017: Thomas J. Sugrue, 43


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

17: Thomas J. Sugrue, 4-9-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania; Chair of the History Graduate Group (2000-2005); Bicentennial Class of 1940 Term Chair, University of Pennsylvania (1999-2004).
Area of Research: Twentieth-century American politics, urban history, and race relations.
Education: Ph.D., Harvard University (American History), 1992.
Major Publications: Sugrue is the author of the prize winning The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton University Press, 1996); Princeton Classics Edition with a new preface (Princeton University Press, 2005); Japanese translation with new preface (Akashi Shoten, 2002). Thomas Sugrue JPG Sugrue is co-editor of W.E.B. DuBois, Race, and the City: The Philadelphia Negro and its Legacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), with Michael B. Katz and, more recently, The New Suburban History (University of Chicago Press , 2006) with Kevin Kruse. Press, 2006). Works in progress include; Sweet Land of Liberty: The Unfinished Struggle for Racial Equality in the North (under contract with Random House); Twentieth-Century America, with Glenda Gilmore (under contract with W.W. Norton); The Boundaries of the Law: Race and Class in Twentieth-Century Legal History, co-editor with Sarah Barringer Gordon (under review).
Awards: Sugrue is the winner of the 1998 Bancroft Prize in History; 1997 Philip Taft Prize in Labor History; 1997 Urban History Association Prize for Best Book in North American Urban History; 1997 Choice Outstanding Academic Book; 1996 President’s Book Award, Social Science History Association; Lingua Franca Breakthrough Book on Race; American Prospect On-Line Top Shelf Book on Race and Inequality; Subject of roundtable in Labor History 39 (February 1998), 43-69; One of 100 books published in the last century featured in A Century of Books: Princeton University Press, 1905-2005 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), all for The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996).
Sugrue has won fellowships and grants including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (2005); Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship, Fletcher Foundation (2005); Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, School of Social Science, AMAIS Member (2005-06); Franklin Research Grant, American Philosophical Society (2005); Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford (invited fellow); Distinguished Lecturer, Organization of American Historians (2002-); Kellogg Foundation Program in Non-Profits, Universities, Communities and Schools Grant (1998-2001); SAS Faculty Research Fellowship, University of Pennsylvania (1998-99); Honorary Master of Arts, University of Pennsylvania (1997); Columbia University Seminars, Publication Grant (1996); American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (1995-96); National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant for Conference: W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro: A Centenary Reappraisal (1994-96), Co-Director; and The Brookings Institution, Research Fellow (1990-91) among others.
Sugrue is also an award-winning teacher. His courses on America in the 1960s and on U.S. History from 1877-1933 have been selected “Hall of Fame Classes” by the Penn Course Review and he won the 1998 Richard Dunn Teaching Award in the Department of History, and the Outstanding Professor Award, University of Pennsylvania Greek Council (1996).
Additional Info: Sugrue has been a contributor to The Nation, Dissent, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
He has appeared in the following documentaries: “The Guilty Men: A Historical Appraisal,” History Channel (2004); “A City on Fire: The Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers,” Home Box Office (2002); “Rizzo,” WHYY-TV/PBS Philadelphia (2000); “Urban Affairs Forum,” Connecticut Public Television (1996). Sugrue has also appeared on MS-NBC, The History Channel, C-Span, CBC Canada, and on various local networks in Detroit and Philadelphia.
He has served on the boards of the Urban History Association (UHA), and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has co-chaired the program committee of the Social Science History Association (SSHA) and has served on program and prize committees for the Organization of American Historians, the Policy History Association, UHA, and SSHA.
Sugrue also served as an expert for the University of Michigan affirmative action cases (Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger), decided by the Supreme Court in 2003.

Personal Anecdote

Slogging through the vast archives that are the product of the age of the carbon copy, the mimeograph, and the Xerox, I sometimes wonder why I chose twentieth century American history. So much material, so many numbing interoffice memos, so many duplicates of the same document, yet so little of value. Still, even when it’s foolhardy, I can’t resist the lure of crumbling yellow paper and fading photocopies. There just might be something there.

On a cold winter week a decade ago, I had finished the research for my first book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, but I felt compelled to make one more trip to the archives. A new collection had opened at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University, part of the hundreds of boxes of papers donated by the United Automobile Workers. The title of the collection sounded promising: the UAW Community Action Program. Opening the finding aid to a newly processed collection–especially when you think you are finished with a project–can be a terrifying experience. Much to my relief, most of the UAW-CAP records were beyond the scope of my book. But in box four, I made one of those finds that makes the dig worthwhile. It was a few copies of a little newsletter, innocuously named the Neighborhood Informer, produced by the Greater Detroit Homeowners’ Association, Unit Number 2, a group founded in 1949 to fend off the “Negro invasion” in a little bungalow-filled neighborhood on the city’s West Side.

In my research, I had found evidence of about two hundred such organizations in Detroit between the 1940s and the 1960s. Most were short-lived. They burst onto the scene in moments of crisis and disappeared just as quickly. Most didn’t have time to keep records. Here is where being an archive hound paid off. I reconstructed their history from the traces they left behind: letters to city mayors, testimony at public hearings, signatures on court records, copies of police reports, and investigations of their activities by city community relations officials. Often their only appearance in the public eye-little did they know–was in the African American press. Detroit’s three black papers regularly reported their extralegal activities–window-breakings, arson, and other attacks on the first blacks who had the audacity to breach the city’s residential color line.

