David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
California’s Black Pioneers: A Brief Historical Survey. By Kenneth G. Goode. Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1974. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 222 pages. $6.95. Softbound. $3.50.
Reviewed by Lawrence B. de Graaf, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, author of various articles on Western black history, including the prize winning “The City of Black Angels: Emergence of the Los Angeles Ghetto, 1890-1930,” Pacific Historical Review, August, 1970.
This work is the first history of blacks in California to appear in the great volume of literature written on black history during recent decades. It is primarily a narrative that both recognizes the presence and accomplishments of blacks through all periods of California history and also presents the “grim side” of discriminations and segregation practiced against them. The author endeavors to place this narrative in a background of general developments. In this effort he succeeds too well, as several chapters are largely background with little about blacks. Several documents in the appendix and 32 pages of illustrations enrich the brief text.
Goode presents no overall theme for this subject. In some ways that is a refreshing change from recent works which have interpreted the experiences of minority groups in California as a continuous record of racism. Goode avoids preaching on the injustices done to blacks and instead artfully weaves in excerpts from Negrophobic speeches and legislation or ironic incidents which carry their own messages. One interesting example was that of the Oakland City Council deliberating a housing segregation ordinance while the mayor and a councilman were addressing a departing contingent of black doughboys.
In other respects, however, the absence of a theme is regrettable, for in places this lack precludes the raising or answering of important questions. This is particularly evident in the final chapter where the author follows the issue-by-issue framework common to most writings on the postwar period. The reader learns that in housing, employment, and school integration blacks have gained little ground in recent decades despite considerable favorable legislation and court rulings and personal victories by blacks in politics. The reasons for this paradox are not explored. Is the black community still controlled by a “white power structure”? Have black or liberal politicians compromised the essential needs of blacks? Are such socio-economic problems irremediable by legislation?
Over half of the work is devoted to the period prior to the Civil War, an unbalanced chronological synthesis, but one quite typical of recent scholarship on blacks in California and the West. The most detailed chapters are on the issues of slavery and civil rights during the 1850s and 1860s. The period from the 1870s through the 1940s receives very cursory treatment from Goode as it has from most scholars. These emphases and omissions detract from the claim that this book will provide “insights into the realities of American society now.” The greatest realities for most California blacks today are not the denial of testimony or voting rights but rather revolve around the development and entrenchment of segregated ghettos and the consequences of that process, none of which are studied in detail.
Some of the areas of omission might have been filled had the author made greater use of recent scholarship on blacks in California. Despite the voluminous literature on the Watts riot and black militants, these topics are treated in one paragraph. A few articles and popular works on the development of the Los Angeles black community and monographs on the rise of eastern ghettos would have provided a framework for discussing that aspect of California black history. The one chapter that departs from a political emphasis, on blacks in films, terminates in the 1920s and leaves untreated the more significant role that blacks played in film during later decades. These omissions are reflected in the bibliographies. Impressive in their listing of general works on California history, they omit most of the recent anthologies on minorities in the state, several significant articles on blacks in California, and nearly all recent interpretive studies on black history nationally or in other cities.
The scholarly image of this work is also lessened by several errors in text and bibliography. The California state senator in 1865 was John E. Benton, not Thomas Hart Benton. The New Age was edited by Frederick Roberts, not Oscar Hudson. The Black Panthers could hardly have been “firmly entrenched” in Watts one year before their inception. There were also several erroneous citations in the bibliographies.
In answer to these criticisms the author might note that he only claims the book to be a “brief historical survey,” and as such its brevity, readability, and balanced approach to both discriminations and achievements make it an excellent text. But it leaves unfulfilled the need for a more topically comprehensive, detailed and analytical history of blacks in the Golden State.