Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

November 2, 1963

Guest post by Damian Hondares, undergraduate student at University of Richmond.

On November 2, 1963, the Norfolk Journal and Guide published a story titled “Negro Servicemen’s Morale Hurt By Housing Bias: Rights Unit Reports On Difficulties.” Black servicemen, who were not of sufficient rank to live on military bases in the 1960s, were forced to live off base. But as this article explains, local landlords near those bases were permitted to prohibit black servicemen from living in housing units leased by the Army. This, in effect, pushed black servicemen to live far away from the base, while white servicemen lived on and in close proximity to the base. Such discrimination, the article points out, directly contradicted President Kennedy’s 1962 executive order, which banned discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion [creed], sex, or national origin” in the “sale, leasing, rental, or other disposition” of public housing units.114  Such discrimination also directly contradicted President Truman’s 1948 executive order, which desegregated the military and had been intended to ensure “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."115 Nonetheless, in spite of both executive orders, systemic discrimination remained an unfortunately integral part of the black serviceman’s experience in the 1960s. The article puts this systemic discrimination into perspective: Of 300,000 public housing units near military bases in the U.S., only 63,000 were available to blacks.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which released the report at the center of this story, offered several recommendations to the Defense Department, which had done little to counteract such discrimination by this time. These recommendations included cooperating with fair housing organizations, using lawsuits to desegregate housing projects, using resources of government organizations tasked with enforcing anti-bias laws, and providing increased housing for all servicemen.

The existence of housing discrimination is not surprising. That such discrimination (and residential segregation) occurred has been a well-documented part of the nation’s history. Residential segregation in the city of Richmond, for example, had been fortified in the mid-twentieth century with the construction of I-95, which cut through black neighborhoods and separated white, middle-income neighborhoods from predominantly black neighborhoods like Jackson Ward.116 Since the early twentieth century, Richmond’s City Council had repeatedly attempted to pass legislation that segregated the races by neighborhood — only to be thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration began ranking neighborhoods (in Richmond and other major cities) by creditworthiness, by letter grade A to D. Neighborhoods that earned a D were colored red on the FHA map. The government, in a process known as “redlining,” discouraged mortgage lending in these neighborhoods, perpetuating and exacerbating residential segregation in Richmond and beyond.117 Certainly, Richmond is but one example of countless cities throughout the nation in which such residential segregation was rampant in the mid-twentieth century. This is far from the most surprising part of this story, though it provides important historical context.

What is surprising about this story, however, is that the Norfolk Journal and Guide does not tell a more personal story. This article was particularly relevant to readers of the newspaper, as Norfolk is an important military hub. It is home to Naval Station Norfolk, one of the largest naval bases in the United States.118 Though this story does not state so explicitly, it is a logical inference that Norfolk was also home to black servicemen hurt by residential discrimination on base. None of these servicemen is featured. In spite of the title — “Negro Servicemen’s Morale Hurt By Housing Bias” — the black serviceman’s experience is ignored, in favor of an oddly sharper focus on bureaucrats in Washington. It is surprising to see that even a newspaper written for and by the black community has herein given a greater voice to white men in positions of power as opposed to the black servicemen hurt by their policies.

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