As urbanists, our work is often at the mercy of the dysfunctional policies and politics that came before. An incredibly fertile example of this issue is the entrenched issue of housing segregation in Louisville. While issues of race remain contentious on a number of levels, their lingering effects have become undeniably more public, and racism has become less socially acceptable in most, if not all, places.
On Thursday, March 26 at 5:30p.m., historian and documentary filmmaker Chad Montrie will take the stage at the University of Louisville’s Chao Auditorium to present his lecture, “Hidden in Plain View,” exploring “how white residents excluded black people from thousands of U.S. suburbs and towns during the 20th century and how this exclusion still contributes to persistent social problems.” He has written three books: A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States, and To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia.
Montrie, a U of L alumnus and professor at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, caught up with Broken Sidewalk’s Drew Tucker to answer a few questions about the lecture and how Louisville’s history has shaped racial issues in our own community.
Drew Tucker: I was really excited to see the breadth of topics that you’ve explored in your past academic work—environmentalism, opposition movements to coal mining, unions, etc. Could you walk us briefly from that body of work to your current interest in residential segregation?
Chad Montrie: After working with John Cumbler at the University of Louisville, I was particularly interested in how to bring environmental and labor history together. John was already doing that in his own work and I thought it was a particularly exciting direction for both fields to go.
So, when I went to graduate school I searched for likely topics and decided to do a dissertation on opposition to surface coal mining in Appalachia. After that was published as a book, I wrote another about the interrelationship between changes in people’s work and their relationship to nature. Then, I wrote A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States, which explains the origins and development of environmental consciousness by putting workers at the center of the story.
Meanwhile, I heard Jim Loewen give a talk about his book, Sundown Towns, and became fascinated with the history of racial exclusion. He was very helpful and encouraging and I began to investigate possible local and state studies that might illuminate the national (or more accurately, northern) phenomenon. Now, in the thick of that project, I’m doing research on a few different towns and suburbs in Ohio and Minnesota.
What kinds of problems are most commonly associated with racial exclusion? How have those problems changed, persisted, dissipated over time?
First, it’s important to recognize that racial exclusion was astoundingly widespread and that it did not happen and persist by accident. Over the course of the twentieth century, whites in thousands of places across the country used all manner of means to remove African Americans and prevent any others from moving in. This sometimes included violence, the threat of violence, or vandalism. More often, methods were oblique. Realtors refused to show black families an apartment or house, banks declined black mortgage applicants, and local governments hindered permitting for new construction by black property owners. Or, if a black family somehow managed to run that racist gauntlet, whites “froze” them out at church, school, and social events, until the calculated disregard became unbearable and they left. Later, however, community residents adopted reasoning that blamed blacks for their own absence, claiming people generally wanted to live with their own kind, insisting that African Americans did not have the economic means, or emphasizing supposed racial failings.
Second, to speak to the question, racial exclusion had wide-ranging implications, beyond the simple fact of making a place all-white. The efforts that went into it and the white community that resulted sustained and even encouraged racist thinking, which hindered (and still hinders) meaningful efforts to understand and address racism embedded in popular culture, public policy, and social institutions.
For African Americans, of course, exclusion from “white” towns and suburbs meant confinement to all-black inner-city ghettoes and denied access to well-managed municipal services, high-quality schools, select social networks, and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to accumulate wealth by way of federally subsidized home ownership. And all of this helps to explain blacks’ comparatively poor health, low life expectancy, stunted educational achievement, high rates of incarceration, and persistent poverty in the present-day.
As I’ll explain in the talk, there’s also a connection between the long history of housing discrimination in America and the police violence against African Americans that is currently getting a lot of attention. Ferguson, Missouri, for example, was not too long ago purposefully all-white, and its white city government and police force, along with the tensions between those officials and black residents, speak to the demographic transition that is happening there now.
What kinds of policies—local, state, and federal—lead to racial exclusion? How does housing and or zoning play into racial exclusion in suburban areas? How do other forces—spatial, social, and economic—compound these issues?
There is currently a debate in the academic literature about how much local, state, and federal policy drove housing discrimination and how much it merely responded to sentiment and practice that was already there. However that debate gets settled, it’s indisputable that policy was very important, although it evolved over time.
