ARISTOCRATS OF COLOR The Black Elite, 1880-1920 By Willard B. Gatewood Indiana University Press. 450 pp. $39.95

THOUGH MANY whites (and some blacks) find it convenient to think of black America as a monolithic society sharing a common status and common goals and values, the truth has never been nearly so tidy or comfortable. As Willard B. Gatewood, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, makes abundantly clear in this engaging, informative and, it must be said, occasionally irritating book, there have always been differences of class among black Americans. In the North, free blacks practiced trades and established schools and businesses. In the South, some bought or otherwise earned their freedom and then went on to purchase slaves themselves. Others, born of white and slave unions, were acknowledged by their masters, educated and sometimes freed. From these beginnings emerged the group -- their numbers minuscule in comparison to the majority of black Americans -- who make up the focus of this study.

They summered in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Newport, R.I., or exclusive black "summer colonies" like Highland Beach, Md. (developed by a son of Frederick Douglass). Some made grand tours of Europe. They attended elite Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, or Roman Catholic churches, sent their sons and daughters to schools like Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and then on not only to the better black colleges and universities (Howard, Fisk, Spelman), but to white institutions such as Oberlin, Dartmouth, Harvard and Yale.

In this exhaustively researched and copiously annotated social and cultural history, Gatewood examines the lives of the aristocrats of color, seeking "to identify the black elite that was predominant in the forty years following the end of Reconstruction, to explore its self-image, behavior, values, strategies, and relationship to the larger society, both white and black, and to indicate changes that occurred in its composition."

To that end, Gatewood considers the black elite geographically, its clubs, fraternities, sororities and social and civic organizations, how its members worshipped and were educated, and how they were affected by and reacted to Jim Crow. Though Washington, D.C., home of Howard University and the site of numerous cultural and economic opportunities, was considered the "capital of the colored aristocracy," there were colonies of black elites from New York to Los Angeles, from Seattle to Jacksonville, Fla. Whether called the "black 400," "upper tens," or "best society," they had similar criteria for inclusion: "family background, good breeding, occupation, respectability, and color."

While wealth and a lighter skin color counted, they were, in general, less important than that hard-to-define quality called breeding. One had, first of all, to belong to an old family, often one that had been free before the Civil War. One had also to have been "an oldest inhabitant," a member of a family that had lived in a city for several generations. Education and manners counted and could sometimes help a newcomer gain acceptance to all but the most exclusive social circles.

There are, of course, several contradictions and paradoxes here. While Gatewood calls them aristocrats and its members may have referred to themselves as such, they were never made up an aristocracy in the sense of a hereditary nobility. Then, too, while its members may have included politicians like U.S. Sen. Blanche K. Bruce, P.B.S. Pinchback, lieutenant governor and, briefly, acting governor of Louisiana, and diplomats like John Mercer Langston, there were also post office workers, barbers, tailors, and caterers, as well as hotel owners, judges, doctors, lawyers and teachers among them.

Members of the black elite felt a responsibility to other blacks, but it was a case of noblesse oblige, for they considered themselves different and hoped that the qualities they valued and adopted -- education, good manners, thrift, sobriety -- would allow them to trancscend the discrimination and prejudice aimed at the mass of black Americans. In practice this was seldom the case. The 40 years Gatewood stakes out for his study was a time that saw the end of federal support for Reconstruction, the hardening of racially intolerant attitudes, and codification into law of the custom of segregation. As a result, members of the black elite came, more and more, to interact with each other instead of the mass of blacks or whites.

All of this is useful and fascinating. Still, what is most compelling here are the individual stories, American stories of luck, initiative, and achievement, and the glimpses of personalities that suddenly render human beings whole or crystalize an attitude. For example, Gatewood writes that the wives of the black elite, like their white counterparts, complained about the impossibility of getting good help. They frequently hired white servants and one woman, the wife of lawyer and author Charles Chesnutt, "employed German and Bohemian girls but found it 'hard to make them wear shoes or wash their hair.' "

Gatewood opens Aristocrats of Color with an account of the 1878 wedding of Blanche K. Bruce to Josephine Willson, the daughter of a prominent Cleveland dentist. Born a slave, Bruce was "a privileged bondsman" -- he was tutored with his master's son -- who nonetheless ran away to gain his freedom. Largely self-educated, he became a county sheriff and then a cotton planter after the Civil War. Active in the Republican Party, he was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1874 and served one term. His wife, a teacher, belonged to a family that "had been free for a generation or so before the Civil War" and that "occupied a place at the top of {Cleveland's} black social structure." Shortly before the couple's arrival in Washington, en route to Europe for a four-month honeymood, The Washington Post noted of Josephine Bruce that "if half is true that is told of her beauty and accomplishment, her entry here as a Senator's wife is likely to create a sensation."

But the Bruces's story is only one of the most compelling ones in this book. His circle included men like Pinchback, grandfather to the writer Jean Toomer; Robert R. Church, who parlayed a Memphis saloon and poolhall into a real-estate, business, and banking empire, and who was the father of author and civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell; Robert Harlan, the half-brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (who was, perhaps not coincidentally, the sole dissenting voice in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that legalized segregation). Harlan earned a fortune in the California Gold Rush, returned to Kentucky to purchase his freedom, and sojourned in England, where he raced horses, for 10 years.

Gatewood's prose might best be described as serviceable, but a more serious flaw of Aristocrats of Color is the annoying number of minor errors and omissions. He tells us that the Brown Fellowship of Society, an elite group of Charleston blacks, was founded in 1790, but then a few sentences later that it celebrated its 117th annniversary in 1904. The black journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett is identified as Ida Walls Barnett. Washington's Seventh Street, once the heart of the city's black business and entertainment district, is identified as Seventh Avenue. Similarly, there are recurring references to the exclusive New York and Newport Ugly Fishing Club, but never an explanation of the derivation of that curious name. He mentions the black Episcopal priest and lawyer Pauli Murray, without ever identifying her, tells us that A.C.C. Astwood (called H.C.C. Astwood in the footnote) was a diplomat from Louisiana, but does not tell us where he served. And he quotes the correspondence of college professor John Hope and his fiancee Lugenia Burns on whether he should be referred to as "Mister" or "Professor" on their wedding invitations, but does not tell us which they chose.

These are, however, minor complaints. Residents of this city in particular will find this book fascinating, as it contains accounts of such families as the Cooks, Syphaxes (who claim descent from the grandson of Martha Washington), and Wormleys, as well as accounts of the founding of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church and Dunbar High School.

David Nicholson is an assistant editor of Book World.