Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century

Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century

by Andrew Wiese

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On Melbenan Drive just west of Atlanta, sunlight falls onto a long row of well-kept lawns. Two dozen homes line the street; behind them wooden decks and living-room windows open onto vast woodland properties. Residents returning from their jobs steer SUVs into long driveways and emerge from their automobiles. They walk to the front doors of their houses past… See more details below


On Melbenan Drive just west of Atlanta, sunlight falls onto a long row of well-kept lawns. Two dozen homes line the street; behind them wooden decks and living-room windows open onto vast woodland properties. Residents returning from their jobs steer SUVs into long driveways and emerge from their automobiles. They walk to the front doors of their houses past sculptured bushes and flowers in bloom.

For most people, this cozy image of suburbia does not immediately evoke images of African Americans. But as this pioneering work demonstrates, the suburbs have provided a home to black residents in increasing numbers for the past hundred years—in the last two decades alone, the numbers have nearly doubled to just under twelve million. Places of Their Own begins a hundred years ago, painting an austere portrait of the conditions that early black residents found in isolated, poor suburbs. Andrew Wiese insists, however, that they moved there by choice, withstanding racism and poverty through efforts to shape the landscape to their own needs. Turning then to the 1950s, Wiese illuminates key differences between black suburbanization in the North and South. He considers how African Americans in the South bargained for separate areas where they could develop their own neighborhoods, while many of their northern counterparts transgressed racial boundaries, settling in historically white communities. Ultimately, Wiese explores how the civil rights movement emboldened black families to purchase homes in the suburbs with increased vigor, and how the passage of civil rights legislation helped pave the way for today's black middle class.

Tracing the precise contours of black migration to the suburbs over the course of the whole last century and across the entire United States, Places of Their Own will be a foundational book for anyone interested in the African American experience or the role of race and class in the making of America's suburbs.

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University of Chicago Press
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Historical Studies of Urban America Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Places of Their Own

African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century
By Andrew Wiese

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-89625-0

Chapter One

"Forbidden Neighbors" White Racism and Black Suburbanites, 1940-60

In August 1946 officials of Woodmere, Ohio, approached black Clevelander Eddie Strickland on the site of a new home he was building in the suburb and arrested him for the "illegal use of used lumber." Strickland, who had been at work on the house since February, had completed the first story when the village constable intervened, objecting ostensibly to Strickland's use of secondhand boards for subflooring material. Threatened not only with arrest but with the loss of his labor and investment, Strickland was exasperated. Speaking to a reporter from Cleveland's black weekly, the Call and Post, he argued that his lumber was "better than new." Moreover, in the context of wartime restrictions on building materials, construction with used lumber was a common practice in Cleveland and many suburbs. Finally, Strickland appealed to his rights as a property owner-and implicitly to his rights as an American. Standing amidst his half-finished home in the dusty overalls of a black workingman, Strickland's emotions welled up inside him. "This is my lot and my property," he fumed, "and I'm going to build ahome on it or die in the attempt." Strickland never got the chance to keep his promise. After an eighteen-month court battle, Woodmere officials triumphed, blocking Strickland and several other black property owners from building or completing homes on land they owned in the suburb.

Eddie Strickland's confrontation with Woodmere officials raises a variety of substantive issues beyond the immediate struggle over local building regulations in a Cleveland suburb. First, Strickland's arrest came in the middle of a three-year struggle between black property owners and white villagers who were determined to prevent the suburb's black population from growing. In a national context, moreover, Strickland's arrest reflected an expansion of municipal land-use regulations in the suburbs, more aggressive policing of the suburban rim by local governments, and growing racial exclusivity in the suburbs-even in those designed for the working class. In both outline and outcome, events in Woodmere reveal that suburban land became a focus of racial struggle in the postwar United States. In an era of mass suburbanization, whites of various social classes united along racial lines to restrict the benefits of suburban living to "Caucasians only."

At the same time, Strickland's unsuccessful attempt to build a suburban home for his family indicates that the appeal of suburban living remained strong among blue-collar African Americans after the war. Even more than before, African Americans of every description sought homes in suburban areas. Despite obstacles placed in their way, the black suburban population swelled by almost a million during the 1940s and 1950s. Furthermore, Strickland's emotional defense of his home and his rights illustrates that in Woodmere and other suburbs, white officials faced aggressive and politically conscious African Americans who were willing to risk arrest and even violence for a suburban home. On the eve of the southern civil rights movement, African Americans throughout the nation used every available means to assert their rights to housing of their choice. Combined with the desire for better homes and neighborhoods, African Americans' willingness to challenge the status quo placed them on a collision course with whites in the suburban housing market.

