Theses Doctoral

Sovereignty in the City: Black Infrastructures and the Politics of Place in Twentieth Century Philadelphia

Roane, James Timothy

“Sovereignty in the City” contributes to the historiography of African-American and African Diasporic life an account of how twentieth century black migrant communities’ practices and politics around place shaped the social geography of Philadelphia—a primary testing ground for urban policies, sociological and historical inquiry, and social experiments of reform up through the twenty-first century. The manuscript charts a history of alternative land stewardship and governance in Philadelphia’s black working class communities from 1941 to 1991, which I set in contrast with the urbicidal practices of reformers who worked to enhance the profitability of the region at the expense of black and working class neighborhoods and communities. I name these two very different visions of social affiliation and obligation sanitized citizenship and black vitality respectively.
Building on methods and practices that Progressive social reformers, eugenicists, and sociologists co-produced, local housing reformers sought to enforce the normative patriarchal family as the ideal of health and order. This in turn, shaped their assessment of black migrants as potential vectors of biological and social contagion and justified segregation before federal policy insured it. On the other hand, from the margins black working class communities articulated new modes of sociality from within cordoned-off communities, which they refitted to the metropolis from their collective history in the agrarian and mill town South. Although otherworldliness and the tendency to participate in non-normative or queer social affiliations outside the home, often marked working class black migrant communities as criminal or odd, being out of time with the logics of patriarchy and racial capitalism also represented an important, if underappreciated, basis for envisioning a different city and world. In place of dominant conceptions of the normative family as an anchor of orderly governance and investment, black migrant communities re-imagined human belonging and practiced new modes of radical inclusivity in the city.
I make the case for a landscape approach to black history, there and in the wider diaspora, in order to bring the methods developed by social, environmental, and architectural historians as well as geographers, to bear in excavating histories of black social activism, in turn, elaborating an idiom of urban ecology in which practices of place and belonging, which are often dismissed or invisible, call into question the notions of urban life and health organized around the individual and the normative patriarchal family.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Roberts, Samuel K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 9, 2016