A History of Racial Discrimination and the Fight for Change
Historian Paula Austin is amplifying the voices of Black teenagers from Jim Crow–era Washington, D.C., and highlighting parallels to today’s Black Lives Matter movement
The wave of police brutality drew 2,000 protesters into the streets of Washington, D.C. The intergenerational, interracial crowd waved signs reading “Stop Police Murders” and “You May Be Next.” Thousands more gathered to watch them march.
Local newspapers had documented the long history of law enforcement harassing the city’s Black residents, cataloging two decades of violence and sparking a summer of activism. Susie Morgan, a 14-year-old resident of the Southwest, a neighborhood just south of the National Mall, told an interviewer about the time she and her friends had been cooling off in the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool—something they’d often seen white kids do—and a police officer threatened to beat them. On another occasion, Morgan was chased and assaulted by a cop who suspected her of theft.
“The police git after us a lot,” Morgan said. The year was 1938.
Morgan’s story is one of dozens that historian Paula Austin discovered in Howard University’s archives. As a PhD student at City University of New York, Austin read The Negro Family in the United States by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, a Howard professor who filled his 1939 book with quotes from poor, Black individuals—voices not often heard from in historical works; Austin wondered what more she could learn about them from his papers. On a whim, she traveled to Washington, D.C., and spent her 2012 winter break leafing through folders of 80-year-old transcripts. She first encountered Susie Morgan in a collection of 200 interviews conducted for Frazier’s 1940 book Negro Youth at the Crossways.
As Austin flipped through one folder after another, the stories on those pages began to speak to her about the segregation and institutional racism that shaped their experiences. She was so struck by the words of these teenagers that she began writing about them almost immediately, eventually turning the project into her dissertation, then a debut book. Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (NYU Press) was published in late 2019, a few months after Austin joined the CAS faculty as an assistant professor of history and African American studies.
Austin’s book draws on interviews conducted by Frazier and William Henry Jones, also a Howard sociologist, to illuminate the Black youth who grew up under the Jim Crow laws of segregated Washington, D.C. It also creates a stark contrast to past depictions of this community by the media, law enforcement, historians, and even Frazier himself—and highlights important parallels to the racism and segregation still prevalent in America.
Frazier was a big name in early 1900s academia, publishing dozens of papers and books about the African American community. In 1948, he would become the first Black president of the American Sociological Association. Over time, though, Frazier’s work has proven problematic. He shed light on the impacts of racism and segregation, but he also perpetuated negative stereotypes about rural and poor Black families. In Negro Youth at the Crossways, he argued that his subjects suffered from feelings of inferiority created by Jim Crow policies and that they needed rehabilitation. Working with the same interviews, Austin reached very different conclusions. She discovered thoughtful teenagers who shared dreams unbound by the segregation and racism they recognized around them. “I was just astounded at the kinds of answers that these young people were giving,” Austin says.
Austin visited Howard at least once a year for six or seven years, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. She paged through more than 20 boxes of materials in the Frazier collection, plus more in Jones’ papers. In the unedited transcripts, she discovered an intimate look at the lives, thoughts, and dreams of Black adolescents in the Jim Crow era, the stories of the sons and daughters of laundresses, firemen, and oyster harvesters. The voice that rose above all of the others belonged to 14-year-old Susie Morgan.
If historians are looking for the lives, the experiences, the kind of intellectual production of poor and working-class people, generally we don’t have records of them.
For more than a year, Austin knew little about the teenager. Frazier and his interviewers anonymized their work, replacing names with numerals. Individual number 22 had one of the largest files in the collection. It started in 1938, spanned two years, and was filled with vivid details about her life, including leading a local gang of friends called the Union Street Sports and clashing with police.
Austin’s first presentation about her research focused on boys and street gangs. She drew heavily from individual 22—who she assumed was a boy. Then, Austin discovered a stapled packet labeled “Boys” and another labeled “Girls.” Names matched with numerals lined each page. “I remember my excitement and joy,” Austin says. She cross-referenced the key with the interviews and discovered the identity of her mystery boy: Susie Morgan. Austin had to revise that first presentation—and check her gender assumptions—but she features Morgan prominently in her book.
“She’s so forthcoming and dynamic,” Austin says. “I was just so impressed with her as a person.” Beyond Morgan’s interactions with the police, Austin was captivated by the way she explored the city, roaming well beyond the Southwest—and even swimming in the dangerous waters of the Washington Channel, which runs into the Potomac River.
“She sounded so knowledgeable about her own self,” Austin says. “I’m sure there’s a bunch of stuff that we don’t know about Susie—about pain and trauma—but so much of her interview is about her strength and claiming power for herself in terms of her movement around the city.” It’s a perspective often missing from the historical record, which relies heavily on writings and documents left by the upper classes.
