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May 1, 1954
Guest post by Matthew Lee, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.
An article with the headline “Civic Group Hits Cole Housing Plan” in the May 1, 1954, edition of the Baltimore Afro-American provides a small snapshot of one type of institutional prejudice that plagued African Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. Housing, like many aspects of American life during the New Deal era, underwent a major overhaul. The passage of the Housing Act of 1934 set a precedent for an increased role by government in the administration of housing development, and laid the groundwork for subsequent legislation that brought significant change in urban and suburban areas. Unfortunately for African Americans, particularly those living in cities, these changes would have catastrophic consequences.
The title of the Afro-American article refers to Albert M. Cole, who at the time was the administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (now the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD) and was the head of a twenty-three-member advisory committee set up by President Eisenhower to craft the Housing Act of 1954. The article describes a letter sent by the NAACP to Senator Homer Capehart, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, requesting that Congress “enact strong safeguards against racial discrimination in the federal housing bill.” Although racial segregation in regard to housing had a long history in the United States prior to this period, the Housing Act of 1934 and its successors more or less institutionalized the practice. It indirectly empowered government officials to withhold the vital development grants from African-American and other minority communities while at the same time demolishing their current neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance.” Thus began the era of “redlining” writ large, and it is arguably a period that African-Americans are still recovering from to this day.
There are several aspects of the article, along with one that appears below it, that I found illuminating about both the lives of African Americans in 1954 and today. The post–World War II era in the United States is often one that is viewed with a rosy tint. The country was riding high following victories in both theaters of the war and had finally surfaced from the economic depths of the Great Depression. Suburbs were beginning to bloom, and cities were undergoing significant development and renewal. However, as we have learned since then, the benefits brought about by these changes often excluded African Americans, and in many cases came at their direct detriment. While the article itself deals with housing segregation at a macro level, behind the words in the letter from the NAACP are tens of thousands of African Americans who were displaced from their homes by the discriminatory legislation of the era. In an accompanying article in the same paper that day, it is noted that “present slum clearance programs will displace 71,000 families and that some 35,000 of these will be eligible for public housing.” Even if these numbers are taken at face value (the amount that actually received public housing was likely much less), it reveals just how crippling these redevelopment programs were to African-American communities.
Another interesting aspect of the article is how it fits into the larger civil rights movement of the era. Only two weeks following this article, the Supreme Court would hand down its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education that ended segregation in public schools. This ruling would be expanded upon a week later to include segregation in public housing. These court rulings, along with the lobbying efforts done by groups like the NAACP, ultimately did have some impact on the provisions of the Housing Act of 1954. The Eisenhower administration along with the Senate wished to authorize that 140,000 units of public housing for those displaced by redevelopment be included in the bill, but were forced by the House to compromise on 35,000. Clearly some of the discriminatory policies of the past few decades were slowly being rolled back, but for many African Americans, the progress was perilously slow.
The legacy of the discrimination in housing development depicted in the Afro-American article is all too visible today in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. Numerous news stories over the years have highlighted the extreme contrast between adjacent communities, often one affluent and the other poor, whose difference in fortune can be directly tied back to the unjust policies that the NAACP and other organizations were fighting against in the 1950s. Since then, overt redlining has on the whole been reduced, and yet for many African-American communities, the damage had already been done.