Posted in African Americans, homelessness, journal articles, marginalization, racism

African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History

Johnson, Roberta Ann. “African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History.” Journal of Black Studies 40, no. 4 (2010): 583-605.

Johnson provides a brief overview of the history of homelessness among African Americans that outlines eight distinct historic experiences: the colonial period, the Civil War, cowboys of the west, the tramping years, the black migration north, the depression years and New Deal, urban renewal, and the deindustrialization of the American economy. She claims that the American experience of homelessness has not yet been adequately told because African American stories are often left out, underreported, or misinterpreted. Black homelessness was not recognized at all before, and shortly after, the Civil War.

Johnson notes that whites generally assumed that free blacks were homeless and suspect. Their homelessness was “tantamount to a crime: homeless black people were ‘masterless’ and, with rare exceptions, that meant they were fugitive” (584). When African Americans were part of historic phenomena, such as the tramping years or black cowboys, their unique experiences were left out of most narratives (587-90). Finally, African Americans are blamed for their own homelessness rather than attributing it to public policies and structural changes such as urban renewal and deindustrialization, which had a disproportionate negative impact on blacks and on black homelessness.

Johnson’s study looks at homelessness among African Americans from a somewhat conservative perspective. She does not take the Middle Passage into slavery as a time of homelessness, nor does she consider acts of “racial cleansing” such as those covered in Buried in the Bitter Waters; however, she does include runaway slaves. This study provides a basic framework for thinking about homelessness among African Americans and the stories that have been left out, underreported, or misinterpreted.