The March 4, 1966, cover of Time marked a milestone in American politics. It featured Robert C. Weaver, Lyndon B. Johnson’s pick to head the newly formed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — and the first Black person to be appointed to a cabinet secretary position. Not only was his confirmation a landmark in the movement for race equality; it was also a personal triumph for Weaver, who had begun his career in his twenties as a member of the so-called “Black Cabinet” during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, and had spent the next three decades fighting discrimination in employment and housing.
Weaver’s leadership of the new agency, which had been set up to tackle urban disinvestment and housing inequality, offered real power. As depicted on the cover, Weaver seems ready to meet the challenges, his eyes fixed on the horizon, his expression resolute. Yet the image is also ambiguous: Weaver is shown in the literal shadow of a crumbling brick building that evokes both the physical dilapidation of the slums and the violence of the previous summer’s devastating race protests in Watts. The cover’s straplines convey an oddly equivocal message: “First Negro in the Cabinet/ TRYING TO SAVE THE CITIES.”
No doubt the skepticism reflected the mood of the moment. Given the profound problems facing America’s cities, the first secretary of HUD had a near impossible mandate. Weaver would serve as head of the new agency for almost three years, and his measured performance was frequently frustrating to his peers in both Johnson’s inner circle and the civil rights movement. Yet his time in the cabinet was capped by — some say redeemed by — a tremendous achievement: the enacting by Congress of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the last plank of Johnson’s Great Society legislation. Not long after its passage, Weaver resigned from HUD and moved into academia, where he would remain until his death, in 1997.
Given the profound problems facing America’s cities, the first secretary of HUD had a near impossible mandate.
Today, Weaver is memorialized in various ways. The brutalist HUD headquarters in Washington, designed by Marcel Breuer, bears his name; he is the subject of several solid scholarly treatments, including a fine biography by Wendell E. Pritchett. 1 Yet his multidimensional career remains too little known. Over the course of five decades, Weaver shuttled between the worlds of academia, public administration, and civil rights activism, pursuing these different tracks to advance the cause of racial justice. As Pritchett observes, “He was instrumental in the implementation of almost every major urban initiative, including public housing, urban renewal, affirmative action, rent control, and fair housing, and he served as advisor to governments and advocacy organizations on these issues.” 2
Across all these activities, Weaver saw social scientific scholarship as a vital tool in the fight against discrimination: he was convinced that it was not “abstract justice” but rather “sound economic proof” that would persuade people to act. 3 An economist by training — and the first African American to receive a PhD in the subject at Harvard — Weaver produced a stream of research to support his goals. Beginning with his groundbreaking studies of the New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act, Weaver mobilized quantitative and statistical data to demonstrate both the existence and disastrous effects of discriminatory practices in employment, housing, and cities.
Most of Weaver’s early reports were prepared for New Deal agencies, and many pushed for sweeping policy reforms to address the needs of Black people. After he left the federal government, in 1944, Weaver began to circulate more critical research findings in pamphlets, in articles for the Black and White press (he contributed regularly to both), and in scholarly journals and books. His most influential publications from these years are the article, “Race Restrictive Housing Covenants,” from 1944, and two classic books, Negro Labor, published in 1946, and The Negro Ghetto, which appeared two years later.
The Negro Ghetto will be familiar to readers of Richard Rothstein’s 2015 bestseller, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein cites Weaver’s dissection of the federal role in residential segregation as foundational. Yet he also asserts that this history has been until recently mostly forgotten, or as he says, “suppressed.” 4 Some of Weaver’s writings have been digitized by the Internet Archive, but many others remain hard to access, tucked away behind paywalls or in university research libraries. 5 I found one hard copy of The Negro Ghetto for sale for $550.
Weaver saw social scientific scholarship as a vital tool in the fight against discrimination, and he produced a stream of research to support his goals.
As part of its efforts to make vital scholarship from earlier eras freely accessible, this journal is here republishing “Race Restrictive Housing Covenants,” which laid out arguments developed in The Negro Ghetto. Weaver’s important article should be consulted alongside other open-access resources, especially the brilliant “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America,” which has digitized hundreds of once secret Residential Security Maps, produced decades ago by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, whose methods and data influenced the redlining of American neighborhoods. 6 If “Mapping Inequality” demonstrates the U.S. federal government’s use of social science, policy, and law to systematically deny housing to minoritized groups, then Weaver’s publications underscore that these same tools were also used to fight segregation and injustice.