A closer look at the struggle over building rights in Woodmere suggests the intensity and outlines of a larger racial contest over suburban land in the wartime and postwar United States. Before the war, Woodmere had been an unincorporated area five miles east of the Cleveland city limits. Unregulated building by blue-collar whites of various ethnicities gave the area a reputation as a "poor man's neighborhood." Less charitable observers described it as a "shanty town." By the early 1940s, several affluent areas nearby had incorporated as separate suburbs with boundaries carefully skirting the dirt streets of Woodmere. In 1945 what remained was a square mile of unincorporated land, most of it wooded, in the midst of large estates, horse farms, and expensive subdivisions. About this time, black Clevelanders began purchasing home sites in the area. They received permits from county officials in Cleveland and began building their own homes much as working-class families had done in many other suburbs before the war. By 1944 as many as fifteen black families were living in Woodmere, and a number of others were building houses on a do-it-yourself basis.

The first hint of trouble was a wave of unexplained fires, which damaged African American-owned homes and building sites in 1944. Telephone conversations overheard on the local party line revealed growing resentment among some whites over the number of African Americans building in the area. Later that year, residents held a referendum for incorporation, which led to the formation of the Village of Woodmere. For more than a year, black families continued building while a political coalition amenable to owner-builders held sway on the village council. In 1946, however, the coalition collapsed, and in a series of irregular meetings, the council passed a building code aimed at restricting do-it-yourself builders, among whom blacks were a prominent group. The code mandated a maximum one-year time limit for the construction of new homes, forbade secession of work for any period longer than forty-eight hours, and prohibited the use of secondhand building materials. Finally, the code required builders to post a $1,000 bond to ensure compliance. Not only was the latter provision uncommon in Cuyahoga County, but the bond in blue-collar Woodmere was five times larger than the next highest bond in the county-a $200 pledge required in the upper-income suburb of University Heights.

Subsequent events indicated that the framers of Woodmere's building code had more in mind than simply improving construction standards. Upon passage of the ordinance, the village building commissioner revoked previously issued county building permits, and local police arrested a group of black home builders who refused to submit to the ordinance. In addition to Strickland, police "restrained" Charles Taylor of Cleveland after he erected a Quonset hut on property he owned in the village, and they cited veteran Edward Taylor after he laid a concrete foundation for a home (on the Fourth of July, no less) without a permit. Meanwhile, white builders reportedly continued to work unmolested.

The struggle ended in 1948 when a Cleveland judge upheld the convictions and supported Woodmere's right to regulate residential construction by local ordinance. Although the fate of Strickland and his peers is unknown, Woodmere's new restrictions made it increasingly difficult for families like theirs to relocate to the community. By lifting construction standards (and allegedly enforcing regulations in a discriminatory manner), Woodmere officials raised the cost of home building in the village and substantially limited settlement by working-class blacks. Moreover, the passage of similar building restrictions throughout the county helped limit the number of African American suburbanites in the Cleveland area. The trend had an apparently chilling effect on the attendance of blacks at the weekly land auction in Cleveland, where a number of families had formerly purchased suburban land for delinquent taxes. By 1950 the Call and Post decried what it described as a "county wide system of barring Negro home builders in suburban areas by irregular building regulations." Where arson had failed to stem black home building, local government proved an effective weapon in the contest for suburban space.

Far from being an isolated event, Strickland's confrontation with authorities in Woodmere reflected a national trend toward regulation of the suburban fringe that hastened the decline of working-class suburbanization in the postwar decades. In Cleveland and other metropolitan areas, the proliferation of suburban municipalities led to the extension of land-use regulations to formerly unregulated areas. Zoning and building codes curtailed informal home building and inflated the cost of a suburban home. Racist application of these regulations closed the door on development for blacks, and the enforcement of sanitary regulations led to the demolition of existing black housing and restrictions on domestic production. A number of suburbs also used urban renewal authority to isolate or even expel suburban black communities. By 1960 the proliferation of white suburbs and the explosion of suburban land-use restrictions had effectively curtailed working-class community building of the sort that had characterized African American suburbanization since World War I.

"Forbidden Neighbors"

As events in Woodmere reveal, white racism continued to play a leading role in shaping African American suburbanization. Many whites projected their deepest fears about crime, disorder, health, status, and sexuality on to African Americans. Moreover, whites typically conflated psychological expressions of racial fear with more straightforward economic anxieties and assumptions of social privilege. Among their greatest concerns was that "property values will experience a severe drop" with the arrival of black neighbors. Such was the established opinion of white real estate agents, appraisers, home builders, and lenders. Real estate textbooks presented the hypothesis as fact, and for whites who may have had reason to doubt, the dilapidation of city and suburban neighborhoods where many African Americans lived provided apparent proof to cement the link. Although numerous studies of race and property values refuted any causal link between integration and property values, whites who had invested their savings and staked future financial security on their home remained unconvinced. Combined with violent fantasies about the social consequences of racial integration-especially images of rape and miscegenation-economic fear led millions of whites to view black neighbors as something like Visigoths at the gates of Rome.

