A Covenant with Color

Race and Social Power in Brooklyn

Craig Steven Wilder

Columbia University Press

A Covenant with Color

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Pub Date: January 2001

ISBN: 9780231119078

320 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $32.00£27.00

A Covenant with Color

Race and Social Power in Brooklyn

Craig Steven Wilder

Columbia University Press

Spanning three centuries of Brooklyn history from the colonial period to the present, A Covenant with Color exposes the intricate relations of dominance and subordination that have long characterized the relative social positions of white and black Brooklynites. Craig Steven Wilder—examining both quantitative and qualitative evidence and utilizing cutting-edge literature on race theory—demonstrates how ideas of race were born, how they evolved, and how they were carried forth into contemporary society.

In charting the social history of one of the nation's oldest urban locales, Wilder contends that power relations—in all their complexity—are the starting point for understanding Brooklyn's turbulent racial dynamics. He spells out the workings of power—its manipulation of resources, whether in the form of unfree labor, privileges of citizenship, better jobs, housing, government aid, or access to skilled trades. Wilder deploys an extraordinary spectrum of evidence to illustrate the mechanics of power that have kept African American Brooklynites in subordinate positions: from letters and diaries to family papers of Kings County's slaveholders, from tax records to the public archives of the Home Owners Loan Corporation.

Wilder illustrates his points through a variety of cases, including banking interests, the rise of Kings County's colonial elite, industrialization and slavery, race-based distribution of federal money in jobs, and mortgage loans during and after the Depression. He delves into the evolution of the Brooklyn ghetto, tracing how housing segregation corralled African Americans in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The book explores colonial enslavement, the rise of Jim Crow, labor discrimination and union exclusion, and educational inequality. Throughout, Wilder uses Brooklyn as a lens through which to view larger issues of race and power on a national level.

One of the few recent attempts to provide a comprehensive history of race relations in an American city, A Covenant with Color is a major contribution to urban history and the history of race and class in America.

Fills a real gap in the social history of American cities.... Appealing for its deft interweaving of personal with broadly demographic data and for Wilder's unusually compelling narrative style.

Journal of Social History

A major contribution to the history of race... Wilder's stylish and inventive book stands out.

American Historical Review

Powerfully demonstrates the persistence and pervasiveness of race.

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, Journal of American History

Readers, casual students and scholars alike will surely benefit from his compilation of sources and his well-articulated interpretation of the power of race in shaping social and economic conditions in Brooklyn over three centuries.


One of the best books to date examining the relationship between race and class and their evolution over time in New York City. Its major theme of how racism and white privilege were used to subordinate and keep blacks in the lowest political, social and economic position over time is persuasively argued from the first to the last chapter.

Clarence Taylor, author of The Black Churches of Brooklyn
Prologue: The Trial of Race
1. Race and Social Power: Slavery and the Evolution of an Idea, 1636-1827
2. Little Masters: Slavery and the Evolution of a City, 1636-1827
3. "Rugged Industries": The Commercial Revolution in Kings County, 1797-1876
4. Irish over Black: The Advent of Bourgeois Democracy in Kings County, 1800-1865
5. Hope, Hate, and the Class Struggle: The End of Slavery's Dominion in the City of Churches, 1827-1865
6. The Legacy of Mastery: The Rise and Prestige of Jim Crow in Brooklyn, 1865-1930
7. Fruit of the Class Struggle: Labor Segmentation and Exclusion in Brooklyn, 1865-1950
8. The Covenant of Color: Race, Gender, and Defense Work in Brooklyn, 1930-1945
9. Vulnerable People, Undesirable Places: The New Deal and the Making of the Brooklyn Ghetto, 1920-1990
10. "A Society suc as our Own": Education and Labor in the Brooklyn Ghetto, 1950-1990
Epilogue. A Fair Interpretation
Photo Insert

About the Author

Craig Steven Wilder is assistant professor of history and chair of African American Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he continues to reside during part of the year.