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April 19, 1958
Guest post by Mark Speltz, author of North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016).
On April 19, 1958, a New York Amsterdam News page 2 headline read “2 Kids Knocked Out By Falling Plaster.” A mother of five, Mrs. Margaret Hardy, recounted her frightening tale of “living in a filthy, rat-infested two room hole” with a reporter. On Easter morning, a five-foot long piece of plaster crashed down from the ceiling knocking two of her children unconscious. Sick and tired of rats entering her apartment through holes in the walls and enduring daily forms of neglect that endangered her family, Hardy stated “This is no environment for my children. I refuse to keep living this way. I’m no tramp just because I’m on welfare and my children are no hoodlums.” She shared she was planning to sue her landlord for neglect.
Longtime readers of the New York Amsterdam News, or almost any daily or weekly black newspaper in urban America at the time, would have been all too familiar with stories like this. For example, on July 29, 1944, a headline read “Ceiling Falls; Injures Child” and on February 1, 1947 another read “Falling Ceiling Hits 2 Tenants On Heads.” Months of water leaking through the floor above loosened an entire ceiling in the Harlem apartment. Just three months later on May 10, 1947, a page 3 headline stated “Apartment House Booby-Trap Ceiling Collapses, Fells Woman.” All of these and more appeared in the New York Amsterdam News.
Pinned into overcrowded neighborhoods with blocks and blocks of dilapidated housing stock, African-American residents frequently encountered stopped up drains and leaky pipes, insufficient wiring and dangerous furnaces, rats and roaches, and crumbling plaster walls and ceilings. Countless articles repeatedly noted unanswered tenant requests, petitions to landlords, and overwhelmed and unresponsive city agencies. Due to the widespread nature of the problems, hidden nature of problems, and how little power poor urban residents wielded, landlords rarely faced more than fines or an occasional lawsuit. Landlords had little incentive to upgrade their properties. On the other hand, blacks facing a postwar housing shortage and hardening racial segregation had few options when seeking better housing. Minor repairs and a fresh coat of paint typically welcomed the next unsuspecting tenants.
It is worth noting the role photographs played in this reportage. Many of the New York Amsterdam News articles recounting the harrowing stories of fallen ceilings and injuries were accompanied by news photographs. Just as the newspaper applied pressure by publishing the names and addresses of landlords who discriminated or failed to repair decaying properties after months of complaints, photography made the problems more visible. A pointed headline on July 1, 1950, asked readers, “Are You Tired Of This Type Picture? We Are.” Pictures of injured children or grandmothers with head bandages recovering in bed caught readers’ attentions. Photographs of residents, or investigators from concerned organizations such as CORE and the NAACP, pointing to large swaths of exposed lath or holes in the wall, provided visual evidence of a form of discrimination and neglect typically hidden from view.
Pictures like these the New York Amsterdam News published stood in stark contrast to the often-repeated claims from landlords and city officials that poor conditions were caused by tenants themselves. Advocates in the press and beyond worked hard instead to document and expose how filthy and unsafe conditions stemmed instead from landlord neglect.