Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

by Beryl Satter

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Part family story and part urban history, a landmark investigation of segregation and urban decay in Chicago—and cities across the nation

The "promised land" for thousands of Southern blacks, postwar Chicago quickly became the most segregated city in the North, the site of the nation’s worst ghettos and the target of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first

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Part family story and part urban history, a landmark investigation of segregation and urban decay in Chicago—and cities across the nation

The "promised land" for thousands of Southern blacks, postwar Chicago quickly became the most segregated city in the North, the site of the nation’s worst ghettos and the target of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first campaign beyond the South. In this powerful book, Beryl Satter identifies the true causes of the city’s black slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country: not, as some have argued, black pathology, the culture of poverty, or white flight, but a widespread and institutionalized system of legal and financial exploitation.

In Satter’s riveting account of a city in crisis, unscrupulous lawyers, slumlords, and speculators are pitched against religious reformers, community organizers, and an impassioned attorney who launched a crusade against the profiteers—the author’s father, Mark J. Satter. At the heart of the struggle stand the black migrants who, having left the South with its legacy of sharecropping, suddenly find themselves caught in a new kind of debt peonage. Satter shows the interlocking forces at work in their oppression: the discriminatory practices of the banking industry; the federal policies that created the country’s shameful "dual housing market"; the economic anxieties that fueled white violence; and the tempting profits to be made by preying on the city’s most vulnerable population.

A monumental work of history, this tale of racism and real estate, politics and finance, will forever change our understanding of the forces that transformed urban America

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Editorial Reviews

David J. Garrow
…a penetrating examination of the financial discrimination that thousands of African Americans encountered in their northward migration to cities such as Chicago…Family Properties is a superbly revealing and often gripping book
—The Washington Post
Dwight Garner
The historian and the storyteller in Ms. Satter are never at war with each other. Family Properties is so packed with the horrors visited upon black families in Chicago from the 1940s through the 1970s that you will want to walk outside every 15 pages or so and simply scream in outrage. Yet her tone throughout is dispassionate. She is at heart a historian, not a memoirist. And she is a vertiginously good one. Her book is transfixing from its first sentence…the pleasures here are deep and resonant ones. Family Properties feels like something close to an instant classic.
—The New York Times
Raymond Arsenault
Historians who write about close friends or relatives do so at their peril. Personal engagement, so essential to the memoir, can confound historical judgment and scholarly detachment, especially when family honor hangs in the balance…Yet somehow [Satter] has managed to stay on course, using her considerable investigative skills and unwavering sense of fairness to write a revealing and instructive book…A cautionary tale of governmental complicity, Family Properties follows the social historian's dictum of "asking big questions in small places." It reminds us that history and memory are essential tools for anyone pondering our current predicament.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

In the early 1950s, Mark Satter opened his law practice in the Chicago suburb of Lawndale, but his life's work really began in 1957, the day a black couple, Albert and Sallie Bolton, walked through his doors needing a stay on an eviction from a home they had just purchased. Satter uncovered a citywide scheme, in which landlords sold African-Americans overpriced homes, keeping the titles until black homeowners paid them off, while charging excessive interest rates to insure they never could. Called "contract selling," the practice cost thousands of migrating blacks their livelihoods. Mark Satter died of a heart condition eight years after the Boltons crossed his threshold, but nearly 50 years later, his daughter, Beryl, a history professor at Rutgers, picked up where he left off. Setting out to prove that the decline of black neighborhoods into slums had nothing to do with the absence of African-American resources and everything to do with subjugation and greed, Satter draws on her father's records to piece together a thoughtful and very personal account of the exploitation that kept blacks segregated and impoverished. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
An engrossing look at the history of racist real-estate practices in Chicago, and the activists who fought for justice. Satter (History/Rutgers Univ.; Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875-1920, 1999) views this issue through the personal lens of family history. Her father was a civil-rights attorney who represented many black families against exploitative real-estate contracts in the 1950s and '60s. Taking advantage of the fact that few banks would give mortgages to African-Americans, owners pushed a scheme called "contract selling," which was basically a high-interest installment plan with exorbitant monthly payments. The houses were often in disrepair and grossly overpriced; initial down payments were massive. One late monthly payment allowed the owner to void the contract, evict the tenants and start the process anew with another family. Even if they managed to stay afloat financially, black families often had to contend with hostile, even violent, white neighbors. Satter writes of one chilling case in 1957, when a mob of 200 teenagers gathered outside an African-American homeowner's house, chanting, "We want blood." When they sought redress in the courts, plaintiffs often met opposition from openly racist judges. Subsequent chapters depict the campaigns for social justice that arose from these practices. The author profiles Chicago activists like community organizer Saul Alinsky, who organized pickets against landlords, and movements such as the Contract Buyers League, which in the late '60s and early '70s spearheaded payment strikes and successfully challenged the legality of Illinois's eviction law. Much of the book's second halfchronicles serpentine courtroom struggles; it's a testament to Satter's skill that these sections are among the most riveting and at times read like a legal thriller. Many of the problems and injustices she writes about still exist today, and she does an excellent job of documenting and explaining them for the lay reader. Comprehensive and compulsively readable.
From the Publisher
"Beryl Satter's Family Properties is really an incredible book. It is, by far, the best book I've ever read on the relationship between blacks and Jews. That's because it hones in on the relationship between one specific black community and one specific Jewish community and thus revels in the particular humanity of all its actors. In going small, it ultimately goes big."

