Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century


"Andrew Wiese powerfully challenges the myth that American suburbs have always been white refuges. His impressive analysis of the black struggle to achieve the suburban dream complicates in important ways our understanding of how race and class shaped the metropolitan landscape of twentieth-century America."—Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University

"The United States may be the world's first suburban nation, but the dream of home ownership has never been limited by race or class. In this elegant and persuasively argued book, Wiese shows how African Americans in both the North and the South found the strength to overcome the obstacles that blocked their path to the crabgrass frontier."—Kenneth T. Jackson, Columbia University

"This is one of those rare books that fundamentally transforms the way we think about a major topic. By putting the black experience directly at the core of twentieth-century suburbanization, Wiese revises both African American history and the history of the American suburb."—Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

An excerpt from
Places of Their Own
African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century
Andrew Wiese

Chapter 4
“Forbidden Neighbors”
White Racism and Black Suburbanites, 1940-60

In August 1946 officials of Woodmere, Ohio, approached black Clevelander Eddie Strickland on the site of a new home he was building in the suburb and arrested him for the "illegal use of used lumber." Strickland, who had been at work on the house since February, had completed the first story when the village constable intervened, objecting ostensibly to Strickland's use of secondhand boards for subflooring material. Threatened not only with arrest but with the loss of his labor and investment, Strickland was exasperated. Speaking to a reporter from Cleveland's black weekly, the Call and Post, he argued that his lumber was "better than new." Moreover, in the context of wartime restrictions on building materials, construction with used lumber was a common practice in Cleveland and many suburbs. Finally, Strickland appealed to his rights as a property owner—and implicitly to his rights as an American. Standing amidst his half-finished home in the dusty overalls of a black workingman, Strickland's emotions welled up inside him. "This is my lot and my property," he fumed, "and I'm going to build a home on it or die in the attempt." Strickland never got the chance to keep his promise. After an eighteen-month court battle, Woodmere officials triumphed, blocking Strickland and several other black property owners from building or completing homes on land they owned in the suburb.

Eddie Strickland's confrontation with Woodmere officials raises a variety of substantive issues beyond the immediate struggle over local building regulations in a Cleveland suburb. First, Strickland's arrest came in the middle of a three-year struggle between black property owners and white villagers who were determined to prevent the suburb's black population from growing. In a national context, moreover, Strickland's arrest reflected an expansion of municipal land-use regulations in the suburbs, more aggressive policing of the suburban rim by local governments, and growing racial exclusivity in the suburbs—even in those designed for the working class. In both outline and outcome, events in Woodmere reveal that suburban land became a focus of racial struggle in the postwar United States. In an era of mass suburbanization, whites of various social classes united along racial lines to restrict the benefits of suburban living to "Caucasians only."

At the same time, Strickland's unsuccessful attempt to build a suburban home for his family indicates that the appeal of suburban living remained strong among blue-collar African Americans after the war. Even more than before, African Americans of every description sought homes in suburban areas. Despite obstacles placed in their way, the black suburban population swelled by almost a million during the 1940s and 1950s. Furthermore, Strickland's emotional defense of his home and his rights illustrates that in Woodmere and other suburbs, white officials faced aggressive and politically conscious African Americans who were willing to risk arrest and even violence for a suburban home. On the eve of the southern civil rights movement, African Americans throughout the nation used every available means to assert their rights to housing of their choice. Combined with the desire for better homes and neighborhoods, African Americans' willingness to challenge the status quo placed them on a collision course with whites in the suburban housing market.

A closer look at the struggle over building rights in Woodmere suggests the intensity and outlines of a larger racial contest over suburban land in the wartime and postwar United States. Before the war, Woodmere had been an unincorporated area five miles east of the Cleveland city limits. Unregulated building by blue-collar whites of various ethnicities gave the area a reputation as a "poor man's neighborhood." Less charitable observers described it as a "shanty town." By the early 1940s, several affluent areas nearby had incorporated as separate suburbs with boundaries carefully skirting the dirt streets of Woodmere. In 1945 what remained was a square mile of unincorporated land, most of it wooded, in the midst of large estates, horse farms, and expensive subdivisions. About this time, black Clevelanders began purchasing home sites in the area. They received permits from county officials in Cleveland and began building their own homes much as working-class families had done in many other suburbs before the war. By 1944 as many as fifteen black families were living in Woodmere, and a number of others were building houses on a do-it-yourself basis.

