Simultaneously a symbol for the nation and a longtime major Black city without political representation, Washington, D.C., has appeared to many—in the words of blues poet Gil Scott-Heron—as “a ball of contradictions” between affluent white political elites “who come and go” and the predominantly Black poor and working-class “who’ve got to stay.” Perhaps nowhere is this entanglement better illustrated than the McMillan Plan’s Progressive Era redesign of “Imperial Washington” made possible by the racialized slum clearance of the Metropolitan Police Department’s “war on alleys” at the turn of the twentieth century.
New York City’s mayoral election of 1913 swept a young reformer, John Purroy Mitchel, into office as the candidate of the Fusion Party. His police commissioner, Arthur H. Woods, pledged to solve the crime problem and quell public disturbances by instituting a series of police reforms based on the progressive principles of “scientific management.” However, one of these initiatives—use of a police wiretapping unit for the clandestine gathering of information—led to a public scandal and contributed to the downfall of the reform movement in New York City.
As scholars who have long been immersed in this pivotal period, we were excited to learn of the lavishly produced HBO series The Gilded Age. With the exception of the fabulously successful feature film Titanic in 1997, ours is a historical period that is often overlooked in popular culture. So we were delighted when The Gilded Age generated advance reviews in mainstream publications including the New York Times and Washington Post. We hoped it would bring attention to the period we find so important in our history, especially for the light it can shed on present day problems and issues—both how they were created and how they might be remedied.
Professionally known as Belle Holmes, between 1905 and 1916 Benzecry led the Society’s efforts to rid New York City of unlicensed medical practitioners. In the words of one newspaper feature, Benzecry investigated “fortune tellers with wonderful charms, unguents, herb teas, and lucky pieces; prophets with direct messages to go a-healing from the blue empyrean itself; practitioners of strange cults, with names especially coined for the occasion; practitioners who are shielding their own irregular practices by the dishonored cloak of graduate physicians.”
My recent scholarship explores civil rights, African American activism and racial justice in the western states and territories. My first book, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Justice in the West, 1900-54, based largely on my doctoral dissertation, explored many of these questions in a far western city with a global reputation for tolerance and civility toward racial minorities. I argued, among other things, that while western cities like San Francisco, and you could include Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, were clearly more progressive than cities in the South, the progressive mystique that they portrayed was largely a facade. My work also revealed the presence of an active civil rights movement in the western states dating from the mid-nineteenth century and continuing well into the new century.