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic

“This is rich material… Satter balances personal stories, including moments of great bravery, with painstaking legal and historical research. Family Properties is transfixing from the first sentence. The pleasures here are deep and resonate ones… an instant classic.”

—Dwight Garner, The New York Times


“Satter’s painstaking thorough portrayal of the human costs of financial racism is the most important book yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban North. Family Properties is a superbly revealing and often gripping book.”

—David Garrow, The Washington Post


“Beryl Satter has taken the hard road to glory in her study of race and housing discrimination in Chicago during the 1950s and ‘60s. Yet somehow she has managed to stay on course, using her considerable investigative skills and unwavering sense of fairness to write a revealing and instructive book… A cautionary tale of government complicity, Family Properties follows the social historian’s dictum of “asking big questions in small places.” It reminds us that history and memory are essential tools for anyone pondering our current predicament.”

The New York Times Book Review


“This sweeping chronicle of greed and racism combines a noble and tragic family history with a painful account of big city segregation and courageous acts of community resistance. In riveting stories and thoughtful analysis, Satter powerfully discloses how manipulation and abuse shattered lives and deepened urban inequality.”

—Ira Katznelson, author of When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America


“Beryl Satter brings Chicago’s West Side to life in this vivid history of a neighborhood fighting for survival. She gives the urban crisis a human face in unforgettable portraits of the slumlords and the activists and lawyers (including her father) who battled valiantly against them.”

—Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North


“This history of a place called Lawndale, on the west side of Chicago, is an archetypal American story of struggle and rise, race and divisiveness, justice denied and then justice achieved. Clyde Ross, Ruth Wells, Mark J. Satter, Monsignor Egan, Jack Macnamara, and the others—these are American heroes. I was privileged to be briefly involved, and I'm so glad to see Family Properties, after all these years, that I could hoot with joy, and then weep.”

—David Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

“This is how the story of urban America after the Second World War ought to be written, with gritty realism and no illusions. Here is urban history as a drama of moral conflict and religious passion. Family Properties is a searing and deeply moving work, by a loving daughter and a great historian.”

—Robert Orsi, Professor of Religion and History, Northwestern University


“One of the most contentious issues of twentieth century America was the transformation of middle-class white neighborhoods into African-American slums. The cast of characters is familiar—unscrupulous realtors, heartless slumlords, promiscuous welfare mothers, rapacious drug dealers, corrupt politicians, discriminatory savings and loan associations, and a racist government. But Beryl Satter tells a different story, a nuanced story, and a personal story in this compelling re-examination of a phenomenon everyone knows about and no one understands. Family Properties will change the way you think about history and about causation.”

—Kenneth T. Jackson, Barzun Professor of History, Columbia University

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Family Properties

Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America

By Beryl Satter

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2009 Beryl Satter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5260-6



Growing up in Lawndale, children learned the word gang as soon as they learned to talk, my father wrote of his West Side home in the 1920s. "Their neighborhood taught them little cultural. There was more of a constant fight so as not to be afraid to be outside the house." In years to come many would bemoan the transformation of Lawndale from a middle-class haven to a rough working-class ghetto, but in truth Lawndale was never the respectable enclave whose loss they lamented. The neighborhood's first developers, who laid it out in 1870, had certainly hoped to attract a middle-class population. They gave it the fanciful name of "Lawndale" — fanciful because the only grass to be found there was in its two city parks. But fate soon altered their plans. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 forced the McCormick reaper plant to relocate west, to an unincorporated area near Lawndale. The workers, mostly Dutch, Irish, and German, followed, giving Lawndale a working-and lower-middle-class character from the start.