To be sure, Weaver’s prose can come across as “dry” or “objective” (too objective, critics said). Yet Robert Weaver was anything but neutral; he was in fact deeply engaged — an “activist scholar” whose writings were integral to his sustained efforts to create antidiscriminatory policies, legal cases, and citizens’ campaigns. Consider the fact that The Negro Ghetto would be reissued for the first and last time in 1967, shortly after his HUD appointment, just when the fair housing battle had reached a critical point. 7 Weaver confessed that his aim in reissuing the book was to broaden support for housing for all Americans, wielding that “basic tool in a democracy: the facts.” 8
The Black Cabinet
Robert Clifton Weaver was born in Washington, D.C., in 1907, into the city’s Black elite. His grandfather had graduated from Harvard and was the country’s first African American dentist. His father worked for the U.S. Post Office. It was assumed that Weaver would pursue a university education and government service, and he fulfilled expectations. He went to Harvard College, and received his PhD in economics from the university in 1934, with a dissertation on “The High Wage Theory of Prosperity.” Because Blacks were not permitted to live in freshman dorms, he roomed in a boarding house with two other future Black Cabinet members, attorneys William Hastie and John P. Davis.
Weaver was active in New Deal debates, starting in 1933 with FDR’s flagship initiative, the National Industrial Recovery Act.
Weaver was active in New Deal debates, starting in 1933 with Roosevelt’s flagship initiative, the National Industrial Recovery Act. This ambitious program was widely attacked in the Black press; not only were Blacks turned away from many NIRA-generated jobs, but southern Blacks were also paid far less than Whites for equivalent work. In response, Weaver and Davis formed an advocacy group, the Negro Industrial League. In testimony at congressional hearings, they presented statistics disproving the rationale for differential wages, i.e., that Blacks were less productive and had lower living costs. Weaver further argued that the policy, by limiting the spending power of a significant part of the population, was impeding national recovery from the Depression.
This testimony was only moderately successful; NIRA was tweaked, not substantively changed. But for Weaver the experience was decisive — he became convinced that economic arguments were necessary weapons in the battle against discrimination. More generally, the public hearings made it evident that racial bias was tarnishing the New Deal and its numerous programs; in response, Roosevelt agreed to establish an Office of the Special Advisor on the Economic Status of Negroes. The office was initially headed by a White southerner, Clark Foreman, who hired Weaver as associate adviser; soon afterward Foreman convinced their boss, Harold Ickes, the powerful Secretary of the Interior, to give the job to Weaver. In 1934, several other departments would hire prominent African Americans to advise on the racial effects of New Deal programs. Along with Weaver, these appointees would constitute the core membership of the Black Cabinet.
In her book The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, historian Jill Watts argues that the term can be misleading: in fact, the president never officially acknowledged the group’s existence. Watts describes the Black Cabinet as “self-generated, self-sustaining, and self-directed” — a disparate and often fractious cohort of racial affairs advisors and administrators, scattered across federal agencies from the Works Progress Administration to the Department of Labor. 9 Starting in 1936, they met informally as the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, chaired by activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who was then director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Weaver was a significant presence at these meetings, but the formidable Bethune, who enjoyed a close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, was their undisputed leader.
What united the Black Cabinet was a deep commitment to advancing equal rights and improving the living conditions of African Americans. In theory, the expansion of federal power under the New Deal offered the chance to secure constitutional rights for Black citizens; in reality, the Black Cabinet was forced to fight rearguard actions simply to ensure that Black communities were not excluded from relief programs. The members across all agencies were especially alert to programs that accepted or established discriminatory practices, as they worried that federal housing, work, education, and military initiatives might result in extending segregation from Southern states to Northern ones.
Facilities such as bathrooms, cafeterias, and elevators were segregated in government buildings.
Theirs was an uphill struggle, made more difficult by the precarity of their positions. Even as federal employees, the racial affairs advisers struggled against an actively hostile environment. Communal facilities such as bathrooms, cafeterias, and elevators were segregated in government buildings. They were at personal risk when they did inspections or carried out fieldwork to collect data, especially in the Deep South, where Jim Crow ruled. Isolated and marginalized, they often worked behind the scenes, sometimes leaking information to the Black press or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, and all too often downplaying their own achievements for political reasons. This can make their efforts hard to assess.
For a decade, Weaver persevered, steadily pursuing his data-driven approach. One of his most influential accomplishments, during a stint as head of Negro Affairs at the Public Works Administration, was to convince Harold Ickes, who ran the agency, to enforce non-discrimination clauses in its contracts. But how could racial bias be proved? Weaver approached Bill Hastie to serve as legal advisor and the two friends created what would become a vital tool in civil rights legislation: the use of prima facie evidence to determine racial bias.
Their approach was elegant: the PWA required that African Americans be hired in proportion to their population and skills as determined by the 1930 U.S. Census. If that set percentage of wages did not flow to Black workers, then it was evident that businesses were not complying with PWA rules and the agency could cancel their contracts. 10 To guarantee enforcement, Weaver’s office monitored contracts down to the weekly pay stubs of workers. 11 The prima facie strategy had an immediate impact on PWA Housing Division projects, ensuring that they hired a set number of unskilled and skilled Black workers. The latter category would include such talented architects as Hilyard Robinson, Paul Revere Williams, and John Louis Wilson, whom Weaver set out to recruit with Ickes’s blessing. 12
Weaver and Bill Hastie created what would become a vital tool in civil rights legislation: the use of prima facie evidence to determine racial bias.