The first hint of trouble was a wave of unexplained fires, which damaged African American-owned homes and building sites in 1944. Telephone conversations overheard on the local party line revealed growing resentment among some whites over the number of African Americans building in the area. Later that year, residents held a referendum for incorporation, which led to the formation of the Village of Woodmere. For more than a year, black families continued building while a political coalition amenable to owner-builders held sway on the village council. In 1946, however, the coalition collapsed, and in a series of irregular meetings, the council passed a building code aimed at restricting do-it-yourself builders, among whom blacks were a prominent group. The code mandated a maximum one-year time limit for the construction of new homes, forbade secession of work for any period longer than forty-eight hours, and prohibited the use of secondhand building materials. Finally, the code required builders to post a $1,000 bond to ensure compliance. Not only was the latter provision uncommon in Cuyahoga County, but the bond in blue-collar Woodmere was five times larger than the next highest bond in the county—a $200 pledge required in the upper-income suburb of University Heights.

Subsequent events indicated that the framers of Woodmere's building code had more in mind than simply improving construction standards. Upon passage of the ordinance, the village building commissioner revoked previously issued county building permits, and local police arrested a group of black home builders who refused to submit to the ordinance. In addition to Strickland, police "restrained" Charles Taylor of Cleveland after he erected a Quonset hut on property he owned in the village, and they cited veteran Edward Taylor after he laid a concrete foundation for a home (on the Fourth of July, no less) without a permit. Meanwhile, white builders reportedly continued to work unmolested.

The struggle ended in 1948 when a Cleveland judge upheld the convictions and supported Woodmere's right to regulate residential construction by local ordinance. Although the fate of Strickland and his peers is unknown, Woodmere's new restrictions made it increasingly difficult for families like theirs to relocate to the community. By lifting construction standards (and allegedly enforcing regulations in a discriminatory manner), Woodmere officials raised the cost of home building in the village and substantially limited settlement by working-class blacks. Moreover, the passage of similar building restrictions throughout the county helped limit the number of African American suburbanites in the Cleveland area. The trend had an apparently chilling effect on the attendance of blacks at the weekly land auction in Cleveland, where a number of families had formerly purchased suburban land for delinquent taxes. By 1950 the Call and Post decried what it described as a "county wide system of barring Negro home builders in suburban areas by irregular building regulations." Where arson had failed to stem black home building, local government proved an effective weapon in the contest for suburban space.

Far from being an isolated event, Strickland's confrontation with authorities in Woodmere reflected a national trend toward regulation of the suburban fringe that hastened the decline of working-class suburbanization in the postwar decades. In Cleveland and other metropolitan areas, the proliferation of suburban municipalities led to the extension of land-use regulations to formerly unregulated areas. Zoning and building codes curtailed informal home building and inflated the cost of a suburban home. Racist application of these regulations closed the door on development for blacks, and the enforcement of sanitary regulations led to the demolition of existing black housing and restrictions on domestic production. A number of suburbs also used urban renewal authority to isolate or even expel suburban black communities. By 1960 the proliferation of white suburbs and the explosion of suburban land-use restrictions had effectively curtailed working-class community building of the sort that had characterized African American suburbanization since World War I.

“Forbidden Neighbors”

As events in Woodmere reveal, white racism continued to play a leading role in shaping African American suburbanization. Many whites projected their deepest fears about crime, disorder, health, status, and sexuality on to African Americans. Moreover, whites typically conflated psychological expressions of racial fear with more straightforward economic anxieties and assumptions of social privilege. Among their greatest concerns was that "property values will experience a severe drop" with the arrival of black neighbors. Such was the established opinion of white real estate agents, appraisers, home builders, and lenders. Real estate textbooks presented the hypothesis as fact, and for whites who may have had reason to doubt, the dilapidation of city and suburban neighborhoods where many African Americans lived provided apparent proof to cement the link. Although numerous studies of race and property values refuted any causal link between integration and property values, whites who had invested their savings and staked future financial security on their home remained unconvinced. Combined with violent fantasies about the social consequences of racial integration—especially images of rape and miscegenation—economic fear led millions of whites to view black neighbors as something like Visigoths at the gates of Rome.

