J.T. Roane Reconstructs the Historical Spaces of Black PhiladelphiaHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, urban history, Philadelphia
N’Kosi Oates was a 2022-2023 Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellow at Boston Review.
J.T. Roane is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Geography and Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice at Rutgers University.
In July 2017, Philadelphia councilmember Cherelle Parker (now the city’s Democratic mayoral nominee) and residents of East Mount Airy blocked developers’ plans to demolish an older house and replace it with two new homes. Residents rightly recognized the project as the beginning of gentrification in their majority Black neighborhood, and they had initially simply requested building materials consistent with the neighborhood. Parker appealed to the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Zoning Board to revoke the company’s permit until further notice for violating the department’s policy on demolition notification postings. The developer ignored the ruling and proceeded with plans to tear down the property. As a last attempt, Parker and her constituents locked arms and obstructed a bulldozer’s access to the construction site. “The action was the recourse of a community,” Parker stated, “that had no other options.” Eventually, the residents and Parker won. This communal standoff against the developer is part of a long history of Black Philadelphians fighting for their space and ownership of their neighborhoods in the “City of Brotherly Love.”
In this interview, I spoke to historian J.T. Roane in May about his recent book Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place. The book charts a history through Philadelphia’s working-class Black communities from the Great Migration to the Black Power era as they navigated the city’s complex social terrain to reconstitute and claim spatial presence. Roane examines Philadelphia’s “underground” (stoops, gambling houses, and unlicensed bars) and spiritual spaces (house and storefront congregations, temples, and mosques) to uncover how Black people’s quotidian practices and the work of local organizations constituted a spatial politics. In our conversation, we discussed his work, the significance of geography, and modes of resistance against dominant arrangements of urban political economy in the spaces he calls “dark agoras.”
N’Kosi Oates: Let’s begin with W. E. B. Du Bois, because one of his foundational works as a sociologist was The Philadelphia Negro, published at the end of the nineteenth century. Your book also explores black urban life in Philadelphia—you’re looking at the twentieth century and use a historian’s lens instead. How do you expand upon and even depart from Du Bois’s important work?
J.T. Roane: Because Dark Agoras centers on Philadelphia, it is critical to begin with Du Bois’s work. His engagement with Black Philadelphia at the end of the nineteenth century, is, of course, the primary opening of sociology in the American context. But while Du Bois is engaged with working-class Black life, he can also be derisive and dismissive of it, especially around what he sees as its inability to fully integrate into the social fabric of the city—even as he’s challenging the naturalization of Blackness as segregated and exterior to the normative functioning of the city.
Even so, Dark Agoras is indebted to Du Bois. I pick up his engagement with both the city’s underground and the kind of social worlds associated with what I call Philadelphia’s “set-apart,” the various religious and social spatial formations that took shape after the period that he’s writing about in the 1890s.
NO: I’m interested in the relationship between the underground and the set-apart, both of which, in your work, are kinds of “dark agoras.” In which ways do these two sets of communities overlap?
JTR: Both the underground and the set-apart emerged from the dynamics of segregation. But many of the people who are engaged in the Black set-apart religious and spiritual communities distance themselves pretty explicitly from the economic and the sexual and other kinds of disreputable worlds associated with the underground. Yet even in diametric opposition, there’s so much shared energy between those two spaces.
Some of the energy between these two formulations of dark agoras comes out of migrants’ transposition, of practices and worlds that they had made, first on plantations and then through the movement to mill towns and small agricultural towns in the South, and into the urban South, and then through the Great Migrations into Northern urban geographies like Philadelphia or Chicago.