According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, in 2012, 56% of American households counted companion animals among their family members, with cats and dogs ranking as the most popular types. The history of pet keeping according to class and race in the United States, however, is more complicated than these statistics might suggest. Policymakers and societal norms interpret the presence of animals in the home and on the street differently for middle-class and working-class homes, even when the motivations for pet keeping—like protection, emotional support, entertainment, status, or recreation—are the same. The wide variety of decisions and experiences surrounding pet ownership in the black community reflect the many ways that they have negotiated with belonging and citizenship. This article investigates the roles that animals played in the lives of African Americans in the northeast—primarily New York, Philadelphia, northern Delaware, and Baltimore—as treasured family members, tools of white supremacy, and markers of respectability.
A Short History of Pets
Humans have surrounded themselves with domesticated animals—dogs, cats, chickens, cattle, sheep, and the like—for centuries. Animals could have jobs or be companions, or both. Dogs protect and herd livestock, serve as hunting companions, and are also famously loyal friends. Cats in rural and urban areas have long been valued as cheap rodent exterminators. Until the mid-nineteenth century, however, animals kept specifically as companions were found primarily in upper class households. By the late nineteenth century, however, the industrial revolution rapidly urbanized new spaces and the middle classes began to bring animals into their own homes in greater numbers.
From this point, pet ownership increased thanks to incremental changes in American culture, veterinary medicine, and commercialization. In 1824, British animal welfare advocates founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), followed in1866 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA protected the livelihoods of urban work animals, such as horses and mules, but they also focused on companion animals like dogs and cats, especially those forced in to dogfighting.
In the 1920s and 1930s, as motor cars replaced horses, many veterinarians rebranded themselves as small animal vets, making vaccinations and spaying/neutering more commonplace and accessible. And in the mid-twentieth century, the “pet industry” developed to cater to the increasing number of pet owners. This 1941 layout from Lord and Taylor’s Christmas catalog illustrates the new commercialization of pet ownership: a privacy screen for kitty’s cat box, a scratching post, and even a covered wagon bed. One important milestone in this era was the invention of clay cat litter—a more appealing alternative to sand or dirt—in 1947, which made cat ownership easier and more pleasant for city-dwellers.
Barriers to Pet Keeping: Poverty and Racial Violence
Americans have long regarded pet keeping negatively for those living in poverty, regardless of race. They appear to embrace the positive benefits of pet keeping—like decreased loneliness, lower blood pressure, and increased socialization—for middle- and high-income earners and families, while disparaging the impoverished who wish to experience animal companionship. In early 2018, Edward B. Johnston, Jr. drafted an online petition to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) funds to pay for pet food. As he stated in the petition,
Some argue that people should not keep pets if they cannot afford them, but the fact is that an individual or family’s financial status can change at any time. Should someone be forced to give up a pet they’ve had for years just because they hit a financial rough patch?….Pets are also important for emotional support. Being poor is hard enough without being expected to give up your companion. For most people, pets are considered family, not property.
–Edward B. Johnston, Jr.
Many welfare recipients, as Johnston stated, view their animal friends as family and are liable to share their “people food” with their pets, sacrificing their own well-being for their companions’. His petition touched a nerve in Americans’ cultural expectations of poverty and animals, as evidence by responses to a poll posted by the news website Cleveland.com. The comments range from supportive to highly critical and callous, equating poverty with drug dealing and even suggesting that owners eat their own pets.
These class- and race-based attitudes, laws, and policies have a historical basis. In many of these cases—then as now—impoverished and working-class people are admonished for frivolously spending money on animals and for dirtying their homes with them. Such criticisms are not leveled at middle- and upper-class pet owners. Assumptions about animals as luxury objects have long pervaded public policy. In her book A Movement Without Marches (2009), Lisa Levenstein recalls a conversation with a woman, Corinne, who grew up in the Bronx. Following her father’s death, her mother sought out and received welfare in order to raise her four children:
Visits from welfare caseworkers became major sources of stress. “We had a dog,” she remembered, “and you weren’t allowed to have animals on welfare, so every time the welfare lady came by … we had to hide the dog.” Corrine learned to act “cute and nice for the welfare lady,” but she despised watching caseworkers scour her home for signs of rule-breaking. “It was very demeaning….You had no privacy.”
As Corinne described it, hiding their dog symbolized the humiliation of social workers’ surveillance. The simple, and very human, act of keeping a dog as a companion, a friend and playmate to the four youths, may be viewed as an act of resistance. Although pet keeping had become commonplace among middle-class households by the mid-1900s, those receiving welfare assistance were barred from sharing their homes with animals.