Finally, for many working- and middle-class whites—especially immigrants and their children, whose adaptation to American society involved the adoption and manipulation of its racial hierarchies—the coming of African Americans threatened their efforts to rise in status and stability in white American society. As a number of historians have pointed out, suburbanization was closely related to the making of race and class identities in the postwar period. Federal entitlements such as the GI Bill and mortgage insurance programs made it possible for millions of Americans of European descent to attain key symbols of middle-class status, such as a college education, proprietorship of small businesses, and ownership of a new home. Moreover, they encouraged families to measure their class status in terms of their position as consumers rather than as workers. At the same time, George Lipsitz points out, "the suburbs helped turn European Americans into 'whites' who could live near each other and intermarry with relatively little difficulty. But this white 'unity' rested on residential segregation and on shared access to housing and life chances largely unavailable to communities of color." For millions of "not yet white ethnics," segregation was a ticket to social and economic mobility. To live in a neighborhood with blacks, by contrast, was to lose hard-won gains, to be associated with "blackness," and potentially to be trapped at the bottom rung of the American social ladder. In this context, African Americans were "forbidden neighbors" in almost every white neighborhood in postwar America.

To defend their neighborhoods, whites created a gauntlet of discriminatory practices that limited African Americans' access to the housing market. As early as the 1910s, white real estate agents had created Realtors organizations and pledged to uphold a code of ethics that prevented them from being party to transactions that permitted blacks to move into white neighborhoods. Similarly, white financial institutions almost uniformly refused to lend money to African Americans to buy property outside "established Negro areas," and they charged a premium for credit inside as well. Further, white home builders took the view that racial segregation was a "social problem" not a "housing problem," staunchly defending their right to refuse to sell or rent homes to African Americans and other minorities. At the neighborhood level, whites formed home-owners' associations whose chief goal was to prevent African American "infiltration" or "invasion." These groups were instrumental in organizing white neighborhoods to enact race-restrictive covenants, which prohibited the sale or rental of property to "other than Caucasians." As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded, housing discrimination involved the "deliberate exclusion" of blacks and other minorities "at all levels of the housing and home finance industries."

The example of baseball legend Jackie Robinson illustrates the barriers facing African Americans in the suburban real estate market. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson began searching for a home near New York in 1956, they found themselves entirely shut out. Robinson, who led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the world championship that year and whose reputation for personal integrity was well known, was unable to buy a satisfactory home in the suburbs of the city where he was most celebrated. Eventually, the Robinsons found a house across the state line in Stamford, Connecticut, "due to the strong efforts" of several white families there. However, their travail reveals the difficulty that faced less-celebrated families. "We were put through the usual bag of tricks right in this state," Robinson said:

At first we were told the house we were interested in had been sold just before we inquired, or we would be invited to make an offer, a sort of a sealed bid, and then we'd be told that offers higher than ours had been turned down. Then we tried buying houses on the spot for whatever price was asked. They handled this by telling us the house had been taken off the market. Once we met a broker who told us he would like to help us find a home, but his clients were against selling to Negroes. Whether or not we got a story with the refusal, the results were always the same.
In the market for suburban housing, the Robinsons, like thousands of others, were simply "Negroes" marked by race as second-class citizens or worse. For families without like resources or social connections, entrance into the white housing market proved a Herculean endeavor.

Where such barriers proved insufficient, however, white suburbanites routinely engaged in acts of terrorism to prevent the settlement of African Americans in their neighborhoods. In the late 1940s and 1950s, African American attempts to move out of "arbitrarily restricted areas" produced what historian Arnold Hirsch called "an era of hidden violence," as whites in city and suburban neighborhoods met breaches in the color line with a guerrilla war of death threats, property destruction, and physical violence. When it came to race, arson was as suburban as the backyard barbecue grill during much of the postwar period.

