Cover for CHA-JUA: America's First Black Town: Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915

America's First Black Town

Brooklyn, Illinois, 1830-1915
Awards and Recognition:

Recipient of an Illinois State Historical Society Award of Superior Achievement, 2001.

The courageous story of the first all-Black free town in the United States

"Founded by Chance, Sustained by Courage," Brooklyn, Illinois, was a magnet for African Americans from its founding by free and fugitive Blacks in the 1820s. Initially attractive to escaped slaves and others seeking to live in a Black-majority town, Brooklyn later drew Black migrants eager to commute to jobs in East St. Louis and other industrial centers as an alternative to eking out a living in agriculture. Ultimately, however, this very proximity to the industrializing city led to a destructive economic dependency that poisoned the ground for Brooklyn's self-determination.

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua traces Brooklyn's transformation from a freedom village into a residential commuter satellite that supplied cheap labor to the city and the region. He examines why Brooklyn remained unindustrialized while factories and industrial complexes were built in nearly all the neighboring white-majority towns. As Brooklyn's population tilted more heavily toward single young men employed in the factories and as the city's cheaper retail businesses drew the town's consumer dollars, local businesses--except those catering to nightlife and vice--withered away.

Drawing on town records, regional and African American newspapers, census data, and other sources, Cha-Jua provides a detailed social and political history of America's first Black town. He places Brooklyn in the context of Black-town development and African American nationalism and documents the dedicated efforts of its Black citizens to achieve political control and build a thriving, autonomous, Black-majority community.

America's First Black Town challenges scholarly assumptions that Black political control necessarily leads to internal unity and economic growth. Outlining dynamics that presaged the post-1960s plight of Gary, Detroit, and other Black-dominated cities, Cha-Jua confirms that, despite Brooklyn's heroic struggle for autonomy, Black control was not enough to stem the corrosive tide of internal colonialism.

"Effectively integrating social, economic, and political developments in a single community over an eighty-year time period, Sundiata Cha-Jua's thoroughly researched study provides an important new model for understanding the history of all-Black towns during the industrial era."--Kenneth Kusmer, editor of Black Communities and Urban Development in America, 1720-1990

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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