Historians generally recognize black liberalism as the ability of African-descended peoples to use the American state for social and economic redress. And most scholars presume that such power began with the New Deal, as black people began moving into Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party on the promise of improved employment options, greater access to federal civil rights protection, and new appointments of African Americans to visible federal and advisory posts (i.e. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet”).
N. D. B. Connolly locates the origins of black liberalism somewhere else entirely. He argues that black liberalism emerged from the political prerogatives of Southern black business people who, since the end of Reconstruction, recognized the relationship between white power and state power and used their standing as entrepreneurs to secure gains from local, white supremacist governments. Even after suffering wide disenfranchisement at the end of the nineteenth century and even as they lived under the shroud of lynch law, black business people, from the local level up, took advantage of an overlapping and interracial set of concerns about property rights. They successfully and repeatedly gained concessions from municipal and county governments by forming important if troubled alliances with white property owners. They also treated blackness itself as a kind of property, making it part of broader efforts to secure federal and local protections of black-owned private property.