Lawndale's Irish and German residents did not welcome the Polish and Russian Jews who started moving into the neighborhood in the early 1910s. They refused to rent to the newcomers. But unlike the residents of more well-to-do areas, Lawndale's working-class population lacked the time and expertise to form legally enforceable restrictive covenants against selling land to Jews. And so, while Jews found it difficult to rent in Lawndale, they could buy. Beginning in the 1910s, Jews purchased much of the community's vacant land. Though the area was known for its "twoflats," or two-story, two-family apartment buildings, the newer inhabitants constructed larger buildings that contained ten, twenty, or even thirty units. The result was a massive population increase. Lawndale contained 46,000 people in 1910. By 1930, it had a population of 112,000, of whom the great majority — 75,000 — were Jewish. As one neighborhood historian observed, "While the tough Chicago [communities described in] the novels of Nelson Algren and James Farrell had 25,000 humans per packed mile, Lawndale had 51,000." By 1930, another notes, "North Lawndale achieved the dubious distinction of having the highest population density of all local communities in Chicago save one, Grand Boulevard, in the heart of the Black Belt."

In some ways, the 1920s were an optimistic time for immigrant and second-generation Jews moving into urban Jewish enclaves such as Lawn-dale. The neighborhood quickly sprouted institutions and businesses that reflected the varied identities of its Jewish residents. In 1922, the Hebrew Theological College opened on Douglas Boulevard, the proud, sweeping avenue with a grassy strip down its center that ran through the heart of Lawndale. Next door to it, the Jewish People's Institute opened in 1927. A vibrant community center, the JPI offered a library, sports, educational forums, instruction in art, music, and dance, clubs, a theater, and a rooftop garden where dances were held. Nearby stood the Labor Lyceum, which provided spaces for Jewish labor unions, as well as the Douglas Park Theatre, which featured many of the day's top Yiddish performers. Lawndale had a Jewish hospital, Mount Sinai, for Jewish physicians who were still excluded from residency in Christian-run hospitals. It had a Jewish orphanage, the Marks Nathan Orphan Home, where indigent or orphan Jewish children could be cared for without being subjected to Christian proselytizing. The Midwest edition of the Jewish Daily Forward was published in Lawndale. Along Roosevelt Road were shops providing for every need, from kosher butchers to social halls to funeral chapels, as well as restaurants that served regional foods to nostalgic immigrants from Hungary, Poland, or Romania. By 1930 Lawndale contained approximately forty Orthodox synagogues. Douglas Boulevard alone boasted almost half a dozen synagogues, including Congregation Anshe Kneseth Israel, also known as the Russishe Shul. With 3,500 seats, it was the largest synagogue in the city.

But Lawndale in the 1920s was hardly paradise. It was an overcrowded working-class immigrant neighborhood surrounded by industrial areas, poorly served by public transportation, and almost bereft of parks, lawns, or single-family homes. As my uncle Charlie recalled, the Lawndale of his youth was nothing more than "semi–all right." Still, the neighborhood's Jewish character provided a shield of sorts from the anti-Semitism that typified 1920s America — years in which Jews were excluded from many of the nation's universities, business and law firms, and even low-level clerical jobs. And for most of the area's Jewish residents, Lawndale represented a step up. Many had moved there from the Maxwell Street neighborhood, also known as "Jew Town," a ramshackle, overcrowded quarter even more lacking in grass and parks than Lawndale. In contrast, Lawndale was a residential area, with wide avenues and solid two-story apartment buildings that had amenities like windows and bathrooms.

My father's family was part of the movement that transformed Lawndale from a German and Irish neighborhood into a heavily Jewish one. Like almost half of Lawndale's residents, they were foreign born. My grandfather Isaac was brought from Russia to the United States in 1890, when he was four years old. He worked as a laborer and in a trunk factory. My grandmother Yetta Dunkleman was born in Manchester, England, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants. She came to the United States in 1908 and worked as a shopgirl in a Chicago department store. She met Isaac her first year in the States, and the couple married in 1910.

After his marriage Isaac opened his own small trunk manufacturing company. Yetta and Isaac's first child, Helen, was born in 1912. Their second child, Nathan, was born in 1914. By 1916, the year of my father's birth, Isaac was able to buy a small building for his family and his business at 1227 South Spaulding, on the eastern border of Lawndale.

