Victoria W. Wolcott

Victoria W. Wolcott is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She has published three books: Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001), Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012) and Living in the Future: The Utopian Strain in the Long Civil Rights Movement (2022). In addition, she has published articles in The Journal of American History, The Radical History Review, and the Journal of Women’s History among others. She is currently working on two book projects: an edited collection Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present for SUNY Press’s “Humanities to the Rescue” series and The Embodied Resistance of Eroseanna Robinson: Athleticism and Activism in the Cold War Era, a microhistory of a Black Pacifist activist during the cold war.

OAH Lectures by Victoria W. Wolcott

This lecture explores how utopian ideas and practices shaped the long civil rights movement. As early as the 1920s there were significant experiments in interracial communalism at labor colleges, folk schools, and urban and rural cooperatives. By the 1940s members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Fellowship of Reconciliation living in interracial utopian communities began to actively train activists in radical nonviolence. By living cooperatively and communally activists envisioned a future with full racial equality and economic justice.

This presentation explores women hunger strikers in twentieth century America, particularly suffragists in the 1910s and radical pacifists in the postwar period. Hunger strikers used their bodies to protest their subordination, and to subvert this tactic the state often force fed the hunger strikers. For many the image of the hunger striker is a gaunt, often Christ-like, man: the Irish nationalist Bobby Sand, or the fasting Gandhi protesting British colonial policies. But, in reality, the modern hunger strike was devised by women who used their bodies in the cause of suffrage. Radical pacifist women engaged in postwar countercultures also deployed the hunger strike in the cause of civil rights and the peace movement. These “unruly women” violated social norms and elevated the role of the body as a tool of resistance.

African American religious leader, Father Divine, founded the twentieth century’s most successful utopian community. By 1939 his Peace Mission movement was the largest property owner in Harlem, founded extensions throughout the United States and abroad, and had nearly a million followers. This talk seeks to recover the political power of the Father Divine movement. Early twentieth century black religious movements, including Father Divine’s Peace Mission, offered alternative political and racial identities through religious teaching. Father Divine also created a cooperative empire during the Great Depression that provided ample food and housing for followers and other community members. Like other civil rights pioneers Father Divine drew from Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence and promoted cooperatives as a just alternative to competitive capitalism. And utopian visionaries like Father Divine rejected segregation and nurtured interracial fellowship.

In recent years there has been a tremendous nostalgia for urban recreation of the early and mid-twentieth century. Rarely, however, do these public depictions of the past highlight the racial exclusion on which recreation was premised. That exclusion was primarily enforced by white violence: on urban beachfronts, playgrounds, and commercial facilities like roller skating rinks and amusement parks. The incongruity of such violence coupled with images of families at play has hidden this history of racial struggle in recreational spaces, North and South. This talk will explore the history of recreational segregation and its legacy for modern America.

This lecture provides an overview of how the new scholarship on the long civil rights movement has changed our understanding of the scope and range of civil rights. It focuses on how a northern perspective adds a broader temporal scope to the movement, from the Great Migration to Black Power. And it highlights previously overlooked topics such as redlining, unionization and white flight.

In recent years scholarship on the “New Negro movement” has expanded our understanding of the Black experience. Much of this work has emphasized Black Nationalist and anticolonial struggles, particularly Garveyism. This lecture will explore a lesser-known aspect of African American interwar activism, workers’ education. In the early twentieth century Black and white women in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) launched an American workers’ education movement that would shape not only the labor movement, but also the civil rights and feminist movements. Black female activists, such as Ella Baker and Pauli Murray, were key players in this movement through their work at Brookwood Labor College, the cooperative movement, and New Deal agencies. Their vision and energy shaped an international movement committed to racial and class equality.

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