In keeping with the reformist view of public housing as a tool of racial uplift, the PWA was also committed to offering Black people a fair portion of housing units (one-third of those built) and involving them in management and communal programming. 13 Weaver strongly supported this approach, but was troubled by the way housing units were being distributed. The PWA was guided by the so-called “neighborhood composition rule,” which dictated that existing residential patterns be maintained; hence most projects were designated either for Whites or Blacks — only six out of 51 were mixed. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Weaver seemed prepared to accept that segregation was the cost of building good housing for Blacks in the South. Yet he feared that government policy was giving a “federal seal of approval” to segregation in the North. 14 He was equally concerned that existing Black or integrated neighborhoods would be cleared and replaced with all-White projects — which is exactly what happened at the PWA’s first project, Techwood Homes, in Atlanta. 15 Ironically, in light of his subsequent leadership of HUD, this experience meant that Weaver never saw slum clearance as a straightforward “solution” to urban problems, and was sensitive to its potential for ruthless displacement.
Weaver’s growing expertise in housing led to his transfer to the U.S. Housing Authority, established by the Housing Act of 1937, which made permanent the federal government’s financial support for affordable public housing. As head of its Office on Racial Relations, he was able to handpick staff, including Frank S. Horne (uncle of Lena), who became prominent in his own right. But the new agency presented a new problem. Monitoring PWA contracts for antidiscrimination compliance was possible because the agency controlled its own projects. By contrast, the USHA was decentralized: it operated through low-cost loans to local housing authorities, which planned and built projects and did not always adhere to federal guidelines or rules. As Weaver put it, with trademark neutrality: “[The USHA’s] handling of racial, religious and nationality groups tends to be no more nor less democratic nor successful than that of the communities of which it aims to be an integral part.” 16 When writing for the Urban League journal, Opportunity, he was less circumspect, warning that the decentralized program demanded greater “alertness and activity” on the part of Black civic organizations to ensure fair treatment. 17
Weaver heeded his own warning. He lobbied local housing authorities to include African Americans on their boards. 18 He personally mediated dozens of discrimination disputes, often brought to him by the NAACP, and occasionally intervened in projects. In 1942, at the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit, for example, after the federal government flip-flopped on the question of occupancy, Weaver and a coalition of Black Cabinet members successfully pushed to have the project reassigned from Whites to Blacks — a decision that led to Klan-incited riots. 19 Given the dearth of housing for African Americans, the reassignment counted as a victory, but the “Blacks only” designation also confirmed that residential segregation was being normalized in the North. By 1940, only 50 of 468 USHA-funded projects were integrated; 145 were for Black tenants. 20
Black communities connected their domestic struggles against racism to international wars against fascism and colonialism.
Weaver’s final years in Washington were often frustrating. By the early 1940s, as relief programs gave way to defense imperatives, racial affairs advisers were either let go or transferred to new agencies where the push for war preparedness was used to justify a raft of different discriminatory practices. For example, the Division of Defense Housing Coordination halted 55 residential projects for Blacks on the questionable grounds that new housing should be reserved for White in-migrating defense workers. Briefed by Weaver, Eleanor Roosevelt used her influence to challenge the decision — but it perfectly illustrated the specious logic that disadvantaged Black defense workers and denied the scale of their migration to northern cities. 21 On their side, Black communities were increasingly unwilling to labor and lay down their lives for a government that refused to treat them equally, connecting their domestic struggles against racism to international wars against fascism and colonialism. As the civil rights activist Louis E. Martin put it during the stand-off at Sojourner Truth Homes: “Shall we give comfort at home to the same forces against which we are working and dying, night and day, to defeat on the hot sands of Libya and in the frozen wastes of Iceland?” 22
Amidst the growing tensions, many in the Black press decried the Black Cabinet as out-of-touch apologists for federal inaction; and some Black Cabinet members, with Weaver in mind, pushed for a less data-driven approach. In early 1944, exhausted by bureaucratic turf wars and ready for fresh challenges, Weaver accepted a job as director of the Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations in Chicago. 23 He left Washington with a strong sense of unfinished business: he still believed the federal government, for all its shortcomings, was the single most powerful force for fighting poverty and advancing racial equality. Now able to address these matters more openly, he set out to rally external pressure for change, using his experience and expertise to expose the nation’s most harmful discriminatory practices.