Government, too, was deeply supportive of racism in the housing market. Through the late 1940s, white property holders vigorously enforced deed covenants that restricted the sale or rental of property to "Caucasians only," and American courts upheld the practice. Moreover, the chief federal agencies responsible for housing followed standard real estate industry practice in discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. This was not surprising, as future Housing and Urban Development secretary Robert Weaver noted, since "the very financial and real estate interests which led the campaign to spread racial covenants and residential segregation" were appointed to run them. The Federal Housing Administration and its companion Veterans Administration program stimulated home construction by insuring or guaranteeing individual home loans against default. By limiting risk for private lending institutions and assuring that builders who built to agency standards would have a ready market of buyers, these agencies helped millions of families purchase homes. During the 1940s and 1950s, the FHA alone issued mortgage insurance on almost a third of new homes, meanwhile rates of home ownership blossomed from approximately 40 percent in 1940 to more than 60 percent of American households by 1960.

As late as 1950, however, both agencies required that neighborhoods be racially segregated in order for homes to qualify. FHA appraisers were instructed to consider the "adverse racial influences" affecting neighborhoods before approving mortgage insurance or construction loans. Until 1948, the FHA's Underwriting Manual advised that "racial intermingling in housing is undesirable per se and leads to a lowering of value." Through the late 1940s, agency handbooks also advised home builders to incorporate race-restrictive covenants in their sales contracts, providing easy-to-copy samples in the appendix of each volume. In the view of open-housing advocate Charles Abrams, the FHA had "adopted a racial policy that could have been culled from the Nuremberg laws." By the late 1950s, only 2 percent of the homes built with FHA support since World War II were occupied by African Americans or other minorities.

Just as important as federal involvement in housing, local governments were strategic agents in preventing African Americans from moving freely to the suburbs. As whites migrated to suburbs by the millions in the 1940s and 1950s, they quickly established new municipal governments to provide services and control local affairs. Through authority over building codes and permits, health and safety regulations, and zoning and subdivision requirements, these new suburbs exercised extensive control over land use and development within their borders, "afford[ing] suburbanites a potential for exclusion which exceeds that usually available to the resident of the central city." In contrast to the situation in city neighborhoods where residents represented a small fraction of central city voters, white suburbanites could command the prompt support of local governments in attempts to exclude nonwhites.

The experience of Morris Milgram, a lifelong developer of integrated housing, sustains this conclusion. Milgram recounted a litany of obstacles that suburban governments used to stop his projects. In one Philadelphia suburb, he wrote, officials greeted a project

warmly…until word reached them…that the development would be integrated. At that point, [they] indicated a preference for lots of about half an acre. When we agreed to go along with that, they demanded lots of closer to one acre.…Our board then voted to accept an alternate site which the village indicated would win their approval, a site between an all-white and an all-black area in the center of the town. However, the village failed to improve the black area as promised, and the FHA gave such low valuations on our proposed housing that the second site, like the first, had to be sold.
In other instances, "authorities demanded much bigger sewer and water ties than they had before they received word of our plans for integration, as well as much more expensive road paving. In still another instance, the ground was suddenly needed for the building of a high school." So routine were these impediments that Milgram advised other developers of open housing to maintain a policy of strict secrecy regarding their intended clientele.