It was my good fortune that someone from the UAW had bothered to save a few copies of the Neighborhood Informer. As I unfolded the newsletters’ pages, I turned to its masthead. Its officers were Polish, German, Italian, and Irish. But they spoke of themselves as “white.” They found common cause in the “defense” of their households from the “colored.”

I didn’t expect to uncover two family names. One was the newsletter’s editor, James Sugrue. I didn’t have a clue as to who James was, but there aren’t very many Sugrues in Detroit who aren’t related to me. My father’s parents had emigrated from Ireland in the 1920s. My grandfather was one of seventeen children. James, it turned out, was one of my dad’s second cousins (the first cousins alone numbered in the three digits). What surprised me more was discovering that one of the neighborhood “wardens” was none other than my great Uncle Matt, my grandmother’s twin brother.

My family is full of storytellers–but my family’s involvement in Detroit’s troubled racial past was not part of our family lore. I don’t know whether James and Matt attended a few meetings or hurled some bricks or just joined because they thought it was the right thing to do for their families. I don’t know if they played a role in chasing out the first black family, who moved into the neighborhood in 1955 and moved away a few weeks later. What I do know is that my relatives joined a multiethnic–but self- consciously white–army to defend their neighborhood and that forty five years later, I had uncovered the fact. There I was, a young historian, coming to grips with America’s troubled racial past and coming to terms with my own family history. Dig deep and you never know what you might find.


By Thomas J. Sugrue

  • Racial tensions, prejudices, and debates over civil rights played out on the shop floors and in the streets of the urban north, with consequences as far-reaching as those of the southern civil rights movement. Two visions of the polity came into collision in Detroit, both rooted in a newfound rights consciousness at the center of postwar liberalism. African Americans forcefully asserted their rights to equal opportunity in employment and housing. But they faced opposition from working- and middle-class whites who also claimed the mantle of the authentic New Deal state. White Detroiters expected the state to protect the privileges associated with property ownership and race. Debates over housing and race had profound ramifications for the fate of federal policy in the city for the next half century. The rhetoric, the battles, and the compromises of the 1940s and 1950s, in Detroit and all over the nation, set the terms for debate over social policy into the Great Society years and beyond.” — Thomas J. Sugrue in “The Origins of the Urban Crisis”
  • “I’m exploring the largely unknown story of the black freedom struggle in the North. Our understanding of civil rights is largely shaped by the Southern story, and it’s a story that usually begins with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision or the Montgomery bus boycott. The story of civil rights that’s so familiar to us is a story hat largely has a happy ending: America redeemed itself by getting rid of official Jim Crow in the South.
    The Northern story really complicates that; it messes with our conventional wisdom about civil rights. Many of the questions that Northern activists were struggling with in the 1930s and 1940s – workplace discrimination, housing segregation, the lack of economic development, of attempts to build infrastructure within the African-American community – these are all issues that are still to a great extent front-and-center and only partially resolved in American society today. The Northern story allows us to break out of the easy moralism of the Southern story. It’s a story also, I should say, that brings in a whole new rich and complicated set of activists. Just to take one example, the links between civil rights and black power are much more visible, are much clearer, when you begin to explore the histories of Northern cities than they are when you stick to the conventional narrative about what happened in the South. Many black activists in the North are simultaneously demanding equality with whites and inclusion into the political and economic institutions of American society, but also calling for the creation and invigoration of black-controlled communities. So there is much more tension between what is usually seen as dichotomous in the civil rights literature. — Thomas J. Sugrue discussing his upcoming book project Sweet Land of Liberty

About Thomas J. Sugrue

  • “Sugrue’s incredibly rich, nuanced, multilayered account of the transformation of Detroit provides the historical perspective missing in virtually all accounts of the crisis ravaging today’s inner cities.” — Robin D. G. Kelley, author of “Race Rebels” reviewing “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”
  • “A splendid book that does no less than transform our understanding of United States history after 1940” — Labor History reviewing “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”
  • “Perhaps by offering a clearer picture of how the urban crisis began, Sugrue brings us a bit closer to finding a way to end it.” — In These Times reviewing “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”
  • “[A] devastating critique of the currently fashionable ‘culture of poverty’ thesis. Must reading for anyone concerned about the current urban crisis.” — “Lingua Franca” reviewing “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit”
  • “Prof. Sugrue is smart, dynamic, and full of energy and interesting stories. I found myself never wanting to miss a class. He presents the info in a coherent and objective way and the information that I learned will be valuable to me for the rest of my life. You’ll get your money’s worth!”
    “Prof. S. is one of the best profs I’ve had at Penn. He is so energetic and enthusiastic, it is amazing. It shows he really cares about what he is teaching.”
    “Tom Sugrue is the man. He is the best orator on campus.”
    “Prof. Sugrue had a very enthusiastic teaching style and his excitement about the material quickly spreads to the class.” — Anonymous students

Posted on Sunday, April 9, 2006 at 5:10 PM

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