I don’t think that we should be made to, or trying to, prove anybody’s humanity—we should be taking everybody’s humanity as a thing that already exists.
“If historians are looking for the lives, the experiences, the kind of intellectual production of poor and working-class people, generally we don’t have records of them,” Austin says. Youth are also often ignored or stereotyped. “Children aren’t leaving archival sources for us to look at,” she says. These groups, Austin writes in her book, typically show up as statistics: “Nameless, faceless, and voiceless, rendered only in the aggregate as an urban monolith.”
But Austin sees this changing. “In the last 25 years, the field has been growing—and histories of minoritized and marginalized peoples have been growing enormously,” she says. With more historians turning to sources from other disciplines, like Frazier’s sociology research, they’ve learned “to write things that are more accurate about communities that have historically been left out of the record.”
A History of Dehumanization
As Austin uncovered the narratives in Frazier’s papers, his interviewees’ stories of racism resonated. Michael Brown, an African American teenager, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., while Austin was writing her dissertation. She recognized the dehumanizing language used by law enforcement and in the media to describe Brown—as something “beastly,” or something other than a typical teenage boy—from her research.
In her book, Austin notes the history of such language within academia, citing words such as “devious” and “unwholesome” being used to describe recreational activities in a poor Black community. And that language can be traced from the treatment of enslaved people, who weren’t considered human, through the 1990s, when Hillary Clinton labeled gang members as “superpredators,” to the present day. “This is true for boys in particular, and it has led to not just mistreatment and abuse but in some cases death,” Austin says.
The Frazier interviews tell the urban, Black experience in the first person. And for Austin, they revealed the humanity of the subjects. “I don’t think that we should be made to, or trying to, prove anybody’s humanity—we should be taking everybody’s humanity as a thing that already exists.”
Seeing a Future
Another interviewee who figures prominently in Austin’s book is 17-year-old Myron Ross. He expressed frustration over the presence of a whites-only playground in his predominantly Black neighborhood. And he identified the inequities in the treatment of white versus Black Boy Scouts at a jamboree held in D.C. But even as Ross analyzed the limitations that Jim Crow forced on his life, he expressed his desire to travel and attend college. “People could look at young people in the impoverished conditions, oppressed conditions that they live in, and say that their ideas about their future are naive, that kid is never going to do that,” Austin says. “But they’re able to see a future for themselves, despite the conditions under which they are being forced to live.”
Austin sees such valuable lessons in the lives of Frazier’s subjects that she wants to find out more about them. Some of that work paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, with archives closed and many materials inaccessible, but she has plans to collaborate with Prologue DC, a group of women historians creating D.C.-based multimedia stories. Austin hopes to translate some of her subjects’ lives to digital map stories, showing their movements around the city and the evolution of their neighborhood, which was giving way to federal government construction at the time of Frazier’s research.
To build those maps, Austin needs more data—from the census and obituaries. And, she hopes, from oral histories collected from relatives of her subjects. Since her book’s release, Austin has met Ross’ widow and a cousin, who told her that he graduated from Howard with an electrical engineering degree. “He became the person that he’s talking about as a teenager,” Austin says. “This idea that young people who are in poor and working-class communities are somehow doomed, it’s a wrong idea.
“They not only understand the conditions under which they are living but they are also able, despite that, to see a future for themselves—and feel deserving of that future. That is the thing that I’d like for the book to bring into the contemporary moment, in terms of how we think about young people in poor, working-class communities.”
After the 1938 protests, Washington, D.C., reformed its police department, establishing a civilian review board and hiring more Black officers. But racist harassment didn’t end—protesters took to the streets again in 1941. Later that decade, the city promoted a new police chief who had several acts of brutality on his record.
Austin saw the weeks after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer unfold in a similar way: protests broke out around the world—as did the familiar demands for change. “So many people don’t actually know that many of the calls for reforms that they are making now are not at all new,” Austin says. “They were tried in the ’30s, in the ’40s, in the ’50s, and we’re still here.”
But, Austin says, one thing has changed this time. “We moved to this call for defunding the police, for reallocating resources into other parts of communities,” she says. “I do think this is a different moment.”
Measuring that difference will take time, but the moment’s arrival has heightened the importance of Austin’s work. “I don’t have the privilege of saying, ‘This is just an interesting historical story that I want to tell,’ as opposed to feeling like maybe this could save lives,” she says. “Maybe that’s too grandiose a thought about my scholarship, but when I work on it, it feels important in that way.”