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Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 – Q&A with Dr. Adam Lee Cilli

What led to your interest in this area of research? 

My research in the field of African American urban history stemmed from a general commitment to social justice and a specific commitment to advance research and teaching in the areas of race, ethnicity, and gender.  It also grew out of pure interest and scholarly curiosity. As a graduate student at the University of Maine, I was interested in the interplay of race, gender, and class in urban industrial settings like Pittsburgh, and I found a niche that was not well fleshed out at the time. African American’s involvement in reform work was not well understood. Scholars focused almost exclusively on respectability politics, racial uplift, or social reorganization theory. In all three cases, though, they were critiquing reformers for the same thing: pursuing behavioral reform.  Yet this overlooked something profound I discovered in my research. Behavioral reform represented only one of many strategies reformers pursued.

Could you give us a short overview of Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945

This book casts new light on Black reformers working for justice in northern cities from the Progressive Era to the close of the Second World War. Many of these activists originally had come from the Upper South, where they attended segregated institutions of higher learning. Following the flow of the Great Migration, they moved as rural African Americans had moved, in search of opportunity and freedom. My work picks up the story from there by examining reformers’ experiences in the North and exploring how they created alliances across racial and class lines in pursuit of an expansive vision of economic and political citizenship.

While scholars of African American urban history have painstakingly recreated the lived experiences of everyday people from the working class, there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the nature and scope of Black reform work. Historians have typically stressed reformers’ commitment to racial uplift ideology as well as their class and gender biases, but this explanatory model has often obscured more than it clarified.  Black reform work included but extended beyond racial uplift ideology, and reformers’ class and gender identities informed but did not dictate the direction of their social justice initiatives.

Canaan, Dim and Far features a revolving cast of social workers, medical professionals, journalists, scholars, and lawyers who experimented with a variety of strategies as they moved fluidly across ideologies and political alliances to find practical solutions to profound inequities. During the interwar years, they waged a comprehensive campaign against anti-Black stereotypes, expanded Black political power, facilitated Black inclusion in the industrial labor movement, and developed crucial social safety supports in inner-city neighborhoods that buffered southern migrants against the civil, economic, and physical impositions of northern Jim Crow.

Pittsburgh is the main focus of your book. Were there other cities in consideration for your analysis or was the focus on Pittsburgh always the plan? 

Pittsburgh represents a critical site for illuminating how reformers maneuvered within a political culture driven by industrial capitalism and informed by white supremacist rhetorics. The city was a national hub of steel production, ethnic diversity, and labor activity. Along with that, it was a major site of Black migration, hosted the nation’s largest Black weekly newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, and had very active branches of the Urban League and NAACP. These features permit a detailed examination of the dynamic relationships that reformers developed with Black migrants, steel executives, labor leaders, communists, progressives, and politicians in order to advance their goals.

What was the reasoning behind the date-range focus of the book being 1915-1945?

I initially planned to limit this book’s focus to the interwar period (1918-1939), but at some point I decided to include the period spanning the Second World War. I see this as an important transitional period when the cautious reformism that characterized the interwar years began giving way to the more militant, direct-action methods we associate with the Civil Rights era. In particular, Canaan, Dim and Far’s final chapter shows how Black reformers pressured the federal government to support racial justice. Appealing to patriotism and democracy, in 1942 Courier staff initiated a national Double V campaign that linked fascism abroad with racism at home and likely hastened federal-level decisions to open the marines, air corps, and coast guard to African Americans and include Black women in the women’s corps.

What are you working on now? 

My second book will examine the Great Migration in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia through the lens of crime and punishment. Studies by Jeffrey Adler, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Cheryl Hicks, and others have shown how Black incarceration rates spiked in the urban North during the Progressive Era, sweeping thousands of young southern Black men into the criminal justice system. My study will connect with this scholarship and blaze a new path by examining African American reformers’ efforts to address discriminatory policing in the context of their larger body of work. Activists in the Black press, Urban League, and NAACP consciously engaged in crime prevention work through their programs designed to mitigate housing, job, and health disparities in African American neighborhoods.  Simultaneously, they contested police misconduct in the courts of law and public opinion and waged a comprehensive campaign against the white supremacist rhetorics that had demeaned and criminalized Black life. 

Adam Lee Cilli is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. 

Canaan, Dim and Far: Black Reformers and the Pursuit of Citizenship in Pittsburgh, 1915-1945 is available now from UGA Press: