The Tortured Pre-History of Urban Blight: African American St. Louis and the Politics of Public Health, 1877-1940
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation is a long history of the contested legal and environmental category of blight, especially in its racialized dimensions, in tandem with the African American experience of living in blighted urban spaces and forging a black politics of public health and welfare. Rethinking the conventional view that identifies blight as simply a preoccupation of post-World War II planners, this dissertation relocates its roots in a politics of public health that emerged a hundred years earlier, in the Post-Reconstruction Era, when black migration to the city and the rise of industrial capitalism raised new questions over both the social needs of St. Louis’ working class and the place of black migrants in the future of the city. Through property and census records, social surveys and papers of social welfare associations documenting black life in St. Louis, this dissertation traces the reality of blight as a lived experience. This dissertation also rediscovers the origins of blight within a vibrant black discourse on public health and community advancement. The category of blight first appeared at the heart of a black, religiously-inflected oppositional politics of urban welfare. In its earliest use, by a black preacher in an anti-segregation jeremiad, blight amounted to a negation of the right to the city, a crushing of black ambition, health and self-determination by both the advance of Jim Crow and the rapaciousness of industrial and landlord capitalism. In the wake of a devastating race pogrom in 1917, white public health professionals, social scientists and city planners co-opted and repurposed the term, stripping it of the democratic and religious aspirations black St. Louisans had given it and serving up a new version of blight and urban welfare in the name of science and expertise. Bereft of its earlier democratic content, the new politics of health yoked urban welfare to the perceived necessities of St. Louis’ urban property market as St. Louisans sought to create a new, 20th century city out of the chaotic, decaying urban landscape of the 19th century city. Black leaders turned to the promises of modern city planning and modern public health to continue to pursue their hope of shaping the city in their own image. Yet the bargain they would make with these fields would come back to haunt them, as the very tools which black elites would use to meet social needs and achieve self-determination would, in time, serve as a trojan horse for racialized displacement.
Chair and Committee
Margaret Garb Iver Bernstein
Elizabeth Blackmar, Patricia Heyda, Peter Kastor, Nancy Reynolds,
Desloge, Taylor, "The Tortured Pre-History of Urban Blight: African American St. Louis and the Politics of Public Health, 1877-1940" (2019). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1999.
Available for download on Monday, December 18, 2023
Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/qacq-e387