Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White

William Sturkey (Author)


Winner of the 2020 Z calo Public Square Book Prize

A rich, multigenerational saga of race and family in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, that tells the story of how Jim Crow was built, how it changed, and how the most powerful social movement in American history came together to tear it down.

If you really want to understand Jim Crow--what it was and how African Americans rose up to defeat it--you should start by visiting Mobile Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the heart of the historic black downtown. There you can see remnants of the shops and churches where, amid the violence and humiliation of segregation, men and women gathered to build a remarkable community. William Sturkey introduces us to both old-timers and newcomers who arrived in search of economic opportunities promised by the railroads, sawmills, and factories of the New South. He also takes us across town and inside the homes of white Hattiesburgers to show how their lives were shaped by the changing fortunes of the Jim Crow South.

Sturkey reveals the stories behind those who struggled to uphold their southern "way of life" and those who fought to tear it down--from William Faulkner's great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran who was the inspiration for the enigmatic character John Sartoris, to black leader Vernon Dahmer, whose killers were the first white men ever convicted of murdering a civil rights activist in Mississippi. Through it all, Hattiesburg traces the story of the Smith family across multiple generations, from Turner and Mamie Smith, who fled a life of sharecropping to find opportunity in town, to Hammond and Charles Smith, in whose family pharmacy Medgar Evers and his colleagues planned their strategy to give blacks the vote.

Product Details

$29.95  $27.55
Belknap Press
Publish Date
March 28, 2019
6.2 X 1.5 X 9.4 inches | 1.8 pounds

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About the Author

William Sturkey is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches courses on African American history and the history of the American South. His first book, To Write in the Light of Freedom, coedited with Jon Hale, brought together the newspapers, essays, and poems produced by young black students of the Freedom Schools during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.


Hattiesburg is where racial democracy meets white supremacy, where technology meets nature, where old slavery money meets the indebted sharecropper, where imagination meets the unimaginable, where the ballot meets the bullet. Sturkey's magnificent portrait reminds us that Mississippi is no anachronism. It is the dark heart of American modernity.--Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was the quintessential New South city, built on the promise of quick cash and persistent oppression. In this brilliantly braided history, William Sturkey shows how African Americans made it into a place of opportunity, community, resilience, and rebellion. Hattiesburg is an insightful, powerful, and moving book.--Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
Sturkey's beautifully written portrait of Hattiesburg, Mississippi--from its founding after the Civil War through the emergence of the modern civil rights movement--offers a fresh history of Jim Crow's development and decline, unlike any other I have read. Sturkey features people with agency, acting to shape their lives and improve their community, while showing how these individuals were acting within the context of broad economic trends related to war, depression, migration, and more. A wonderfully compelling book.--Emilye Crosby, author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi
In this masterful biography of an American place, Sturkey compels us to look anew at the world made by white supremacy and remade by the black freedom struggle. Hattiesburg is a timely reminder of how much remains to be said about our shared, segregated past, and few have said more in a single book than this author. This bold, imaginative book is essential reading for anyone seeking to fathom Jim Crow's rise, fall, and resilience--in Mississippi and well beyond.--Jason Morgan Ward, author of Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America's Civil Rights Century
Hattiesburg is not connected in the popular mind with civil rights history in the way of Selma and Montgomery, but Sturkey's vibrant history makes a strong case that, to understand how the civil rights movement emerged, it's essential to spend time there.--Publishers Weekly (01/14/2019)
Illuminating... Sturkey's clear-eyed and meticulous book pulls off a delicate balancing act. While depicting the terrors of Jim Crow, he also shows how Hattiesburg's black residents, forced to forge their own communal institutions, laid the organizational groundwork for the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.-- (03/27/2019)
Sturkey provides a moving account of the evil of white supremacy.--Choice (07/01/2019)