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Ed Linenthal
Journal of American History

Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010

Latest 'Journal of American History': prison camps, tobacco and black power

Jan. 14, 2010

BLOOMIINGTON, Ind. -- After World War II, California's forest labor camps offered state prisoners a bit of freedom and community respect in exchange for dangerous work fighting fires and floods and providing disaster relief. But the growing estrangement between urban, minority prisoners and the rural communities where the camps were located all but put an end to the experiment.

Volker Janssen, assistant professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, writes about the camps in the December 2009 issue of the quarterly Journal of American History, published by the Organization of American Historians and based at Indiana University Bloomington.

Janssen's article, "When the 'Jungle' Met the Forest: Public Work, Civil Defense, and Prison Camps in Postwar California," explores the racial, urban-rural and political conflicts sparked by the camp program, which peaked in the 1960s. It describes how the camps initially earned broad support as they "combined the familiar routines of road gang labor with the political appeal of military service." But their popularity waned after the 1960s riots, when minority prisoners were increasingly seen as part of an urban "jungle" and the prisoners grew disenchanted with being sent to work far from their families.

Neighbors objected to the perceived risk of escaped prisoners but clamored to keep corrections jobs, and eventually some camps were converted to prisons. "Rural Californians preserved for themselves the benefits of the postwar welfare state while helping make hollow its central promise -- the inclusion of those on the margin," Janssen writes.

Also in the December 2009 issue of the journal:

  • In his presidential address to the 2009 OAH convention, Pete Daniel focuses on a chance encounter in 1939 of Farm Security Administration photographer Marion Post Wolcott and Southern Writers' Project interviewer Leonard Rapport. Daniel's "Reasons to Talk about Tobacco" uses Wolcott's photographs and Rapport's writings to describe a vibrant culture of tobacco farmers and auctioneers that was soon to be changed by technology.
  • Kornel Chang recounts the anti-Asian violence and unrest that battered the Pacific Northwest at the start of the 20th century. In "Circulating Race and Empire: Transnational Labor Activism and the Politics of Anti-Asian Agitation in the Anglo-American Pacific World, 1880-1910," he argues that the violence should be viewed as part of a broader history of white settler colonialism.
  • Jason C. Parker, in "'Made-in-America Revolutions?' The 'Black University' and the American Role in Decolonization of the Black Atlantic," argues that the black freedom struggle in the U.S. and independence movements in the Third World were threads of the same global revolution that redefined U.S. citizenship and redrew much of the world's map.
  • In "The Black Power Movement: A State of the Field," Peniel A. Joseph examines how the subfield of black power studies is transforming the historiography of the black freedom struggle and the related fields of urban, women's, political and intellectual history.

In the JAH Podcast for December 2009, journal editor Ed Linenthal interviews Joseph about the field of black power studies. The podcast, full text of several articles and a "Teaching the JAH" feature on using the article "When the 'Jungle' Met the Forest" in the classroom are available online at