Cover image for Aristocrats of color : the Black elite, 1880-1920
Aristocrats of color : the Black elite, 1880-1920
Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. (Willard Badgett), 1931-
Publication Information:
Fayetteville : University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Physical Description:
xi, 467 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1990.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E185.86 .G38 1990C Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E185.86 .G38 1990C Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

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Every American city had a small, self-aware, and active black elite, who felt it was their duty to set the standard for the less fortunate members of their race and to lead their communities by example. Rank within this black upper class rested on such issues as the status of one's forebears as either house servants or field hands, the darkness of one's skin, and the level of one's manners and education.

Professor Gatewood's study examines this class of African Americans by looking at the genealogies and occupations of specific families and individuals throughout the United States and their roles in their various communities. The resulting narrative is a full and illuminating account of a most influential segment of the African-American population. It explores fully the distinctive background, prestige, attitudes, behavior, power, and culture of this class. The Black Community Studies series from the University of Arkansas Press, edited by Professor Gatewood, continues to examine many of the same themes first explored in this important study.

Author Notes

Willard B. Gatewood is Alumni Distinguished Professor of History emeritus at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the author or co-author of eleven other books, including Black Americans and the White Man's Burden 1898-1903 (1975, University of Illinois Press).

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

From Reconstruction through World War I there developed an awareness among whites as well as blacks of the social layers within the black community, the elite group having advantages of education, profession, and particularly family background. Gatewood has amassed a wealth of information on hundreds of individuals whose lives were subject to constant scrutiny and comment because of their elevated positions in American life. The narrative follows two streams. One lays out social history across a wide and varied cultural geography--every major city from North, South, Midwest, New England, and the significantly smaller black communities in the West. The other is a comprehensive study of Blanche K. Bruce, slave-born yet elected U.S. senator from Mississippi in 1874. A further section examines the complex issue of color--the conflicting attitudes toward the largely light-skinned elite as well as those toward mulatto, Creole, and West Indian blacks. Although the book cries out for better organization, it is an invaluable resource of the period. No index. ~--Susan Nelson

Publisher's Weekly Review

The ``colored aristocracy'' that flourished in American cities during the decades following reconstruction is the focus of this engaging study of an elite perched between black and white worlds. Photos. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Class has been a powerful force within Afro-American society, at times dividing blacks almost as sharply as race separated them from whites, Gatewood shows. Focusing on ``old families'' who saw themselves as superior in culture, sophistication, and achievement, his four-part study explores social gradations among blacks in each of the nation's regions and particularly in Washington, D.C. His pert prose and eye for pretensions and peccadilloes make for lively reading of who was who, where they came from and went, and how they thought and acted. He casts much debated issues of class, color, and race in a clear historical framework that challenges stereotypes of a black racial monolith and tests taboos of color consciousness and miscegenation. Every collection on American and Afro-American social history or thought should have this important book. Highly recommended.-- Thomas J. Davis, Univ. at Buffalo, N.Y. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Drawing on an impressive range of primary and secondary sources, Gatewood surveys the experiences, institutions, and culture of the black elite in the US between 1880 and 1920. In 12 well-researched and accessibly written chapters, Gatewood details the dimensions and nature of black upper-class life, placing special emphasis on questions of self-image and self-definition as educated and wealthy African Americans grappled with the increasingly segregationist policies of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that robbed them of the rewards they might have secured in a nonracist society. Gatewood provides a sympathetic picture of his subjects, explaining their conviction that their own success by individualist and capitalist standards would disprove racist stereotypes about the limited abilities of blacks. Yet as Gatewood shows, their conservative cultural beliefs and practices failed to win the acceptance and tolerance they expected from whites; despite their behavior and accomplishments, racism intensified. Gatewood devotes much more space to description than analysis, but the information he presents is a useful addition to scholarly understanding of the subject of differences within African American communities as theorized by E. Franklin Frazier (Black Bourgeoisie, 1957), St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton (Black Metropolis, 1945), and others. General and undergraduate readers. -G. Lipsitz, University of California, San Diego