Developers of "open occupancy" housing on the West Coast faced similar difficulties. Following Ford Motor Company's decision to relocate an assembly plant from Richmond, California, which had a sizable black community, to predominantly white Santa Clara County, the American Friends Service Committee and the United Auto Workers Union made plans to sponsor a subdivision near the factory that would be open to the company's black workforce. Almost immediately, the project ran into opposition. Local and county officials blocked four separate site proposals before the developers were able to find a workable site. One was re-zoned for industrial use soon after the developer made his plans public. In a second suburb, officials refused a building permit for the proposed site. Officials up-zoned a third parcel to require larger lots than auto workers might easily afford, whereupon the developer resigned in disgust. A second developer, Joseph Kaufman, met similar resistance. Having selected a site in Milpitas, Kaufman ran into trouble with the owner of an adjacent parcel, who refused permission to connect with sewer lines running under his property. Next, county sanitation officials adopted a new pricing formula that raised sewer costs for this particular project sixfold. When Kaufman went ahead undeterred, the neighbor filed suit to block him from using a drainage ditch that adjoined his property. Only when Kaufman and his backers had purchased the adjacent parcel from its owner and swallowed the costs of municipal intransigence was the project able to proceed. Against these odds, Kaufman completed 156 homes, and residents began moving into Santa Clara's first truly integrated postwar subdivision in 1954.

Kaufman's experience demonstrates both the variety and efficacy of opposition from local governments and well-placed property holders. Opponents delayed the project by two years, imposing a host of unforeseen costs that most builders would have been unable to afford. The delays alone would have killed most projects, since developers generally relied on borrowed money, working with a limited cash flow. Kaufman only succeeded because of the commitment and clout of his sponsors. The UAW and AFSC absorbed added costs, including legal fees, and used their influence with state officials at crucial moments in the approvals process to pressure local authorities to keep the project alive. Lacking similar assistance, even the most committed of builders found it almost impossible to build open housing in municipalities opposed to their plans.

Discrimination by local governments was especially effective in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where historic and geographic factors exacerbated racial exclusion. Since there were fewer pockets of African American residence or land ownership outside the South, there were fewer areas of the urban fringe in which development for African Americans might proceed uncontested by whites. It is "a fundamental fact," wrote federal housing advisor George Snowden, "that good and well located sites for housing of nonwhites are simply not available in most instances.…It's a sad commentary that it's more true in the North and Middle West. For the most part, quality locations have been preempted and are available for white occupancy only." Ironically, migrants' attraction to larger industrial cities heightened the difficulties they faced. In cities like Detroit, Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia, there was comparatively little vacant land left for development inside the city limits. Because these cities had grown explosively before 1929, most of the land suitable for development was located outside the central city, where it fell under the jurisdiction of suburban officials who had even less reason to mind the needs of poorly housed African Americans than officials in central cities.

Finally, although housing discrimination affected African Americans of every class, the proliferation of suburbs and land-use regulations disproportionately affected families with low to moderate incomes. Even as racial bias came under legal assault soon after the war, discrimination based on income gathered momentum. Under pressure from the FHA and the financial institutions that bought long-term mortgages, concerns with the stability of property values reached a fever pitch after the depression. Home owners came to depend on the real estate mantra that values would rise, relying on homes as vehicles for accumulating wealth. One consequence was the proliferation of fear and hardening opposition to anything or anyone that might be perceived as a threat to housing values, including people with less money. Suburbs not only ruled against informal home building, but increasingly they zoned out apartments, mobile homes, and modest tract housing of the kind that thousands of white suburbanites had purchased in the first years after the war. In the New York suburbs, zoning decisions more than doubled the average lot size required for a new home during the 1950s. As a result, unincorporated and unregulated suburban territory, which had been the native habitat of working-class suburbanites before the war, became increasingly scarce. This was also true in a variety of predominantly black suburbs, where rising economic status among suburban migrants invigorated a class-based home-ownership politics, resulting in the passage of building and sanitary restrictions after the war. At the same time, exclusion became increasingly effective as the number of white suburbs and suburbanites multiplied. As suburbs sprawled outward, they pushed the unregulated rural fringe further from the central city, making it less accessible to blue-collar African Americans, who faced the double injury of discrimination in suburban employment as well as housing. In combination with widespread race bias, discrimination based on income made it increasingly difficult for working-class blacks to find homes in the suburbs after World War II.

