More and more cities seek to repair the widespread destruction of black neighborhoods in the 20th century


The program, initially open to around 100 displaced families or their descendants, will give priority access to apartments whose rents are well below market prices. After proving that they or their families were displaced and met income requirements, residents would receive preferential treatment on its waiting list for low-income apartments in the community.

City officials say the move recognizes the harm done to largely black communities during the era of freeway construction and so-called post-World War II urban renewal, a term associated with widespread destruction neighborhoods for housing, highways and civic projects.

“This is an attempt to right a historic wrong,” says Santa Monica City Council member Kristin McCowan, a second-generation Santa Monica resident who grew up in the Pico neighborhood. “We hope other communities will see this and start making the same effort to acknowledge past wrongs.”

Across the country, descendants of black homeowners evicted for similar projects are demanding financial compensation to help repair the impact of past practices. They are joined by housing activists and advocates who are calling for recognition of the harm caused by government housing policies — including redlining — that have had a disproportionate impact on the housing fortunes of generations of Black Americans. .

Pressure for accountability is spreading as more cities address the insidious ways in which structural racism in 20th-century housing policies largely barred African Americans from homeownership – a foundational pillar of the American dream.

Efforts by cities and states to raise awareness and atone for the past come as Black homeownership rates continue to hover at their lowest levels since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination in of accommodation. Black homeownership levels reached 46.4% in the third quarter of 2021, compared to 75.8% for white families, according to census data.

Historian Richard Rothstein, a housing policy expert at the Economic Policy Institute, draws a direct line between discriminatory government housing policies in the 20th century and low black homeownership rates in the United States today.

“When you consider the decades of explicit government housing policies put in place to bar African Americans from many areas of housing, it’s no surprise that black homeownership rates continue to be far behind white people in this country,” says Rothstein, author of the book “The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Separated America.” These are the long-term effects of government housing policies racially explicit.”

Loss of generational wealth

Interstate 496 in Michigan runs through downtown Lansing, connecting tens of thousands of vehicles each week to the townships and communities that surround the state capital.

But for Diane Sulayman, a Lansing native whose family was displaced by the construction of I-496, the 11.9-mile concrete ribbon has become a symbol of how eminent domain destroyed an African-American community. flourishing.

Sulayman’s parents owned one of more than 800 homes and businesses demolished to make way for the road, construction of which began in 1963. Through eminent domain – which gives courts broad power to seize private property for boosting economic development – ​​the government paid the Lansing families to move, cutting checks which some critics said were far below the real value of the properties.

Under the agreement, the families had 60 days to leave their homes.

“What most people don’t realize is that it was a thriving African-American community,” says Sulayman, 72, whose story is part of Pave the Way, a project by research from the Historical Society of Greater Lansing that explores the impact of I-496 on communities erased to build it.

“They were working-class families with well-paying jobs in the auto industry in a community where you had thriving local businesses,” Sulayman adds. “Everything was destroyed to build a highway.”

The impact of eminent domain on black communities extended well beyond Lansing during the country’s post-World War II era of highway construction. Hundreds of neighborhoods have been cleared across the country to make way for roads and highways that federal and state authorities say have helped cities expand economic opportunity.

And while poorer immigrant neighborhoods with little political power were often the target, underserved black communities largely bore the brunt of government wrecking balls and bulldozers, say housing advocates and academics.

Many of these communities were populated by working-class black families and small minority-owned businesses, but the government viewed them as disposable, says Bill Castanier, president of the Greater Lansing Historical Society. “The federal government called them ghettos,” he says.

Although efforts were made to help with relocation, racial pacts at the time and the delineation of restricted areas where black people could live. Most have been forced to live in apartments in less desirable parts of town, with homeowners losing the ability to earn the generational wealth that comes with owning property. Many small businesses never recovered.

“Historically speaking, the abuse of eminent domain was just one of many legal maneuvers that disproportionately impacted black and low-income communities,” says Thomas Mitchell, property law scholar and law professor at Texas A&M University, whose research into legal doctrines that deprive black families of their property and home equity has been used to change laws in more than a dozen states.

“The most significant consequence of the razing of some of these communities – even in the name of economic development – is the impact it had on the economic livelihoods of the people who lived there and their descendants,” he said. -he declares.

The effort to rectify past actions is gaining momentum across the country.

Evanston, Illinois, announced plans to make remedies available to eligible black residents for what it describes as harm caused by “discriminatory housing policies and practices and city inaction.”

The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, considered the first of its kind in the United States, awards eligible households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs. It is the first initiative of the city’s $10 million reparations fund created to close historic gaps in wealth and opportunity for black residents.

In Georgia, the Mayor of Athens issued a proclamation honoring Linnentown, a working-class black community of more than 50 families in northeast Georgia that was razed in the 1960s to build parts of the University of Georgia .

Using eminent domain, Linnetown residents received approximately $1,450 for their foreclosed properties. The proclamation, which was read aloud outside City Hall by Mayor Kelly Girtz last February, promised to provide reparations to the descendants of Linnetown — the first such act in the state.

While many hurdles still exist before determining whether or how much the community will receive, Hattie Thomas Whitehead, who was in high school when her family’s shotgun house was bulldozed to make way for college dorms, said that the mayor’s actions prove that progress can be made.

“I cried when the mayor read that proclamation,” said Whitehead, 73. Part of a fourth generation of families living in the community, she joined the Linnentown Project, a group of former residents and descendants of residents pushing the city to provide redress. . “We asked for an apology and when I saw the document tears started to well up in my eyes,” says Whitehead, who chronicles the community’s story in the book “Giving Voice To Linnetown”.

Research projects and exhibitions

The South Minneapolis home of Courtney Taylor’s grandparents was one of hundreds of homes and businesses razed in the 1960s to make way for Interstate 35W.

The freeway was one of two major roads built in the city in the 1960s using eminent domain to force residents out of their homes. Eighty-two percent of residents displaced for the projects were African American, according to a study by “A Public History of 35W,” a project that examines how freeway construction affected predominantly black communities emptied for build it.

Last year, city officials passed the Minneapolis Plan 2040, housing legislation that includes “freeway repair,” a provision calling for compensation for black families and descendants impacted by the razing of communities of color for build highways.

“Rather than looking at the people who built the freeways, the city is looking at the people who were affected by them,” says Greg Donofrio, a professor of historic preservation and public history at the University of Minnesota who leads the 35W project.

Taylor, 28, says her father often said her grandparents were never bitter about the move, preferring instead to see it as an improvement. Her grandfather – who lived to be 100 – used government money to build a new house from scratch in a nearby neighborhood.

But like so many others in her community, Taylor says she’s happy to see her grandparents’ story told through research projects and exhibits in Minneapolis like Project 35W.

“Usually when you think of black history, there’s a heavy focus on the civil rights movement and the South and there’s not a lot of documentation of what happened in the North,” she says. “It’s great to learn that my grandparents had a significant civil rights history themselves.”


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