Race Work


Race Work

The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West

Matthew C. Whitaker

Race and Ethnicity in the American West Series

416 pages
26 photos, 6 maps, figure, 3 tables


September 2007


$23.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

Nearly sixty years ago, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale descended upon the isolated, somewhat desolate, and entirely segregated city of Phoenix, Arizona, in search of freedom and opportunity—a move that would ultimately transform an entire city and, arguably, the nation. Race Work tells the story of this remarkable pair, two of the most influential black activists of the post–World War II American West, and through their story, supplies a missing chapter in the history of the civil rights movement, American race relations, African Americans, and the American West.
Matthew C. Whitaker explores the Ragsdales’ family history and how their familial traditions of entrepreneurship, professionalism, activism, and “race work” helped form their activist identity and placed them in a position to help desegregate Phoenix. His work, the first sustained account of white supremacy and black resistance in Phoenix, also uses the lives of the Ragsdales to examine themes of domination, resistance, interracial coalition building, race, gender, and place against the backdrop of the civil rights and post–civil rights eras. An absorbing biography that provides insight into African Americans’ quest for freedom, Race Work reveals the lives of the Ragsdales as powerful symbols of black leadership who illuminate the problems and progress in African American history, American Western history, and American history during the post–World War II era.

Author Bio

Matthew C. Whitaker is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University. He is also an affiliate faculty member in African and African American studies and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at ASU.


“[Race Work] is a wonderful biography of a leading Pheonix civil rights couple, Eleanor and Lincoln Ragsdale, which illustrates larges themes in postwar African American civil rights history from must after World War II, when the couple arrived in Phoenix, through the 1990s. . . . This well-written, insightful, and important study places the Ragsdales in their rightful historical place while enhancing our understanding of western urban African Americans’ struggles.”—Shana Bernstein, Western Historical Quarterly

“[Race Work] illuminates quite effectively an important and often neglected strain of African American politics from the past half century. . . . . Dominant in studies of the early twentieth century, black professionals tend to fade into the background as the chronology of civil rights moves into more recent decades. Whitaker challenges this trend, and his accessible and readable narrative demonstrates the importance of activists like the Ragsdales to our broader understanding of the movement. . . . Along with other recent studies this one demands attention from scholars seeking to map out the ‘long’ civil rights movement and assess its implications for modern American history.”—Mark Wild, American Historical Review

“A ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the history of African Americans in the West. . . . Through excellent research and documentation, Race Work illuminates the ways in which the Phoenix civil rights struggle both mirrored and differed from that in the rest of the United States. . . . This book succeeds in describing the fascinating lives of a courageous couple who advanced racial justice in the American West. Race Work adds to our understanding of class divisions among the African American community, the persistence of poverty during the later decades of the twentieth century, and issues surrounding the inability of Mexican Americans and blacks to build successful coalitions. With insightful and easy-to-read prose, Whitaker illuminates a fascinating period in Phoenix history, when committed activists broke down segregation to change the city and the state. This book is a very welcome addition to the field of twentieth-century western history.” —Mary Melcher, Journal of Arizona History

“In Race Work, Matthew Whitaker vividly demonstrates how individuals make history. This book significantly advances our understanding of the legacies of African Americans who have called the Southwest home.”—Vicki L. Ruiz, author of From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America

"Race Work is a well-researched, readable, engrossing, and long overdue examination of a tumultuous time of social injustice in the U.S. that no proud American has a right to ignore. More important, this book is a fascinating retrospective on the struggle for civil rights in Arizona. Matthew Whitaker skillfully immortalizes this story in the pages of this compelling history. This is a must read for all who would understand the importance of the struggle in the West; a struggle fought with strength, pride and purpose, by ordinary people of extraordinary value."—Phil Gordon, Mayor of Phoenix

Race Work moves African American western history to a new level of sophistication. This book is a rare dual biography of a remarkable couple, Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale. But it is much more. Race Work examines class dynamics in the African American community, including the tension between the pursuit of material success and racial responsibility, the gendered visions and expectations of male and female ‘leadership,’ the history of the civil rights movement in a major western city, and the failure of coalition building among people of color.”—Quintard Taylor, author of In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the West, 1528-1990

"A dual biography of Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, and a fascinating retrospective on the struggle for Civil Rights in Arizona."—True West

“This is not a story of saints or devils but of human beings locked in a struggle for and against change. Race Work succeeds in portraying Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement as irreducibly national in scope. . . . A major contribution to our understanding of the movement that fought for equality.”—Aldon Morris, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Introduction: The Quest for Racial Equality in Phoenix
PART I. Power Concedes Nothing without Demand
1. The Black Professional Tradition
2. Tuskegee, World War II, and the New Black Activism
3. Mobilization, Agitation, and Protest
PART 2. Creative and Persistent
4. Resistance and Interracial Dissent
5. The Quickening
6. Black and Chicano Leadership and the Struggle for Access and Opportunity
PART 3. Moving Forward Counterclockwise
7. The Struggle for Racial Equality in Phoenix, 1980-2000
Conclusion: Racial Uplift in Phoenix
Appendix A. African American Population in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and Selected Suburbs, 2000
Appendix B. Regional Racial Distribution in Selected Arizona Cities, 2000
Appendix C. Selected American Western Cities with Black Populations Exceeding Fifty Thousand as of 2000
Appendix D. Ragsdale Businesses and Financial Enterprises
Appendix E. Professional Organizations and Boards for which Lincoln Ragsdale Served
Appendix F. Professional Organizations and Boards for which Eleanor Ragsdale Served
Appendix G. Lincoln Ragsdale's Honors and Distinctions

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