Racial Cleansing in the Suburbs

In addition to the use of municipal regulations to exclude African Americans, suburban officials exercised discretionary powers to move or eliminate those who were already there. Sterling Tucker of the National Urban League observed in 1962, "There appears to be a tendency for suburban areas seeking to rid themselves of unsightly areas, usually occupied by Negroes, to ordain a new public use for the land and to remove the families without providing specific relocation arrangements elsewhere in the immediate communities." Like many suburban efforts at racial exclusion, this trend disproportionately affected working-class blacks, who had formed the majority of black suburbanites before the war. Beginning in the 1940s, many suburbs took steps to demolish and redevelop existing black communities.

Events on Long Island, New York, illustrate the role of urban renewal in reshaping the suburban landscape. White Long Islanders sought not only to exclude African Americans but to displace many who were already there. As in other areas of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, small working-class black communities dotted the landscape of Long Island prior to World War II, some dating to the early nineteenth century when freed slaves had intermarried with Native Americans and established agricultural settlements. Others reflected the activity of real estate agents who sold unimproved building lots during the Great Migration. In still other suburbs, neighborhoods of black domestic workers had developed along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad, where they were a short commute from the large homes and estates that hugged the Island's shores. By the 1940s, Long Island exhibited a range of housing and neighborhood types common among African Americans in the suburban Northeast.

After World War II, rapid white suburbanization put pressure on existing land-use patterns—including the Island's racial geography. Between 1940 and 1960, the population of Nassau and Suffolk Counties mushroomed from 604,000 to 1,961,000. As space-hungry white New Yorkers lined up to purchase new tract homes, the price of land multiplied, and suburban officials increasingly perceived working-class black communities as impediments to growth. Coalitions emerged in villages and townships across the Island bent on "clean[ing] up" the neighborhoods in which the majority of blacks lived. In many suburbs that meant "cleansing" them of African Americans altogether.

Pressure to redevelop or eliminate black communities manifested itself in several ways. Municipalities such as Glen Cove, Long Beach, and Rockville Centre strengthened local housing codes, condemning scores of dilapidated rental properties and evicting black tenants, many of whom were unable to find new housing elsewhere in town. Similarly, zoning changes reclassified working-class residential areas—so-called "slum pockets"—for commercial use, leading to the eventual displacement of inexpensive housing by businesses and other nonresidential users.

More invasive was urban renewal, state and federal programs that provided municipal governments with the resources to rebuild sections classified as "slums." Following the lead of central cities, numerous suburbs employed urban renewal powers to demolish and rebuild existing black communities. On Long Island alone, Rockville Centre, Glen Cove, Long Beach, Freeport, Roslyn, Hempstead, Inwood, Huntington, Manhasset, and Port Washington initiated urban renewal programs aimed at older black neighborhoods. In these areas, white suburbanites harnessed the power of the state to redraw the color line and defend privileges associated with class and race.

The case of Freeport, a suburb of commuters and resort homes on the south shore of Long Island, is illustrative. In Freeport, the target of public action was a neighborhood near the Long Island Railroad tracks called Bennington Park. Job opportunities in domestic labor had attracted blacks to the neighborhood after the turn of the century when wealthy whites from New York began building large homes in the suburb. Although some Bennington Park residents built or purchased their own homes, the majority rented cheaply constructed houses and apartments built by speculators seeking to profit from African American housing demand. Between 1930 and 1950, Freeport's black population grew by more than a thousand, leading to crowding and the deterioration of living conditions in Bennington Park. Landlords subdivided older homes, overtaxing local facilities. By 1946 a New York State Housing Commission described the neighborhood as "the worst rural slum in the state," and among Freeport whites, pressures to redevelop the area increased.

"The slums in Bennington Park have been an eyesore in Freeport for many years," wrote one observer. "Many of the homes in that area are absolutely lacking in sanitary facilities, and some do not have running water. The tenants have to get their supply from outdoor pumps.…As a result of the living conditions in the area, moral conditions are bad and to be brief, the whole mess needs cleaning up." More to the point for many whites, Freeport's "slums developed right on its main street where no casual visitor can miss them. Shacks that were worn out a quarter of a century ago straddle a section that could pay high taxes as business property."

