A bit of a history lesson on black towns in America is Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua. He's the author of “America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915,” and a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Professor SUNDIATA KEITA CHA-JUA (History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Author, “America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915”): Hi, glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So when did we in America start seeing black towns?

Prof. CHA-JUA: The first black town that was developed was actually a fort that was in Florida (Unintelligible), in Florida when it was controlled by the Spanish. It was popularly known as Fort Moses, established in 1738. About a hundred blacks fled slavery in Carolina and negotiated an arrangement with the Spanish governor, and that arrangement led to them being set up in this fort. Now…

CHIDEYA: Sorry to interrupt you. This may seem like a simple question given all of the racism and the legalities of being black in America in the earlier parts of America's history, but what was this reaction to, the desire to found black towns?

Prof. CHA-JUA: Purely, it's a reaction to enslavement. It's a reaction to racial oppression in general. There's also a desire for self-development, a desire for self-determination. Black people want access to land. They want to be able to vote. They want to be able to make the laws, to participate in the making of laws that govern their lives.

CHIDEYA: How many of these towns were successful in terms of providing a better life, living beyond, you know, a few decades? How many still exist, do you think?

Prof. CHA-JUA: There are probably 300 black towns today. But we're talking about different types of communities. So that when people generally think of black towns, they're thinking about those towns that were built between 1890 and 1910. They were in the Midwest - Oklahoma, Kansas territory. But there's another type of black town that emerges during the great migration period, and these are places like Robein, Illinois, Urbancrest, Ohio.

These places are on the periphery of urban communities and they were kind of like black working-class satellites, where the people slept at night and then they worked in these factories and another places during the day. On a number of indicators right, they're highly successful.

But many of these of towns would flounder because of decisions made by whites that affected their economic future. So for example, in the place that I studied, Brooklyn, Illinois, its fate was literally sealed economically by decisions made in the 1830s not to put a railroad terminal there (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: This is the same - or similar to what happened to Allensworth, California, is that correct?

Prof. CHA-JUA: Absolutely. But on the other hand, in terms out a day-to-day lives of the people and what they were able to build, you have to deem them a success.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Cha-Jua, thank you so much for joining us.

Prof. CHA-JUA: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is the author of “America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915,” and a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.