A World More Concrete, by N.D.B. Connolly

N.D.B. Connolly is co-winner of the 2015 Kenneth Jackson award for best book in North American history, shared with Marta Gutman’s A City for Children.

Based upon a broad range of rich archival collections, newspaper accounts, and a plethora of comparative secondary studies, this book advances a series of compelling arguments about the role of realtors and rental property owners in the development of the Greater Miami system of “racial apartheid.” Specifically, this book places the story of black Miami within the larger context of capitalist development, particularly the colonization of non-European people, both locally and globally, and challenges us to rethink several closely interrelated propositions in contemporary scholarship on 20th century U.S. and African American urban history. First and most significant, whereas most studies of urban history identify white landlords, realtors, banks, and private property owners, particularly “slumlords,” as the principal actors in the creation and perpetuation of the racially divided and unequal housing market, Connolly underscores the role of black and white realtors in this process. In careful detail, he shows how an interracial alliance of landlords perceived themselves as a “class” and reinforced each other’s interest through reciprocal loans and joint property investments that both breached and reinforced the color line in the larger political economy of the city.

Second, since the mid-20th century, studies of the urban housing market have repeatedly pinpointed the disproportionately high rental rates that urban blacks paid compared to their white counterparts during the industrial era. Connolly not only elaborates upon this theme in black urban history, but also documents the myriad ways that the white-black realtors’ alliance resulted in the superexploitation of poor and working-class black tenants. Within Miami’s black community, African American landlords strengthened white perceptions of black tenants as improvident, lazy, and “in need of landlord benevolence and philanthropy.” Along with their white counterparts, black landlords allowed residential properties to deteriorate, forced inhabitants to make necessary repairs at their own expense, and maintained rents at excessively high levels.

As elsewhere, this study shows how black Miamians and their liberal white allies mounted grassroots movements designed to eliminate the color line in the housing market, but Connolly demonstrates how black and white realtors repeatedly thwarted such movements through their tremendous economic and political influence. During more than three decades beginning during the 1940s, A World More Concrete illuminates how white and black landlords mobilized against and stymied several large scale state-sponsored urban renewal, housing, and land developments projects that promised to displace large numbers of poor and working-class city residents and disrupt landlords’ access to the lucrative black poor rental market. As such, this study also contests prevailing emphasis on the centrality of the black-left struggle for jobs, worker rights, unionization, and economic democracy in the rise of the Modern Black Freedom Movement from the New Deal through the onset of World War II and its early aftermath. Connolly underscores the influence of black business and propertied people in setting the civil rights agenda, negotiating settlements, and harnessing “property ownership” as opposed to jobs and freedom to the larger quest for political and social justice. Finally, and equally important, this book underscores the emergence of a new historiographical moment in black urban history. Rather than chronicling the myriad ways that racist practices of the Jim Crow era withered “under the heat of civil rights activism and heroic acts of self-sacrifice,” A World More Concrete documents what Connolly describes as “the more durable world that held and hardened under the very feet of protest marchers and rioters as Jim Crow died and segregation remained.”

About LaDale Winling

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His book project, Building the Ivory Tower, examines the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. Learn more about him at Urban Oasis.

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