As the third child in what would soon be a family of six, with a younger brother, Charlie, born barely a year later, my father could easily have been lost in the shuffle. Instead, an accident changed his life. When he was three years old Mark fell out of a second-story window. Except for a sore leg, he seemed uninjured. Yet the leg would not heal. By the age of five, he was walking with a limp. He was taken to specialists who put him in a body cast that immobilized him from the waist down. He remained in that cast for a year. He had to be wheeled about in a baby carriage, subject to the mockery of other children. My father described the experience in a short autobiography that he wrote, curiously in the third person, when he was around twenty years old. "At these times ridicule and pity were mixed to such an extent that it became almost impossible for the small boy to distinguish between them," he wrote. "He began to desire to get away from people, [with] their caustic comments about the 'cripple.' ... His helplessness ... troubled him. ... At night he imagined fiends who speedily pursued him as he tried to hobble away." After a year in bed, my father was given a club shoe and a pair of crutches. One year after that, he discarded the crutches. But his recovery was never permanent. He would burst from his restraints, his dammed-up energy fueling frenetic play. Then there would be a relapse. He would be taken out of school and confined to his bed for weeks at a time.

My father's invalidism made him the undisputed center of the household. His mother read to him for hours and told him long, colorful stories about her childhood in England. While this doting attention helped my father develop intellectually, his infirmity wounded him emotionally. It fueled an aggressive need to prove himself against all comers. But it also contributed to his lifelong sympathy for the underdog. My father knew what it meant to be the helpless object of other people's ridicule and contempt. He would fight to protect others from such treatment, no matter what the odds.

In 1924, my father's family moved deeper into Lawndale. With the birth of their fifth child, Theresa, Isaac and Yetta realized that their family had outgrown their home on Spaulding Avenue. They hoped that the building they purchased at 4112 West Roosevelt Road would answer their needs. It had a storefront on the first floor for Isaac's trunk business, cold-water two-bedroom flats on the second and third floors, and three more small apartments in the back. They rented the back and top-floor apartments. Isaac, Yetta, and their children lived in the two-bedroom apartment on the second floor, above the store. Their apartment was crowded, especially after their sixth child, Joseph, was born in 1926, but the building brought income and security to the family.

Then came the Great Depression, which put an end to many immigrant dreams. Chicago was particularly hard-hit. Over 160 of the city's banks failed. Home foreclosures rose by 500 percent. Chicago's economy was heavily dependent on manufacturing. By the early 1930s manufacturing employment in the city was down by 50 percent, and up to one-third of the population was unemployed. Manufacturing plants and the small businesses that relied on the workers from these plants as customers collapsed. My grandfather's trunk business was one of them.

With his business destroyed, Isaac's assets (that he was literate, responsible, and hardworking) could not offset his deficits (that he was a man in his forties with a wife and six children to support). Isaac was terrified that he would lose his building. He sat home among his children, consumed with anxiety. But like many others in Lawndale, my father's family got by. Yetta did piecework sewing ruffles onto aprons. Isaac took a job that one of Yetta's brothers found for him, selling insurance for Metropolitan Life. The company set brutal quotas for weekly sales, along with harsh penalties for those who failed to measure up. Isaac developed a serious ulcer. Each evening he returned from work and collapsed into his living room chair, his body trembling from exhaustion and suppressed rage.

Perhaps it was his family's economic struggles that instilled in my father a grim determination to succeed. For his first three years of high school he made the honor roll every semester. He ran for school office and was elected each time. The verbal sparring of high school election campaigning appealed to him, and he considered a future career as a lawyer. To help ease his family's severe financial straits, he took a paper carrier route, which required him to wake at 3:30 a.m. To maintain his position on the honor roll, he stayed up till midnight studying. Then came a series of blows. During the fall of 1932 my father decided to take out an insurance policy. He was rejected, not because of the leg injury but for something potentially more serious: a systolic heart murmur. My father was shocked to learn of this new and potentially crippling condition. Between his exhaustion over the paper route and his anxiety over his health, he could not maintain his grades. A scholarship he had counted on went to another boy. Without a scholarship, college was out.

Troubles followed troubles. In the spring of 1933, Yetta fell ill. The diagnosis was colon cancer. The disease would hospitalize her every year or so until it killed her in 1944. Since my father's sister Helen had married, as had his brother Nate, it fell to him and his brother Charlie to watch over the two youngest siblings. Then the only free college in the city announced it was closing, putting an end to my father's last chance for an education. He volunteered as a speaker and organizer for a group formed to challenge the decision and was present at meetings that were violently broken up by the police. When the group petitioned the city's Board of Education, board members promised that the school would stay open — and then quietly shut it down months later, after the protesters who were mostly students had disbanded for the summer.

