August 1, 2019
Vets for Housing Equality: The AVC and Racial JusticeBreaking News
Abigail Brook is a student and human rights activist with a focus on Middle East–US relations. She recently graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs. She has lived in Jordan and Lebanon, studying Arabic, and is currently a candidate for a Masters in Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut.
It is June, 1961. Mr. Edmund Millard and Mrs. Barbara Hazel, both teachers from D.C. public schools, travel to Belair, Maryland, hoping to buy homes in the newly built Levitt and Sons housing development. But immediately upon their arrival, the salesman for Levitt and Sons denies their request. Why?
The story of Mr. Millard and Mrs. Hazel is not only real, but it is an all-too-familiar story of institutionalized housing segregation throughout the U.S. in the mid-20th century, the relics of which are starkly visible today. The two Black residents of D.C. were denied housing solely because they were “colored”—the Levitt and Sons housing development was “for Whites only.” In response, a man named Paul Cooke, an organizer with the American Veterans Committee, accompanied Mr. Joseph Edwards, another Black D.C. resident and government employee, to inquire about housing the following March. On this visit, the salesman told the two men that, “to sell to Negroes in an area where all other developers refuse to sell to Negroes would be to place Levitt in ‘an unfair position.’ It would be ‘unfair competition.’” Housing segregation defined the period’s massive housing projects that continue to segregate American cities on a de facto basis through the present day.
This article tells the story of how federal agencies institutionalized housing segregation and how an organization called the American Veterans Committee (AVC) confronted these institutions. By examining the history of institutionalized segregation, the consequent activism of the AVC, we can learn both how the AVC fought segregation and imagine how we can create structural transformation in our own movements.
Like other modern racist institutions, the violence of housing segregation is derived from the enslavement and trade of African people and their descendants. The legal end to slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment initiated a massive migration of previously-enslaved peoples to the North and West of the United States. After emancipation, African Americans were consistently prevented from accessing opportunities and acquiring wealth. White Americans used the laws that kept cities deeply segregated across the U.S. to cement racial inequality as a defining feature of their communities.
With the onset of World War II, jobs that had previously been reserved for White men became available for White women and Black Americans. This further propelled migration into urban hubs, but underpaid African Americans were restricted to the worst housing both as a mechanism of segregation and exploiting African Americans economically through their labor, taxes, and property. To address this issue, local governments began the practice of slum clearing. While rationalized as an attempt to create better housing and beautify neighborhoods, slum clearance in practice destroyed and displaced Black people’s homes, communities, and cultures, while constructing homes for middle class White residents in its wake. If relocation was promised, it was rarely manifested.
One means of slum clearance was constructing highways through “blighted areas”, and consequently demolishing Black neighborhoods and communities. Alfred Johnson, a major lobbyist for the 1956 Highway Act that facilitated this practice, recalled that some officials believed “[construction of] urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local ‘n*****town.’” What masqueraded as a policy to create improved housing was, in reality, a means of destroying Black property and community to amplify White wealth and mobility.
At the same time, with the end of World War II, millions of veterans returned from the war in desperate need of housing and other services. In response, the federal government established the GI Bill of Rights, creating privileges for veterans that, in reality, were available only for White veterans. Through the Veterans Administration (VA), the agency responsible for distributing GI benefits, vets had access to low-interest mortgages without down payments. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the VA were the two major institutions responsible for addressing the housing crisis. Together, they issued ½ of the mortgages across the U.S. by 1950.
The FHA enabled suburbanization by guaranteeing developers massive loans if they constructed all White neighborhoods. The two agencies shared an underwriting manual, obligating developers to adhere to zoning regulations and deed restrictions, requiring them to sell exclusively to White homebuyers. The glaring “success” of such policy was demonstrated by the fact that “in New York and northern New Jersey, ‘fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by non-Whites.’”When other builders attempted to create integrated housing developments, their efforts largely proved to be financially infeasible. The FHA would not grant loans to Black borrowers or homes zoned in areas deemed racially mixed because they were “risky” investments.
A third institution that aided housing segregation, and especially White flight, was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. It created the practice of redlining, where it graded neighborhoods based on occupation, income, race and ethnicity, and housing stock. Real estate agents or lenders would use these delineations to determine where they should or should not sell homes to Whites. This practice aided generally held belief that “racially homogenous” neighborhoods benefited the community in a codified manner. The result was further undesirability of inner-urban neighborhoods for White people, who flooded into government-subsidized single-family homes in the suburbs.
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