This review was originally published at MIT’s CoLab Radio. Read the original here.
Before there are institutions and regulations, there are people, places and cultures. The importance of these three things is paramount in understanding the immeasurable amounts of research that comprises Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. In just under 200 pages, Dr. Walter D. Greason composes a historiography that charts the individual, social and institutional forces in the north that played a pivotal role in a movement that is largely researched and discussed as a revolution of the American South.
Each chapter begins with simple concepts, such as leadership, immigration or schools and churches. Greason then highlights the role each of these played in the Garden State’s suburban civil rights movement. For example, he discusses leadership, as not just about “thought, speech and activity” in public, but also as encapsulating heroism, a quality usually reserved for fire fighters, doctors and the like. Greason uplifts the stories of people, like Lenora Walker McKay, Ada Bryan, Reverend Caleb Oates and countless others, who weren’t necessarily running into burning buildings or proceeding with last minute surgeries, but are nonetheless heroes in the New Jersey civil rights movement.
These stories give soul to this work. They balance the text’s identification of the white supremacist institutional impediments to the movement, providing a human and personal element. Moreover, tales of local leaders resisting the Jezebel and mammy imagery and of using tin lunchboxes for defense, all add to establishing the racial climate spanning New Jersey’s geography.
Unfortunately, for a work that focuses so much on the regional differences within New Jersey and the establishment of civil rights organizations, there is not a map to be found. The author does however include a number of photographs. These images and Greason’s storytelling identify and illustrate the communities from which the New Jersey Civil Rights movement emanated.
Moving beyond the rural-urban contrast upon which so many histories of the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement rely, Greason’s focus is on the suburbs. As such, he considers the differences in northern versus southern New Jersey, and the role that the state’s agricultural economy played in the Movement. Greason expands his historiography to include international migrants, who, journeying to New Jersey in the footsteps of African Americans, benefited from the civil rights movement. When, immigrants came to New Jersey, they found themselves in similar roles as their black counterparts, but as Greason describes, were eventually able to adapt differently, with the sons and daughters of first generation immigrants able to assume a white American identity. Suburban Erasure connects the agricultural economy, supported by blacks and immigrants alike, to the pervasive sense of nationalism that continued to marginalize blacks, and uplift white-skinned immigrants.
Deservingly so, Suburban Erasure received the New Jersey Studies Academic Excellence Author Award, if only for its comprehensive yet concise approach to the entirety of the 20th Century. The ability of a sole historian to compose a discourse that examines black welfare across a breadth of fields is truly admirable.
Despite his bleak outlook for the 21st century, Greason leaves readers with his formula for future success: a combination of political inclusion, “particularly in smaller communities on the metropolitan fringe,” and a tending to the “science of regional planning and design” by African American leaders in order to reclaim a mechanism that was originally used to exclude the African American community.