Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

May 7, 1963

Guest post by Bryce Rooney, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.

The May 7, 1963, edition of the Washington Afro-American shares a story of a small, black family’s fight to keep ownership of their land against developers. Over two generations, the Ray family had acquired eighty-eight acres of land by 1963, the first five purchased in 1887. They lived on the land, and most of their income came from operating a public dump on the land. But when white developers bought land adjacent to their tract in 1956, they tried offering a deal to the Ray family to agree on boundaries. After the family refused to make a deal over their already owned land, the developers began building anyway (click to view article via Google News).

The family then sought legal counsel, as is their right; however, after finding a lawyer agreeing to take the case and paying substantial fees, the lawyer simply abandoned the case with little explanation and did not return any of the fees. This unprofessionalism does not necessarily point to anything other than that, but when it happens two more times, one must question the possibilities of underlying agendas.

Eventually, the Ray family found two separate surveyors to confirm their claims of the boundaries of the land. However, with the excuse of unspecified borders gone, it seemed too coincidental when various charges about the operating license they had for the dump came up in court, right before the developers began construction. This led to the dump’s closure after years of quiet operation. The Ray family even saw unjust acts against them financially when a loan was taken out from a bank and suddenly foreclosed on them shortly after. Even through all of this unfair treatment, the family still eventually repaid the loan, and after the father’s death in 1962, filed suit against the developers in 1963.

Racial persecution is a ubiquitous topic in America’s history, especially in this period, but we often overlook the subtle effects on  citizens, whether African American or not, facing large entity developers and government in urban development of the 1950s and 1960s. A well-known and not-so-subtle example of common practice was “redlining,” when financial institutions would deny financial services to applicants that resided in certain areas, usually nonwhite areas. The growth of the urban city of America was greatly influence by subtle acts of large entities to carefully develop cities in their own image.

At first glance, situations like the Ray family’s may not seem obvious racial persecution, but it is the absence of proper legal help against the developers that created questions of whether or not the company used racial and political power to dissolve any opposition before it arose. But let’s face it, even today large development companies or corporations use the same tactics to get what they want. Racial discrimination may not be seen anymore, or at least as openly, but unethical use of political power to make it easier for companies to get what they want is the new ubiquitous topic in America. They have been doing it for decades and only change the mask they use to hide their agenda.

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