Feb 22, 2019 in Book Review

Review of A Ghetto Takes Shape by Kenneth Kusmer


A Ghetto Takes Shape by Kenneth Kusmer is a book that pays special attention to the historical experiences of the African American population in Cleveland. In the book, the author provides an extensive framework for comparison between the blacks in Cleveland and those in other cities across the United States. Without diffusing the interesting history of how the black came to be in Cleveland, the author highlights their origins and experiences through a statistical lens by comparing them to other African Americans living in other parts of the country. The author thus provides a thorough version of historical research that uses the concept of a broad comparative framework in analyzing and understanding the experiences of the black community in Cleveland. Considering that the book is the first of its kind with regards to the black history in Cleveland, this paper will consider the methods and arguments put forward by the audience and trace their relevance and significance in American history as a whole. History as a subject, especially those of the United States, has been accused of having too many altered facts and half truths, and it is thus a concern that this book may have followed in that path. The review aims to establish the reliability of the information in the book, as well.


The book starts with a simple description of Cleveland before the blacks moved in. Thus to the writer wants to provide the reader with a background understanding that the blacks were not originally there as it may be assumed given that Cleveland has for so many years been ignored by the urban historians in the context of the African American populations.

After this introduction, Kusmer goes on to explain the story behind the presence of the blacks in Cleveland and how the changes in leadership affected the black community in terms of their economic muscle and social well being among other things. Being conservative, the author states that the blacks in Cleveland had to undergo a transition between 1870 and 1915 as they struggled with shifting tectonics in the social attitudes towards them based on their skin color. Racism peaked in some way, and life became relatively unbearable at some point for these people, and the author traces this to the fact that black leadership had changed, as well. From the older elites such as Harry Smith and Charles Chessnut, leadership had shifted to much younger black businessmen and politicians thus changing the strategies and tactics of leadership amongst the blacks from assimilationist tendencies to those of separatism. The blacks under their younger leaders were experienced and accepted the social and cultural isolation in Cleveland. This increased hostility from the white members of the community and thus fueled racism in Cleveland. The fact that the blacks were no longer treated as equals undermined their position as middle class citizens reduced their income margins significantly as finding work or conducting business with the whites became almost impossible.

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The second section of the book goes on to document the black migration into Cleveland along with its effects on the people and the city. The author uses this section to elaborate on the important socio economic statistics of the period that was marked with rapid population growth and expansion of neighborhoods in the city and its environment. Once this is accomplished, the author finishes the section with a discussion of the formation of the black neighborhood, otherwise labeled ‘the ghetto’ considering that the prevailing separatist attitudes had limited the African Americans to living together and forming black neighborhoods. The author also discusses leadership in the ghetto saying that after ethnic and demographic consolidation, there was far more solidarity amongst the blacks despite the broader social and cultural separatism and hostility.

Critical Evaluation

This book is aimed at bridging the gap in American and black history with regards to the urban African American population in Cleveland. Most of the other cities have been studied and documented, and as such, they are well understood. Cleveland is a major hub for urban blacks, and it is thus a great idea to have the history there covered, as well. Considering that the book brings out all the major aspects of life amongst the blacks in Cleveland just after the southern migration, it can be stated that the author’s aim is accomplished quite extensively. He covers topics such as their occupations, incomes, residence and civil status among others, and even provides statistical data for comparison with the blacks in other cities. This not only presents a clear picture of the experiences of blacks in Cleveland with respect to their fellow blacks in other cities but also compares them with the whites in Cleveland, for a better understanding. The author also digs through the history of the black community in Cleveland to establish the conditions that may have contributed to the deterioration of the socioeconomic status of the population that was previously middle class and assimilationist. In doing this, he satisfies the knowledge gap on the real history of the blacks in Cleveland, especially in the part of differences between leadership tactics and strategies and how the separatist conditions became accepted and even propagated to some extent by the blacks themselves owing to their growing solidarity in the ghetto.

With regards to the sources used in the book, it can be stated that the author manages to draw out the important information from the right places. While record keeping may have been a challenge at the time, the author manages to combine all the required information to sustain his arguments with regards to the history of the blacks in Cleveland without a hitch. With information on the occupations, incomes and residence, he manages to paint a clear picture, and thus, his sources can be considered credible, and the information was used appropriately and adequately, as well as consistently with the position taken in the subject.

By singling Cleveland out as an urban area where blacks reside in large numbers, the author completes a collection on the African American urban experience, especially after the southern migration. He then uses a comparative framework where all the other cities can be seen and understood for how the blacks were treated and how they grew or deteriorated while living there. Generally, the statistical comparisons allow the reader to better understand the African American experience not only in Cleveland but in many other cities across the United States.

Amongst other things, the author raises such issues as segregation and occupation, as well as incomes amongst these African Americans. By highlighting what the blacks did in the various cities, the book brings out a picture of how they were perceived and treated. The kind of jobs that they were able to find, the amount of money they were able to make, and the way they were accepted or rejected by the broader society are things that matter a lot in seeking to understand a people’s experience. All these things are discussed within the book thus implying thoroughness in handling the real issues within the African American population in Cleveland.

This book is mainly about the African American experience in Cleveland after the great migration from the south. This means that the author limits himself to the African Americans in Cleveland and not the rest of the country. This may be perceived as a limitation, but it is in reality a specialization that allows him to maximize his focus on the Cleveland ghetto. He supports his arguments using evidence from the statistics that compare the various black urban populations across the country thus making his deductions convincing and largely accurate. Without seeming too headstrong, this author stands by his assertions with regards to the findings drawn from the statistics. He acknowledges other researchers in the field of American history, especially Allan Spear seeing as he even borrows the comparative framework for his work as used in Allan Spear’s Black Chicago. As a historical research, it can be stated the book is not limited as it provides an eloquent insight into the experiences of urban African Americans in history despite being unique to Cleveland. While the people of Cleveland and the greater United States have come a long way from those days of separatism and segregation, the historical facets remain relevant as they provide a deep insight into the historical factors that impeded socioeconomic progress amongst the African American community while strengthening their solidarity as the ghetto shaped up over the years.

Conclusion and Recommendation

A Ghetto Takes Shape by Kenneth Kusmer is generally a good read for anyone who is interested in American or African American history both today and in future. The book contains great statistical analysis that is useful in drawing a conclusion with regards to the quality of life of the urban African Americans of Cleveland and beyond. It is a great read that is seemingly complete with regards to the extent of information that is relevant to understanding the experiences of the blacks in Cleveland after the southern migration.

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