HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP
HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP
Wolcott examines 20th-century color line
“The black-and-white dichotomy shapes so much of the (20th century’s) political, cultural and social life.”
Victoria Wolcott Associate Professor of History
The phrase “color line” was used as a reference to the racial segregation that existed in the U.S. after the abolition of slavery. First mentioned in an 1881 article by Frederick Douglass, the phrase gained fame when W.E.B. DuBois cemented it in his landmark 1903 treatise, “The Souls of Black Folk.”
“DuBois said that the story of the 20th century will be the color line and he was absolutely right,” observes Victoria Wolcott, associate professor in the Department of History. “The black-and-white dichotomy shapes so much of the (century’s) political, cultural and social life.”
Influenced by her mother, who she describes as an early feminist with an interest in social justice issues, Wolcott began to explore the effects of that color line as a graduate student at the University of Michigan. In the process, she has become a noted 20th-century historian.
She arrived at UB last fall after five years of teaching at St. Bonaventure University in Olean and nine years at the University of Rochester. She teaches UB graduates and undergraduates the history of civil rights, African-American history and urban history, along with several permutations of those areas, she says, such as the “Race in American Cities” seminar she conducted in her first semester that combined her interests in race, labor and urban history.
Those interests led her to develop her first book from her graduate dissertation, “Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit,” which was published in 2001.
The book looks at African-American women in Detroit and how their work, culture and politics helped shape the life of the city. “I found that African-American women really were excluded from not only white-collar employment, but from blue-collar as well. The one niche area where they were able to find employment was domestic service,” she relates. “So they created opportunities for themselves by opening businesses, by engaging in what we call the informal economy, which can be anything from running numbers to more illicit kinds of activities. They had a kind of creative response to these restrictions that were placed upon them because of racial discrimination in the job market.”
The study made a significant impact. The book is being used in graduate courses in particular, but also to some extent in undergraduate courses in women’s history and African-American history. “I think I was at the beginning of what has really developed as a new sub-field in African-American women’s history when the book was published in 2001,” says Wolcott. “It was part of this new, growing field of research for people who were interested in the Great Migration of African Americans, urban history and women’s history.”
After a decade of research, her second book, “Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America,” will be published in August by University of Pennsylvania Press. To some extent, this derived from her work on the first book.
“I was struck by the extent to which all sorts of public accommodations—particularly recreational spaces—were segregated. We associate that kind of Jim Crow segregation with southern cities and communities, and yet it’s very, very pervasive in the north,” she explains. “I was interested in thinking to what extent is segregation and the struggle against segregation a national story, not a southern story.”…READ MORE