Uncontrollable Blackness: The Crucible of Black Criminality

The following is an excerpt from Douglas J. Flowe’s Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, which recently won the American Historical Association’s 2021 Littleton-Griswold Prize.

Early twentieth-century African American men in northern urban centers like New York faced economic isolation, segregation, a biased criminal justice system, and overt racial attacks by police and citizens. In this book, Douglas J. Flowe interrogates the meaning of crime and violence in the lives of these men, whose lawful conduct itself was often surveilled and criminalized, by focusing on what their actions and behaviors represented to them. He narrates the stories of men who sought profits in underground markets, protected themselves when law enforcement failed to do so, and exerted control over public, commercial, and domestic spaces through force in a city that denied their claims to citizenship and manhood. Flowe furthermore traces how the features of urban Jim Crow and the efforts of civic and progressive leaders to restrict their autonomy ultimately produced the circumstances under which illegality became a form of resistance.

There are times when disobedience heals a very ailing part of the self. It relieves the human spirit’s distress at being forced into narrow boundaries. For the nearly powerless, defying authority is often the only power available.

Malidoma Patrice Somé, Of Water and the Spirit

Growing up in central Manhattan, Dell Whitehead endured many of the challenges common to black New Yorkers in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1900 to a black migrant from Virginia and an Irish immigrant mother, Whitehead occupied a three-room flat with both parents and six siblings. Although most of his immediate neighbors were African American, his childhood home on West Forty-Fifth Street sat in a black belt straddled by white ethnic immigrants in the working-class Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Experiencing poverty and the dislocation of delinquency, Whitehead, with an older brother, faced a four-month commitment in a Catholic protectory for children when they absconded from home in 1910. While away, their father died of complications related to asthma and their mother, dependent upon her husband’s earnings as a hotel porter, became a single parent without a source of income.

Whitehead contributed to the support of his family in the ways he could, but the difficulty of securing funds led him to a string of arrests. Shortly after his seventeenth birthday, in 1917, he plead guilty to unlawful entry, garnering an eighteen-month sentence in the New York House of Refuge. After release he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in 1919, for robbery in 1922, and for the theft of a taxi cab after colliding with a milk wagon during a chase in 1925. Placed on parole the following year, Whitehead violated the terms of his release only three years later during a stretch of unemployment. According to a report in his arrest file, police apprehended him and his brother-in-law when they “jimmied” the entrance of a women’s clothing store and removed $1,000 worth of merchandise, and both went to prison for more than two years.5During Whitehead’s initial intake examination at Auburn Correctional Facility an interviewer summarized his path to incarceration in blunt terms. “As a result of the unwholesome environment in which he was reared, [he] manifested criminal tendencies in his early years,” they wrote. Poverty and “close contact with criminal characters” the interviewer concluded, made him “[give] himself to extreme habits, being intimate with prostitutes and drinking to excess,” all of which presumably precipitated his crimes. Whitehead, they determined, was “mentally sluggish and unimaginative,” and inherently possessed “tendencies toward incorrigibility.”

Whitehead’s path to prison displays the contradictions, possibilities, and risks New York presented to African Americans at the turn of the century. The urban industrial North allowed blacks latitudes they rarely found in the South, so they moved to places like New York by the thousands. But surveillance, physical and economic marginalization, and violence narrowed their choices. Whitehead’s own inclinations doubtlessly guided his decisions in many ways, but it is also clear his surroundings and his unique positionality as an African American man contributed to his predicament. As part of a cluster of districts in the orbit of central Manhattan’s Tenderloin neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen was known for decaying structures, poverty, and crime. Notorious as a commercial sex district, the area featured brothels, gambling dens, and pool halls that drew customers from all over the city. On the same block as the Whitehead home and in the vicinity, sex workers and pleasure-seeking clients mixed with theatergoers, department store shoppers, and office workers in commercial exchange. In 1906, the grisly murder of a “mulatto woman” in a black saloon not far from Whitehead’s home shocked the city and solidified the area’s bloodcurdling reputation. Hell’s Kitchen and the Tenderloin were also the sites of well-known racial clashes. Black residents slowly relocating westward into Whitehead’s community in the 1890s met fierce resistance from Irish immigrants and entered into what one paper called a “conflict of the races for the supremacy of the neighborhood.”Only months after Whitehead’s birth, rioting exploded in the vicinity as Irish residents and police officers attacked African Americans seeking vengeance for the stabbing death of an undercover police detective by a black migrant. Widespread bloodshed visited the section multiple times across the next two decades, including once in 1910 following black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson’s victory over white challenger Jim Jeffries. The family experienced their own tragedy in 1925 when a jilted lover murdered one of Whitehead’s sisters. In this environment, the place he came of age, he likely found it difficult to avoid the dangers of the neighborhood, the temptations of ill-gotten profits, and the wealth of options for risky amusement and self-indulgence.

Douglas J. Flowe is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.