Early on in the twentieth century some cities attempted to segregate (and follow Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine) by ordinances that prohibited whites and blacks from moving to blocks where a majority of the other race already resided. The Supreme Court ruled these laws unconstitutional in 1917, deciding a case that originated in Louisville, Buchanan v. Warley. After that, “race-neutral” zoning and restrictive housing covenants became more important. Zoning established boundaries for industrial, commercial, multi-family residential, and single-family residential property in such a way to contain mostly working-class African Americans. Restrictive housing covenants were associated with the title to homes, mostly in the expanding suburbs, prohibiting their sale to blacks, as well as residence by blacks who were not hired labor. The Supreme Court ruled enforcement of these covenants unconstitutional in 1948, although they remained on deeds and continued to affect individual home sales and neighborhood composition generally.
Also, the federal government allowed—and even encouraged—realtors and banks to keep blacks out of white communities through discriminatory FHA loan guarantee policy. And because states oversaw dispersal of GI Bill benefits, local prejudice drove VA loan policy as well. Also, later, weak open housing laws and poor enforcement, at the state and federal level, meant that even policy designed to address housing discrimination sometimes aided it. Minnesota’s 1961 anti-discrimination law, for example, excluded owner-occupied rentals and home sales that had only “conventional” financing.
We always seem to be at the mercy of ‘which history’ is part of the public narrative. Can you talk a little about how making these hidden histories, like that of racist social policy, explicit can change the public narrative?
Well, take the debate over affirmative action as an example. I think research into housing discrimination, particularly how intentional and widespread and consequential it was, has a bearing on judging the legitimacy and merits of racial preferences. You cannot say that laws prohibiting discrimination, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965, once enforced, put us all at the same starting line. Or, that a few decades after this legislation, blacks should have been able to catch up to whites, and if they have not it’s their own fault as individuals and as a group.
Today, whites and blacks have different advantages and disadvantages, and those are rooted in history, though not so deeply rooted that whites living today can disclaim any culpability. Whites have thirteen times the amount of wealth as blacks, and that has less to do with three hundred and fifty years of slavery than with the multiple generations in the twentieth century when white families received privileged access to the various amenities of exclusive towns and suburbs (including ever-increasing home equity) and blacks were denied access to the same communities. Those with racial privilege cannot step away so easily from how their grandparents, parents, and even they experienced social and economic mobility and, as a nation, we cannot craft corrective social policy unless we know more exactly what we’re trying to correct.
How well are current urbanism trends addressing the issue of racial exclusion? What kinds of actions can be taken by residents to alleviate these issues of racial exclusion?
In 1968, President Nixon appointed George Romney secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Prior to that, he was Governor of Michigan, where he was an outspoken advocate for open housing, and made great efforts not only to challenge housing discrimination but also to promote residential integration. At his new post, Romney attempted to do the same for the entire nation. “We’ve got to put an end to the idea of moving to suburban areas,” he observed in May of 1969, “and living only among people of the same economic and social class.” I would agree. To be sure, following Romney’s advice will not end racial exclusion or reverse the effects of exclusion, but there is much to recommend the idea as a starting point for discussion about what to do. At the same time, white folks could be researching and acknowledging the history of residential segregation in their own communities, perhaps even setting up public “truth and reconciliation” commissions, so the full extent and complexity of the problem is more clear.
How did living in Louisville inform this body of work?
My personal story is somewhat instructive. I grew up in a subdivision called Plainview, in the east end of Jefferson County. It was, by most measures, quite a good place to be a kid, with plenty of land still undeveloped, woods and fields and creeks where we could play. My sisters and I and all of my friends in the neighborhood went to the same nearby Catholic school, for eight grades, and we felt like we were part of a real community because of that.
Directly across the street, however, was a black family, probably the only one in Plainview. I didn’t know the parents or the children, although one son was my age. They never seemed to come outside and nobody ever made an effort to incorporate them into our social group. I didn’t even know their names until very recently, when I started doing this project and got curious. It turns out that the dad, Booker T. Rice, was appointed acting superintendent of Jefferson County public schools in 1993 and participated in the effort to end elementary school busing.
Surely, during the time he lived in the neighborhood, he was thinking about race, and Jason, the kid my age, must have been too, but I sure wasn’t. I didn’t see the whiteness around me, and even later when I developed a social consciousness, getting involved in activism, I didn’t stop to reflect in any serious way about my own white childhood. Hopefully, this project will help me do that.
Dr. Montrie’s talk, “Hidden in Plain View,” will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 26 in Chao Auditorium, Ekstrom Library, and will conclude with a reception afterward. The event is part of the Louis Gottschalk lecture series, which the history department hosts to promote the study of history and to honor Gottschalk, a former UofL professor and American Historical Association president.