrection or pro-Nazi sabotage mounted. The author sug­gests that one of the factors indirectly contributing to this growth in the Keystone State was its large immigrant popula­tion. Many immigrants, he believes, looked to racism, anti-Semitism, and anticommunism as a way of entering the mainstream of American society. Even before that, however, po­litical and economic circumstances in America – the New Deal, huge Democratic victories in U1e polls, a changing relationship between labor and employers – had helped give rise to reac­tionary ideas in many parts of the country. The political right fought back with themes of confrontation and conspiracy as a fundamental part of its rhetoric, asserts the author. In a chapter entitled “Defining Fascism,” the author questions the use of certain terms to label rightist groups. In the Roosevelt years, he writes, “fascist” was a label “regularly applied to antilabor corporations, to isolationists, and to militant opponents of the New Deal … Republicans were fascist, steel bosses and mine owners were fascist, the American Legion was fascist.” Corporate magnates and ultraconservative politicians, he points out, were “listed alongside anti-Semites and Axis sup­porters in a tactic similar to the right-wing portrayal of all liberals and socialists as tools of Stalin.” Jenkins’ book, based on research in Pennsylvania’s extensive Ku Klux Klan archive as well as other original sources and contemporary media ac­counts, is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on what has often been called “the politics of hate” – its origins, its expression in mainstream thinking, and its future.


Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture

by Ken Emerson
Simon & Schuster, 1997 (400 pages, cloth, $30.00)

It was the era of industrialization; of steamboats, railroads, and the telegraph; of westward expansion and the California gold rush; and, of course, slavery and the Civil War. Stephen Foster, contends the author of this welcome biography – the first one in sixty years – of America’s first great songwriter, absorbed it all, and all of it infused his music. Foster’s life held many contradictions. Although his songs celebrated the rural South, he spent most of his life in one of the most industrial of cities – Pittsburgh. He wrote blackface minstrel songs and mimicked black music. Yet his compassion for African Americans was applauded even by Frederick Douglass. Striving for respectability, Poster wrote gentle love songs, although his own marriage had failed. Despite his early fame and the promise of a golden future, he died in New York City’s Bowery – a penniless alcoholic – at the age of thirty-seven. The composer of such familiar favorites as Camptown Races, Beautiful Dreamer, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, and Old Folks at Home fused European and African American influences to create a new music that was uniquely American yet universalLy em braced. His music was rooted in the American experience, but also in personal grief. Oh! Susanna dramatizes the steam­boat, locomotive, and telegraph, but also evokes the untimely death of Foster’s eldest sister Charlotte, whose middle name was Susanna and who played the violin and the harp. The song, by the way, never earned any money for Foster, who gave it to the publisher, who reportedly earned ten thousand dollars from its international success. The author relates Foster’s music to the art of his contemporaries: the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, the prose of Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and the paintings of William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham. Finally, Doo-dah! reminds the reader not only of the culture that spawned the music of Stephen Foster, but of the importance of the man himself. “An America without Foster,” writes the author, “is as unthinkable as an America without Whitman or Twain, with­out Louis Armstrong or George Gershwin, without rock ‘n’ roll, without racism – or without those instances of amazing grace when, if only for an instant, we transcend that racism.”