Dispatch from Urban History Association

Karen Johnson

Last weekend I was at the Urban History Association conference in Philadelphia.  Urban historians today are framing their work in terms of metropolitan areas, and not just urban centers or peripheral suburbs.  They are also seeking to break down urban/suburban dichotomies and emphasize the diversity of the suburbs, as well as the continuities between cities and suburbs.

The panel I was on linked religion with cities and suburbs, and we heard great papers from Peter Borg, a PhD candidate at Marquette University and Erik Miller, a PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, and comments from Darren Dochuk of the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

My paper on Catholic efforts to integrate Chicago's suburbs in the 1950s argued that Catholic interracialists imagined suburbs not as bastions of segregation, but as the potential font of true brotherhood.  I explored how they leveraged their networks for their cause and presented integration as the Judeo-Christian thing to do in the face of various iterations of segregationist theologies and attempts to remove religion from the conversation altogether. 

Borg's paper argued that white flight to the suburbs meant the death of urban white churches.  He traced the slow demise of a white urban congregation in the 1960s in Milwaukee as suburban migrants shifted their allegiances from a denominational urban church to nondenominational suburban churches.  Borg concluded that, in the complicated dynamics of interracial exchanges, the white congregants viewed their new black neighbors not as people to partner with, but as people to pity.  Borg's paper points to the larger framework of race in America, in which power dynamics of white dominance in interracial interactions are hard to shake.

Building on scholarship on the evangelical left, Miller's paper considered not those who fled the city, but those black evangelicals and their white supporters who viewed the inner city as a place for social justice to be practiced in the 1970s and 1980s.  Looking at John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Corporation, Miller traced Perkins's merging of traditional white evangelical values of family, free enterprise, and faith with social justice.  According to Miller, Perkins and his adherents aren't like liberals who often turn to the government to level the playing field.  Instead they focus on the role of the church.  Miller's work fills in the gaps of Nancy Wadsworth's Ambivalent Miracles (check out the RiAH interviews with Wadsworth here and here) by looking at the evangelicals who merged racial reconciliation with community development.  

But there's room for more work!  There need to be more panels on religion at the Urban History Association.  As Dochuk pointed out, there's a rich historiography of urban/suburban issues and religion.  We have historians like John McGreevy (Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Urban North) and Gerald Gamm (Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed) to thank for framing the intersection between place, faith, and racial change. But this blog's field has much more to say to the UHA. Scholars of religion in American history, look to the UHA. 


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