In addition to legal obstacles to pet ownership, African Americans have also been subject to a violent history in which dogs were enforcers of white supremacy and racial terror dating back to slavery. In an interview conducted by Anna Pritchett of the Federal Writers’ Project between 1936 and 1938, one emancipated man named Joseph Mosley recounted how dogs and horses were used to control enslaved people: “In front of the chained slaves would be an overseer on horseback with a gun and dogs. In back of the chained slaves would be another overseer on horseback with a gun and dogs. They would see that no slave escaped.” For many, this history is very near. Scholars have traced the long history of dogs policing black bodies from slave-hunting dogs to modern-day K-9 police forces in black communities. In 1963, Birmingham police officers used German shepherds to terrorize protesters, acts that produced images that are now iconic in their brutality.
Working-Class and Rural Pets
In spite of these barriers, poverty in urban centers did not preclude pet ownership. Six years into the Great Depression, the New York Amsterdam News reported that although nearly half of Harlem’s residents were receiving relief aid in some form, many residents still managed to keep pets, even if it meant sacrificing their own wellbeing: “the family pet lives in regal style…Dogs don’t go begging in Harlem.” The borough was able to support at least one veterinary clinic, as evidenced by a 1936 advertisement for the Harlem Dog and Cat Hospital offering worming, vaccinations, and free samples of dog food.
Decades later, the welfare policies of which Corinne speaks apparently relaxed. In 1972, the New York Times ran a day-in-the-life profile piece of a Harlem woman raising her family with welfare assistance. Many of the article’s details play into conceptions of the “right” kind of “welfare mother”: after arriving in America as part of a family of Puerto Rican immigrants, Bessie Johannes graduated high school, worked as a teletype operator, married, and then had children. In addition to raising her four children, Johannes kept a pair of cats, which the children “[fussed] with,” for rodent control. It is unlikely that her weekly check of $161.20 could pay for pet expenses, but the article states that later in the day, “her boyfriend…brings kitty litter and looks in on the children.” Although some obstacles certainly existed for low-income families, there was still a place for pets—especially mice-killing cats—in a five-flight walk-up in Harlem.
Dog ownership was popular among African Americans living in the country. During the Federal Writers’ Project’s interviews, Joseph William Carter of Indiana recalled memories for interviewer Lauana Creel about his hunting dog named Hector, “as good a coon dog as there was to be found in that part of the country,” while growing up in rural Tennessee.
One photo dated to the 1920s, held at the Delaware Historical Society, features an African American boy, around age 12 or 13, interacting playfully with a beagle. The two appear to be on a farm, and many details of his dress suggest that he is working class: he wears an apron, required clothing for many working-class jobs (but not necessarily jobs like mucking horse stalls); a knit flat-bottomed tie, a common tie for working-class men in the 1920s; and bunched pants around his ankles. This moment reveals much about his relationship with the dog, which may or may not have belonged to him or his family: he extends his jaw downward and tips the top of his head toward the camera, all of which aid in imitating the beagle’s “droopy” look and long snout. The circumstances and provenance of this photo are unknown, but it captures a tender and funny moment between boy and dog, certainly revealing amiable comfort with one another. In her memories of childhood, Vivian Davidson Hewitt (born 1920) fondly remembered the summers she spent on her grandfather’s farm in North Carolina. Her recollections included an outhouse, a living-room spinning wheel, and animals, including a “shepherd dog named Woodrow [who would] sleep on the front porch.”
Pets and the Politics of Respectability
Many middle-class African Americans counted animals among their family members and listed them alongside their education and committee service to prove their roles as respectable community leaders. Those who promoted the politics of respectability in the black community endorsed white middle-class ideals in order to “elevate” their communities and gain respect from white America, with the understanding that their behavior would bring about better treatment for African Americans. Grocery ads for the Mondawmin (Baltimore) Pantry Pride—a middle-class African American neighborhood during the 1960s and 70s—advertised dog food, cat food, and later, cat litter, alongside everyday pantry items like meat, fruit, and vegetables, suggesting that middle-class blacks incorporated their pets into their everyday routines. Unlike those receiving public assistance, their pet ownership and consumption of pet goods did not need to be hidden—their consumption was advertised in the newspaper.
Some middle-class African Americans considered pet keeping a component of the nuclear family. Bonita B. Williams grew up in a middle-class household in northern Delaware during the 1950s–60s, the child of a registered nurse and teacher. Pet ownership began with her generation, as her parents had not kept any, and her parents’ attitudes reflect how dog ownership often intertwined sentiment and utility: “Dogs were viewed as something for children. My Dad believed dogs were an alarm to notify you if someone was on your property who shouldn’t be there. Claymont was very rural.” In spite of surviving a dog attack as a young child, she and her siblings enjoyed the company of canine companions purchased from Pennsylvania breeders: Rocky, a German Shepherd and “a Cocker Spaniel named Fluffy. We all loved Fluffy, even me.”