In spite of these arguments, voters rejected a referendum in 1946 to initiate a slum-clearance program, apparently fearing that the construction of public housing would lead to rising property taxes and a new influx of black families. Nonetheless, proponents of redevelopment revived the issue in 1949. After a two-year campaign by the press and local civic leaders, Freeport voters approved plans for a local redevelopment authority in 1951. Leaders of the effort urged that Bennington Park be demolished in order to build "a better home for all Americans." For some of them, better housing was certainly a paramount concern, but even Freeport's most liberal organizations emphasized the economic good that demolition of Bennington Park would do the community. The American Veteran's Committee noted, "We can't promote Freeport as a garden spot if people have to see a slum." For Freeport whites, poverty and substandard housing became synonyms for the black community as a whole. Viewing the matter through this lens, most agreed that it should be removed. Although Bennington Park voters themselves had rejected the 1946 referendum by a two-to-one margin, the proponents of slum clearance courted Freeport's small black middle class on the second go-around. Many of them, hoping that renewal would improve housing conditions in their community, supported the measure. With their involvement, the referendum passed, and Freeport sent a redevelopment plan to Washington for approval in 1952.

Eventually, the city knocked down the 250 dwellings in Bennington Park and replaced them with a hundred units of low-income housing on an out-of-the-way site a short distance away. Meanwhile, the village redeveloped Bennington Park for commercial and light industrial use. By the 1990s the site was home to a car dealership and U-Store-It rental units surrounded by an eight-foot hurricane fence.

Although the abuses of urban renewal as "Negro removal" in central cities have been widely documented, events in Freeport illustrate that the practice was not confined to cities. Throughout the postwar period, numerous suburbs used state and federal funds to demolish African American communities and redevelop them for other uses. In New York, which had the nation's largest state redevelopment program, more than a dozen suburbs employed public authority to displace or relocate black communities after the war. In Rockville Centre, slum clearance caused a decline in that village's small black population during the 1940s. Oscar van Purnell, a black resident who had initially supported the effort, later regretted having been tricked by "swift and gifted politicians." Rather than rebuilding the black community, he recalled, officials were "very successful in taking some of the land [where African Americans had lived] and building factories, office buildings, and the most disturbing thing, a tennis court." As in Freeport, African Americans displaced from the site scrambled to find housing, though in Rockville Centre, hundreds were forced to leave town. On the bright side, van Purnell noted sarcastically, "they did have a very fine tennis court."

Elsewhere in the metropolitan area, suburbs such as Port Washington, Inwood, and Glen Cove on Long Island; Port Chester, Mount Vernon, and White Plains in Westchester County; and Englewood, New Jersey, demolished large parts of their black neighborhoods during the 1950s, replacing them, if at all, with lesser numbers of public housing units. The trend reached a peak in the 1960s when officials in Westchester County slated nearly forty-two hundred units of "slum" housing for demolition—most in areas where African Americans were living or moving—proposing to build just seven hundred units of public housing in their place. In cities and suburbs alike, slum clearance and urban renewal became tools to reshape the existing racial geography—at the expense of African American communities.

Like the expansion of land-use regulations, suburban renewal had a disproportionate impact on working-class and poor blacks. Such families were most likely to live in the "dilapidated housing" and aging neighborhoods that officials slated for demolition. Elimination of these areas reduced the supply of affordable housing available to existing residents and newcomers alike, and since these areas often provided the first foothold for working families moving to the suburbs, their demolition foreclosed a pathway to further migration. By the late 1950s, political and regulatory changes in the suburbs themselves—expanded land-use regulations and the selective use of slum clearance in the suburbs—had substantially curtailed suburban opportunities for working-class African Americans. If, as some scholars argued, the suburbs were becoming a "white noose" around increasingly black central cities, working-class blacks clearly bore the greatest burden. Moreover, white suburbanites played a lead role in the process.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 94-109 of Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century by Andrew Wiese, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Andrew Wiese
Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century
©2004, 422 pages, 42 halftones, 14 maps, 6 tables
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Paper $22.50 0-226-89625-0

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Places of Their Own.

See also: