Black Women and Politics in New York City

In 1944, when black elected officials were a rarity, the longtime Brooklyn activist Ada Jackson responded to criticism of her run against another black candidate for the state assembly by rejecting uncritical appeals to racial solidarity: “It is an insult to the intelligence of the voters to speak as though they had only to choose between one or another Negro” (p. 75). Though she lost that and several subsequent elections, Jackson remained a determined community advocate.

Julie A. Gallagher’s Black Women and Politics in New York City traces the evolution of African American women as political actors in various guises—as activists, voters, appointees, and elected officials—across seven decades. The book focuses on “three generations of black women in New York City who endeavored to work through the structures of government to undo racial and gender-based discrimination” while advocating locally and nationally for the needs of women, African Americans, and the economically disadvantaged (p. 10). The narrative features relatively well-known figures such as the civil rights lawyer Constance Baker Motley and the Brooklyn congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, alongside many less heralded individuals, such as Ada Jackson, rescued here from historical marginalization. Most of Gallagher’s protagonists are not radicals but reformers interested in leveraging the power of the state in the ser vice of their communities. The author emphasizes moments of opportunity when black women seized openings created by political realignments, economic crisis, and social movement insurgencies to advance their issues and influence policy making.

Following a functional if somewhat flat introduction, the book opens before World War I and then proceeds to consider black women’s formal emergence, following women’s suffrage, as a new political force in the urban North. Gallagher demonstrates that African American voters’ depression-era national shift in allegiance from the Republican party to the Democratic party was already underway a decade earlier in New York City. Faced with a “political culture [that] was both racialized as white and deeply masculine” black women made few inroads in formal politics during the 1920s (p. 26). Barred by the major parties from running for office, women in Harlem and central Brooklyn nevertheless garnered valuable experiences as poll watchers, campaign workers, third-party candidates and, especially, within their own political and service organizations. During the depression, college-educated women such as the organizer Ella Baker and the Young Women’s Christian Association advocate Anna Arnold Hedgeman parlayed their skills and experiences into appointments with municipal New Deal agencies, while others ran unsuccessfully for political office. Genuine political breakthroughs, however, would not come until the postwar years.

The book’s second half stresses black women’s increasing turn to the federal government for political leverage and their insistence on the salience of race amid the emergent women’s movement. Gallagher also charts a host of political firsts, including Motley’s eventual ascent to the federal judiciary in 1966. The final chapter offers one of the best analyses to date of Chisholm’s rise from local Brooklyn politics to Democratic presidential aspirant, with her unapologetic embrace of feminism and tenuous electoral coalitions.

Although readers may take issue with its near exclusive emphasis on middle-class black women and its omission of certain radical voices (such as the black feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy), with its chronological range and compelling cast of characters Gallagher’s book makes a significant contribution. It is a story of halting, incremental change—but of real change all the same. Party politics, American liberalism, and the women’s movement all look different when considered from the perspective of these activists.

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