History Professor Investigates Transitions in Race and Gender in the 20th Century

Tyina Steptoe, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona Department of History, uses culture – especially music – to unpack some of the transitions in race and gender that have happened in the 20th century.

For her first book, “Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City,” Steptoe examines how, despite Anglo attempts to fix racial categories through Jim Crow laws, the migration of Creoles and Mexican Americans into Houston in the 1920s introduced different understandings about race.

Because of the great Mississippi flood in 1927, a large group of “Creoles of color” migrated to Houston from Louisiana. Creoles of color were descended from free people of color, as they were called before the Civil War. In Louisiana, Creoles of colors were usually descendants of white men – often French American or Spanish American – and black women, often the enslaved women they owned. Emancipated by their fathers, this mixed-race population formed a separate group in colonial Louisiana.

Around the same time, the Mexican American population began to surge in Houston. Houston was transformed from a black-and-white frontier town into one of the most ethnically and racially diverse urban areas in the United States. 

“It ended up being the basis of the book, looking at migration as the lenses to talk about how notions of race get muddled between the 20s and the 60s,” said Steptoe.

Steptoe was interested in how these new groups negotiated the Jim Crow laws in the state. Creoles did not identify as black but were required by law to be segregated with blacks. Some Creoles decided to try to pass for white, but most chose to embrace their ethnic identity.

“I found that the majority of Creoles were more interested in preserving family and cultural ties,” said Steptoe. “All of these things that define Creole, such as food and music, you have to give up if you want to pass as white. They did create a community in Houston called Frenchtown, which was really important to the preservation of the Creole identity in Houston.”

Because Creoles were segregated with blacks, there were tensions when Creoles started going to black schools.

“Many of the black students felt there was favoritism to lighter-skinned Creoles,” said Steptoe. “At the same time, many Creoles said they felt ostracized by the majority of the black students.”

Creoles shared cultural similarities with the Mexican Americans – both were predominately Catholic in a Protestant state. And even though Mexican Americans were considered white according to the Jim Crow laws, in white schools they were segregated into separated classroom, ostensibly because of language differences.

Although there were tensions between groups, repeated interactions and the sharing of space eventually resulted in a mixing of cultures, which is reflected in the music, which Steptoe often uses as a primary source in her research.

Steptoe discovered that zydeco music was actually created in Houston, as it was a blend of east Texas blues with la-la – Creole music that could take the form of blues or a waltz but was performed in French with accordions.

Because of this cultural blending, today Creole serves as a type of ethnicity that exists within blackness.

“Americans rarely consider ethnicities within the category of black,” said Steptoe. “When we discuss racial blackness, we tend to portray African Americans as a monolithic group.”

To research her book, Steptoe started in the archives like most historians, slogging through newspapers. However, after she discovered a collection of oral histories from the 1970s, she started doing her own interviews.

“I contacted people in Frenchtown to see if I could sit at their kitchen table and talk to them,” said Steptoe. “These were some of my best sources.”

Steptoe is at work on her next book project, investigating how notions of masculinity and femininity have changed over the 20th century and how popular music and musicians have either pushed or reflected these changes.

Right now she is looking into the history of rhythm and blues performers Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton and Little Richard. Steptoe said that although Thornton’s record label pushed her to be the model of the 50’s woman, off stage she was masculine presenting. Likewise, Little Richard was much more female presenting than his “sanitized” public persona reflected. Steptoe said both artists came out of a tradition of traveling blues performances popular in the 1940s, which routinely included cross dressing.

“Our popular image of the 50s tends to be the housewife in pearls vacuuming in heels. It’s such a hetero normative construction of gender and family. But what was actually going on was something far more gender ambiguous,” said Steptoe. “I am looking at how queer performance was actually part of the roots of rhythm and blues performance.”

This past fall, Steptoe researched the ancestry of actress Aisha Tyler for the TLC show “Who Do You Think You Are?” Steptoe had her students watch the show – in which she appeared on screen – to illustrate that professors do research as well as teach. Steptoe also requires her students to write research papers.

“History is not about memorizing dates and names,” Steptoe said. “History is about investigation and then drawing conclusions based on that investigation.”

Published Date: 

04/28/2016 - 1:52pm