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Inside the March Journal of American History

The March 2021 issue of the JAH is now available online for subscribers. Three outstanding articles, previewed below, anchor this month’s issue, including Dylan C. Penningroth’s article, “Everyday Use: A History of Civil Rights in Black Churches,” which is freely available as an Editor’s Choice selection. For our Textbooks and Teaching section, contributing co-editors Laura M. Westoff and Robert D. Johnston have curated an exchange about historical writing. They invite teachers to think beyond the traditional historical essay for the development of students’ analytical skills.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we have also updated our Women’s History Index. We encourage readers to explore this collection of all the women’s history articles ever published in the JAH.

Article Previews

Britt P. Tevis reexamines the Seligman affair, a well-known 1877 incident in which the prominent Jewish banker Joseph Seligman was denied accommodation at a hotel in upstate New York. Scholars have traditionally classified this episode as social anti-Semitism, a type of private anti-Jewish bias unrelated to law or the state. Tevis, by contrast, contextualizes the Seligman affair within broader post-Reconstruction debates about public accommodation laws. By resituating the Seligman affair within its legal context, the article reveals how the reframing of this episode has encouraged historians to minimize the severity of anti-Semitism in the United States.

After the Civil War, African Americans began to exercise civil rights of contract, property, and standing, a set of rights with significance that scholars of the Black freedom struggle have not fully appreciated. By the Jim Crow era, African Americans were putting these civil rights of the nineteenth century to everyday use. Dylan C. Penningroth seeks to revise the history of “civil rights” by examining one strand of Black people’s long engagement with legal rules, legal ideas, and legal institutions: the private law of religion. Throughout the twentieth century, Black male church leaders fought over the role churches should play in the Black freedom struggle, while ordinary church members, both women and men, seized the new meaning of civil rights as racial justice and redirected it to their concerns about church injustice.

The fire-ravaged skylines engulfing U.S. cities in the 1960s have left such an enduring mark on the nation’s historical imagination that they have obscured the far more destructive and protracted wave of landlord arson in the 1970s. Although the latter fires were lit not for protest, but for profit by way of insurance payouts, it was the state and corporate reaction to the 1960s uprisings that served as their kindling. Bench Ansfield asks how urban neighborhoods of color, long redlined by property insurers, came to be underwritten by public-private insurance pools introduced by an offshoot of the Kerner Commission in 1968. Despite being branded as a racial justice measure, this insurance initiative benefited nobody more than absentee landlords, setting the stage for further ruin.