Other families happily displayed their furry family members for the press to confirm their respectability and status as upstanding American citizens. In 1968, Afro-American writer Jewell C. Chambers profiled the Gaskins family in an article entitled “Solid Americans: School Plays Big Role in Lives of Gaskins.” In the attached photograph, Mr. Gaskins wears a suit and tie, while Mrs. Gaskins—a junior high counselor—and their daughter wear dresses; the boys wear button-up shirts. Notably, all but one family member are focused on their pooch, playing on the floor with the two youngest. The article’s photograph and opening sentence suggest that the family dog is the last piece of their ideal family: “At nine o’clock each weekday morning all members of the Charles Gaskins family…except the dog, are in school.”
The article’s photographic and biographic details point to their status as community leaders and upstanding citizens, of which their dog is inevitably a part: Mrs. Gaskins chaired the Women’s Day Committee and even divulged her “Gaskins Special” casserole recipe. In addition to teaching PE, her husband also worked part-time for the Department of Public Welfare and coached the school basketball team. The children, outside of school, also took part in YMCA activities, enjoyed reading, and made model airplanes. Rounding out the idyllic profile, Chambers included quaint details about their pet: “The children also play the organ. When they do Queenie, a cocker spaniel, sings.”
One Philadelphia hotel owner and real estate broker took on dogs as a pastime by entering them in dog competitions. C. Percy White, Temple University-educated father of three, raised English setters for competition, and not for companionship. White’s dog ownership signaled his commitment to prestige and ability to gain “respect from white America.” In the 1939 Wilmington Kennel Club competition, held on a Dupont estate, his two dogs Tody-G and Lady White won first honors, a double accomplishment given that he was the first person of color to show dogs at the club. In addition, White’s choice of breed symbolized the upper class. Setters have historically been used as hunting dogs for leisure among the upper crust, and they require extensive grooming and care. To adequately keep and show them, White would have needed to devote time, energy, and money simply for maintenance; owning and showing the breed would have communicated his plentiful time and funds.
African Americans and Animal Professions
African American households did not support their animals on their own, whether or not they were forced to hide them. Pet owners relied on networks of professionals and services to keep their animals safe and healthy, and many veterinarians and animal rescue professionals—in spite of the educational barriers posed by segregation—contributed to human-animal relationships in the black community.
In the 1960s–1970s, Philadelphia animal rescues and hospitals employed and served multiracial populations, as evidenced by the photographs taken by the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Many African American men supervised and performed essential duties at the Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania and other Philadelphia veterinary hospitals, interacting closely with animals, many of which were abused, neglected, and injured. For example, Charles Spencer worked as supervisor of the Pennsylvania SPCA kennel; in the photograph below, he held a pheasant who was hit by a car, while surrounded by geese, ducks, and roosters.
One 1960 photo featured a group of uniformed African American men collecting dogs of varying sizes that belonged to one Mr. James Allaway, whose widow could no longer care for them, and loading them into SPCA vans for transport. The attached description reported that the SPCA employees removed around 40 dogs and cats who were sick and malnourished: “it took three trucks and six men from SPCA to complete the job.”
In the late 1950s, the SPCA began offering “dog dunking” (that is, flea and tick-washing) services to the community. The SPCA’s location in Feltonville, Philadelphia, has historically been a diverse middle-class neighborhood. In one photograph from 1975, an SPCA worker assisted a young African American girl with her dog, who is remarkably patient with the process: “Charles Hartrung handles the dipping job for Dusty, pet of ten-year-old Brenda Harley, of West Philadelphia,” which is a neighborhood that was majority African American, and historically inhabited by immigrant populations.
In 1964, the multi-racial team, Howard Krawitz and Whitfield Thompson of West Park Animal Hospital in West Philadelphia, were pictured helping a dog named Peanuts. Although Peanuts’ ailments (and gender) are unknown, Dominic Pasquarella’s photographs suggest that the prosthetic cart they provided greatly assisted its mobility and improved its morale. These examples illustrate how African Americans have been essential to the fabric of many American cities’ veterinary and animal rescue services.
Evidence of African Americans’ relationships with animals are often sparse and even actively hidden, and investigating this topic is important to understanding and even saving the lives of both humans and animals. America’s racial divisions and politics are entangled with animals, as evidenced by the ways that pet ownership has been selectively accepted in American history. Those with higher status and fuller citizenship enjoy the rewards of pet ownership, like companionship, status, and protection, without criticism, while more vulnerable populations have weighed their needs against their animals’ under the weight of public scrutiny. At first glance, pet keeping and citizenship seem unrelated, but animals are woven deeply into the fabric of American culture and society, and carry with them its associations and values.