Imagine living in a world were you were prohibited from buying a house, traveling without written permission, or even gathering peacefully with groups of friends. For many African Americans living in the South during the early-to-mid twentieth century, this wasn’t the stuff of fantasy, but rather the grim reality of everyday life. The challenges ofconfronting these institutionalized obstacles, as well as the struggle to overcome them, led many black families to differing paths in their pursuit of the American dream – a dream all-too-often deferred if not outright denied.
It is against this backdrop that “The Path to Freedom: Black Families in New Jersey,” a remarkable new book by Walter D. Greason, takes place. Greason, an associate professor of history and American studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, explores the lives of three black families who all eventually travel to and settle down in New Jersey during the post-Civil War Great Migration to northeastern cities that held the promise of a better life. We are witness to the lives of the Ham, Russell, and Brown families whose life journeys are meticulously documented by Greason and provide us with an eye-opening look at an America that was quite different than the one we see today. The book is filled with dozens of pictures which provide an insider’s view of what life was like during this period.
Greason examines the pivotal roles that black churches and schools played in providing black families the foundation needed in their ongoing struggles against segregation and discrimination. It was from these institutions that the civil rights movement would ultimately emerge. Pride and dignity were taught to and instilled in a people who were often bombarded with images and words of negativity and inferiority. In particular, the role the church played as the foundation of the black community cannot be overstated. Such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League pursued agendas whose roots clearly began in the black church.
Family lives are also explored and we see how the opportunity to purchase homes – albeit only on streets reserved specifically for African Americans — serves as one of the incentives that motivated black families to move to Jersey townships. Black land ownership was often forbidden in the south, so the freedom to purchase a home, complete with a yard, provided the opportunity not only to have a place to raise one’s own family, but to entertain guests, neighbors, and extended family members. Events such as cookouts and Sunday dinners became commonplace and gave its participants the opportunity to bond and forge the ties that kept the community strong.
Perhaps the book’s strongest asset are the myriad pictures of the families and their members.
Through them we see the faces and lives of people seeking only the same opportunities that most Americans aspire to. We observe them at home, at church, at work, on vacation, serving their country – in other words, participating in the totality of the American life experience just as anyone else would. That these things were something that had to be fought for is testament to how this country did not always live up to its ideal of equality for all.
Perhaps most African Americans don’t think think twice about the freedom to eat at any restaurant, check into any hotel, use any public restroom, or even buy a home. If not, they would be well served to read “The Path to Freedom.” In reminds us that these freedoms, often now taken for granted, did not just naturally occur on their own. The road here was paved by generations before us – and we should take the time to learn who they are and where we came from in order to appreciate where we are.