By Menika Dirkson
On May 31, President Joe Biden proclaimed June as National Homeownership Month to honour his commitment to fair housing and access to generational wealth for everyone, particularly Black Americans.
The history of housing discrimination runs deep. Although fair housing is a protected civil right under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, history has shown us that the freedom to utilize that right has always been fragile for African Americans and other ethnic groups deemed "non-White" in American society. Addressing this problem requires not just a proclamation, but a reckoning with this history.
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At the turn of the 20th century, white supremacy, segregation, and racial violence dominated American society in both the South and the North. While segregation continued in schools, lunch counters, bus stations, and residential neighbourhoods in the Jim Crow South, it also went on in the North via housing discrimination.
In 1910, Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool implemented the first residential racial zoning ordinance in America, making it the first city where redlining became legal. The Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) denied African Americans home loans in Baltimore's White neighbourhoods. When middle-class African Americans circumvented legal and economic barriers to homeownership in all-White neighbourhoods, self-proclaimed white supremacists resisted their Black neighbours with threats, rioting, and flight from their own communities.
This quickly became a national trend in Northern cities across the country as 6.6 million Black migrants fled the South looking for decent jobs, homes, and schools in the North during the Great Migration (1916 to 1970). News reports from New York, Baltimore, and Chicago described the influx of Black families into all-White communities as a "Black invasion" that triggered lawsuits, White rioting and White flight.
Black community members fought back.
In 1910, phrenologist Adena C.E. Minott bought a house at 121 W. 136th Street in an all-White neighborhood of Harlem to house Black students from her school, the Clio School of Mental Sciences. In response, 600 White members of the Harlem Property Owners' Protective Association spent a year trying to oust Minott from the neighborhood. The organization pursued lawsuits against Minott, and members pledged not to rent or sell their homes to African Americans for 15 years. The New York branch of the NAACP later created a vigilance committee and filed a lawsuit against the property owners' association to guarantee African Americans the right to purchase homes on 132nd and 139th streets in Harlem.
When city ordinances and lawsuits couldn't keep Black families out, racist White residents protested the arrival of Black neighbours with cross burnings, arson, bombings, and the stonings of Black homes. For example, on March 4, 1922, Black principal Harry Pratt and his family moved into a "solid White" block at 527 Sanford Pl. in Baltimore. Three days later, a group of White neighbours carrying bricks and pistols attacked the Pratt home, shattering its windows, unhinging the front door, and splattering ink on its marble steps.
When rioting proved ineffective, White flight occurred. In March 1923, two White Chicagoans, identified as "Yanker" and "An Evader" in the Chicago Tribune, wrote letters to the editor detailing how the "invasion" of Black migrants inspired them to move elsewhere. In Yanker's letter, he described himself as a "White man" who moved four times in six years to "evade the Black invasion" of the Southside. In An Evader's letter, "Race Irritation," the author complained that African Americans were moving to all-White communities all over Chicago. An Evader stated that other non-Anglo Saxon groups stayed in their own communities such as Chinatown and Little Italy, but African Americans refused to settle completely in the Black Belt on the Southside of Chicago.
Both authors thought that African Americans were encroaching upon their communities and White people had to resist in every way possible. Eventually, White resistance to desegregation facilitated the process of inner-city neighbourhoods becoming hyper-segregated before World War II.
Some White journalists who covered these news stories even vented their resentment about desegregation. As one journalist from the Birmingham News explained in his 1918 article about White resistance to Black neighbours in Philadelphia, Black migrants had no right to "impose" on Whites and "invade" districts "long occupied" by the White community. He further stated White people had a right to "indignant protest" or riot because the "consequences" of accepting racial desegregation were a "bad feeling, depreciation of real estate values, and an increase of lawlessness". The underlying sentiment was that Black people were inherently criminal regardless of their character, social status, or profession.
Between 1920 and 1948, restrictive covenants found in the home deeds of nearly every new private housing development across the country barred African Americans from living in White neighbourhoods. Such documents had overtly classist and racist clauses requiring homeowners to prohibit multiple-family housing, restrict household animals such as pigs and chickens some rural migrants owned to maintain their livelihood, and ban home rentals and sales for non-White people such as "Africans, Negroes, Ethiopians" and to a lesser extent, "Asians, Mexicans, and Jews."
Such restrictions also came from federal housing policies established during the Great Depression (1929 to 1941), which mandated racial homogeneity in new developments. Real estate agents also worked to protect the rights of developers and homeowners who desired racially segregated neighbourhoods.
These policies meant that when working-class African Americans from the South arrived in cities such as Philadelphia, they often lived in tenements, shacks, and rowhomes in segregated, all-Black neighbourhoods or alongside White immigrant families. While housing could be affordable in these communities, it was usually crowded and located in undesirable locations near dockyards, rivers, and swampland. Many Black families were forced to live in poorly maintained slum homes that sometimes collapsed, resulting in deaths. When tragedies like this occurred, city, religious and charity-based committees vigorously petitioned the local and federal governments to raze slums and fund public housing projects.
Efforts to fund public housing only made matters worse. As part of the New Deal, in 1937, the federal government passed the Wagner-Steagall Act granting cities millions of dollars in funding for the creation of housing projects. Housing authorities cleared slum areas and were responsible for building safe and sanitary dwellings for anyone who could not afford “adequate housing provided by private enterprise”.
Consequentially, the occupancy in these developments mirrored the racial segregation of the community and, in some cases, up to 98% of public housing was placed in all-Black neighbourhoods. Over time, public housing garnered class and race-based stigmas that led to some Whites and middle-class Blacks either moving to ‘better’ neighbourhoods or rejecting the establishment of public housing in their communities through mass protest.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act attempted to rectify this situation. It nullified the city ordinances and restrictive covenants that made segregation and housing discrimination legal in America. Even so, White neighbours continued to react violently when Black and mixed-race families tried to integrate their neighbourhoods.
Biden's proclamation comes nearly a year shy of the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which guaranteed that everyone had equal access to housing regardless of race, class, gender, and citizenship status.
Yet the legacy of pre-World War II housing discrimination is still on display. It is one of the root causes for hyper-segregation, racial tension, and racialised poverty today. The same disadvantaged, non-White spaces that were marginalized by segregation generations ago are now hot spots for Covid-19 cases, food deserts, and under-funded education. Housing discrimination may be legally banned on paper, but there is still more work to do in eliminating the lingering effects of its past existence today.
* Menika Dirkson is assistant professor of history at Morgan State University.