History 248 Reading Guide

African American Families and Neighborhoods in Urban Society

  • James Borchert, Alley Life in Washington:  Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (1980).
    Note: read the conclusion first.


  • How does Borchert’s study of urban African American families and communities attempt to revise traditional historical and sociological assumptions about the “norms” of family and community in the United States?  What are the implications of his revision of African American experience, and of urban community and urban experience?
  • What are the particular components—determining factors and influences—of alley life that he examines?  What do those reveal about alley life as a stage in the evolution of African-American communities?
  • How does his discussion add to our consideration of Anthony Kaye’s discussion of “community” vs. “neighborhood” in the plantation society of Mississippi?  How does his discussion of alley-folk strategies of separation and experiences of “integration” fit with Graves’s consideration of middle-class African American reactions to Jim Crow policies of exclusion and segregation in Arkansas?
  • How does he organize his study?  Toward what kinds of arguments is he building?
  • Why doesn’t Borchert examine the evolution of race relations in his study?  How might that focus (or that omission!)distort his account?