Finally, for many working- and middle-class whites-especially immigrants and their children, whose adaptation to American society involved the adoption and manipulation of its racial hierarchies-the coming of African Americans threatened their efforts to rise in status and stability in white American society. As a number of historians have pointed out, suburbanization was closely related to the making of race and class identities in the postwar period. Federal entitlements such as the GI Bill and mortgage insurance programs made it possible for millions of Americans of European descent to attain key symbols of middle-class status, such as a college education, proprietorship of small businesses, and ownership of a new home. Moreover, they encouraged families to measure their class status in terms of their position as consumers rather than as workers. At the same time, George Lipsitz points out, "the suburbs helped turn European Americans into 'whites' who could live near each other and intermarry with relatively little difficulty. But this white 'unity' rested on residential segregation and on shared access to housing and life chances largely unavailable to communities of color." For millions of "not yet white ethnics," segregation was a ticket to social and economic mobility. To live in a neighborhood with blacks, by contrast, was to lose hard-won gains, to be associated with "blackness," and potentially to be trapped at the bottom rung of the American social ladder. In this context, African Americans were "forbidden neighbors" in almost every white neighborhood in postwar America.

To defend their neighborhoods, whites created a gauntlet of discriminatory practices that limited African Americans' access to the housing market. As early as the 1910s, white real estate agents had created Realtors organizations and pledged to uphold a code of ethics that prevented them from being party to transactions that permitted blacks to move into white neighborhoods. Similarly, white financial institutions almost uniformly refused to lend money to African Americans to buy property outside "established Negro areas," and they charged a premium for credit inside as well. Further, white home builders took the view that racial segregation was a "social problem" not a "housing problem," staunchly defending their right to refuse to sell or rent homes to African Americans and other minorities. At the neighborhood level, whites formed home-owners' associations whose chief goal was to prevent African American "infiltration" or "invasion." These groups were instrumental in organizing white neighborhoods to enact race-restrictive covenants, which prohibited the sale or rental of property to "other than Caucasians." As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded, housing discrimination involved the "deliberate exclusion" of blacks and other minorities "at all levels of the housing and home finance industries."

The example of baseball legend Jackie Robinson illustrates the barriers facing African Americans in the suburban real estate market. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson began searching for a home near New York in 1956, they found themselves entirely shut out. Robinson, who led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the world championship that year and whose reputation for personal integrity was well known, was unable to buy a satisfactory home in the suburbs of the city where he was most celebrated. Eventually, the Robinsons found a house across the state line in Stamford, Connecticut, "due to the strong efforts" of several white families there. However, their travail reveals the difficulty that faced less-celebrated families. "We were put through the usual bag of tricks right in this state," Robinson said:

At first we were told the house we were interested in had been sold just before we inquired, or we would be invited to make an offer, a sort of a sealed bid, and then we'd be told that offers higher than ours had been turned down. Then we tried buying houses on the spot for whatever price was asked. They handled this by telling us the house had been taken off the market. Once we met a broker who told us he would like to help us find a home, but his clients were against selling to Negroes. Whether or not we got a story with the refusal, the results were always the same.

In the market for suburban housing, the Robinsons, like thousands of others, were simply "Negroes" marked by race as second-class citizens or worse. For families without like resources or social connections, entrance into the white housing market proved a Herculean endeavor.

Where such barriers proved insufficient, however, white suburbanites routinely engaged in acts of terrorism to prevent the settlement of African Americans in their neighborhoods. In the late 1940s and 1950s, African American attempts to move out of "arbitrarily restricted areas" produced what historian Arnold Hirsch called "an era of hidden violence," as whites in city and suburban neighborhoods met breaches in the color line with a guerrilla war of death threats, property destruction, and physical violence. When it came to race, arson was as suburban as the backyard barbecue grill during much of the postwar period.

Government, too, was deeply supportive of racism in the housing market. Through the late 1940s, white property holders vigorously enforced deed covenants that restricted the sale or rental of property to "Caucasians only," and American courts upheld the practice. Moreover, the chief federal agencies responsible for housing followed standard real estate industry practice in discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. This was not surprising, as future Housing and Urban Development secretary Robert Weaver noted, since "the very financial and real estate interests which led the campaign to spread racial covenants and residential segregation" were appointed to run them. The Federal Housing Administration and its companion Veterans Administration program stimulated home construction by insuring or guaranteeing individual home loans against default. By limiting risk for private lending institutions and assuring that builders who built to agency standards would have a ready market of buyers, these agencies helped millions of families purchase homes. During the 1940s and 1950s, the FHA alone issued mortgage insurance on almost a third of new homes, meanwhile rates of home ownership blossomed from approximately 40 percent in 1940 to more than 60 percent of American households by 1960.


Excerpted from Places of Their Own by Andrew Wiese Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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