This was my father's first taste of political activism — and of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that enabled those in power to subvert their public promises. Determined to devote himself to social justice, he realized he would have to attend college to acquire the necessary skills. For a year he held odd jobs and saved his money. Then in 1934, while continuing to work at a wholesale market, he started night school at the People's Junior College, which was run out of the Jewish People's Institute. His field was prelaw, and though he had doubts about the morality of following "a hypocrite profession in an artificial world," he thought that putting his talents in the service of "the labor element" might be of some use.

In part, my father's desire to fight for the disenfranchised grew naturally from his upbringing. Isaac had taught his children that society was threatened by unbridled wealth, and not by the occasional missteps of the workingman. "If there's no limit to how much a man can make, and it doesn't matter how he makes it, God help us," he would say. My father's dedication to aiding the "workingman" had another source as well: his encounters with Communist Party activists. His exposure to Communism was not surprising. Though few in number — nationally, Communist Party USA membership in the 1930s peaked at a mere 82,000 — party members could seem omnipresent in urban areas. When a family was evicted, they moved them back in. When relief ran out, they demanded that funds be reinstated. If workers at a plant wanted to unionize, the most dedicated organizers were often Communists. When activists were censored, CP members fought for their right of self-expression. And when a school that served the poor was closed, they demanded that it reopen.

That was how my father first encountered CP members — during the campaign to prevent the closing of Chicago's free college. Though he rejected their vision of a revolutionary utopia, he shared their anger at gross social inequality and was drawn to their understanding of class as the primary divide in society. He admired the intellectual elegance of Marxist thought and the idealism that seemed to drive it. The party's anti-racism and its unflinching support of "foreign" cultures within the United States was probably an equally powerful draw, giving second-generation Americans like my father a way to value their own heritage and engage with others in a common "American" cause of upholding democracy.

In 1936 my father received a scholarship to DePaul University, a local Catholic college whose law school was one of the few in the city that accepted Jews. By this time he had fallen in love with Clarice Komsky, the woman he would eventually marry. Like my father, my mother was the child of hard-pressed Jewish immigrants. She was a rosy-cheeked, raven-haired young woman who loved to socialize. "Such exotic beauty will get you somewhere," a friend wrote in her high school yearbook. My father claimed not to notice her appearance. He valued her, he wrote, because she was a "willing listener" to his views. He was one of many to note that Clarice was a "zieseh neshumah," a sweet soul in whom others naturally confided their troubles.

Their relationship was rocky from the start. My father was tortured by jealousy when anyone so much as "looked at" Clarice. "My Clarice," he wrote in her yearbook. My mother found his moodiness and possessiveness too much and broke up with him but then had second thoughts.

Mark was a strikingly handsome young man, with large, heavily lashed gray green eyes and dark wavy hair that framed his powerful forehead. He was smart and ambitious, and he loved her. Though Clarice worried about Mark's temperament, she admired his drive and supported his values. The two were married in the fall of 1939, after my father graduated from DePaul University with his law degree. The final words of his autobiography summed up his surprisingly uncertain mood. "He can only speculate as to the weather which lies ahead," my father wrote. "His sturdiest craft may flounder, and his greatest calculations come to naught. Ancient sailors called it "'The will of the Gods.'"

My father's somber mood was surely colored by the fact that he embarked on married life just as the Second World War broke out in Europe. His bad heart disqualified him from military service, but he helped the war effort by working nights in a munitions factory. My parents anxiously followed the war news. It was probably the horrific reports of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe that led my father to join the Communist Party in 1945. As he later told my brother David, "If it weren't for the Russians, every Jew in Europe would have been murdered."

My father did not last long in the party. The discipline and personal subservience that the party demanded was not for him, and he quit one year after he joined, leaving just as international events gave rise to the Cold War and its domestic shadow, McCarthyism. Only a few pieces of evidence remain about my father's political activities during these years. Among them is a 1948 telegram from Henry Wallace wishing my father a happy birthday and thanking him for helping Wallace's presidential campaign. Dubbed "the American dreamer" by his biographers, Wallace had been vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was now running for president under a new party, the Progressive Citizens of America. When Wallace proposed that the United States send aid to all war-torn nations, including the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill publicly called him a "crypto-Communist." Red-baiting of this sort, along with Wallace's principled refusal to purge Communists from his party, doomed his campaign and he received just over one million votes — less than 3 percent of the national total. In December 1948, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) published a report highlighting the role of Communists in the Progressive Citizens of America. The PCA was added to the attorney general's list of subversive organizations, and its most active members were put under FBI surveillance.


Excerpted from Family Properties by Beryl Satter. Copyright © 2009 Beryl Satter. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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