Race Restrictive Covenants
Weaver’s article “Race Restrictive Housing Covenants” appeared six months after he left Washington in The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics. The choice of publication is itself noteworthy, a case of taking the fight to the enemy’s gate: since the 1920s, the journal’s founder, Richard T. Ely, and his many influential students had been devising racist real estate and home financing practices that were deployed by both private and public lending agencies. These practices included racial covenants — the clauses inserted by developers or homeowners into property deeds that prohibited owners, in perpetuity, from selling or renting to “non-Caucasians” or specified minoritized groups (Black, Jewish, Native American, Puerto Rican, Japanese, etc.). They had the overt aim of preventing “infiltration” into White areas and supposedly protecting property values over the long term. 24
Weaver emphasized that racial covenants created ‘false security’ because, in practice, they did not actually work.
In his article, Weaver focused on northern cities; he examined how housing shortages for Black people, already acute due to the wartime migration, were being exacerbated by racial covenants. As he argued, these covenants, imposed in areas adjacent to existing Black neighborhoods, effectively “hemmed in” residents, no matter their financial resources, and forced them to double-up and pay over-the-odds for substandard housing. But Weaver went beyond these reasonably well-understood observations. Countering the prevailing wisdom of those in Ely’s circle, he emphasized that covenants created “false security” because, in practice, they did not actually work. In fact, because they only slowed expansion, rather than halting it, the covenants put “extreme pressures” on the housing supply; the moment racial covenants were breached, Black people “rushed in,” stoking fears of invasion and leading to White flight. What racial covenants thus produced were not stable land values, as economists and policymakers promised, but rather rapid physical deterioration and plunging property values, neighborhood instability and decline.
Weaver explored these patterns in Chicago’s South Side — the most notorious “Black Belt” in America, thanks to Richard Wright’s bestselling Native Son of 1940, which had unforgettably dramatized its extreme pressures. 25 Although the frequent subject of sociological literature since the 1920s, the South Side had also been recently profiled in two major academic studies: Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental 1944 book The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which Weaver cited extensively, and the remarkable WPA-funded study Black Metropolis, published a year later. 26 Weaver acknowledged the violence that occurred when White populations sought to resist integration by quoting Myrdal on the many ways in which Blacks were “terrorized,” and by showing that Black communities were caught in a perpetual downward cycle that inevitably reduced their neighborhoods to ghettoes.
At this point Weaver articulated his central message: the only way to break the cycle was to make public and private housing available for Black people at all income levels. As a start, local housing authorities had to develop new low-income housing “elsewhere”; that is, not in “Black Belts.” Weaver noted that existing projects provided ample evidence that Blacks appreciated well-designed housing; what’s more, rent collection data showed they were reliable tenants. “The Negro,” he wrote, “is proving to be a good tenant and a good neighbor.” Weaver also set out the obstacles facing higher-income Black families. Despite evidence that they were a “good or better risk than white mortgagors,” private developers rarely built for them. Consequently, more privileged Black families resorted to buying older structures in transitional neighborhoods at inflated prices; these families had become, said Weaver, with a rare show of heat, a “handy dumping-ground for obsolescent property.”
Black communities were caught in a downward cycle that reduced their neighborhoods to ghettoes.
Weaver’s proposal for resolving this last impasse was disappointing. He suggested that the “integrity” of neighborhoods could be protected not by racial covenants but instead by occupancy covenants ensuring that homes were sold only to single families of any color. This idea — effectively to replace covenants restricted by race with those restricted by class — was not at all well received and hardly helped his longstanding reputation for elitism in the Black press. But at least we can understand what he was aiming for. 27 Weaver wanted to prevent the swift decline of transitional areas and, in this way, discourage White owners from fleeing as Black ones arrived. His stance reflected the rise of racial liberalism, which held that racial antagonism was caused by ignorance and myth. If guided instead by fact-driven social planning — Myrdal openly spoke of “social engineering” — the races would then learn to live together. 28 This belief informed the nascent open housing movement, which maintained that racial integration would be achieved if neighborhoods were developed in a controlled way. The sight of these harmonious interracial neighborhoods, in turn, would convince Americans that integration worked.
“More than Racial Covenants”
Any radicalism in Weaver’s article is obscured by his even-handed tone; he was uncomfortable with the full-throated battle cry of the rights crusader. As Catherine Bauer, his longstanding ally in the fair housing movement, explained to an editor: “if [his writing is] a bit heavy and academic in spots it’s probably due to the fact that he was leaning over backward to sound objective.” 29 Still, in her personal conversation with Weaver, Bauer took up the issue of tone after reading draft chapters of The Negro Ghetto, including an updated discussion of covenants. A passionate believer in the need to inspire citizens to care about housing, Bauer pushed Weaver to make a more appealing pitch. 30 After affirming the book’s value and reassuring Weaver that he was “by far the best person to do it,” she added: “I myself would probably put slightly more emphasis on … the essentially emotional springs behind economic effects and phenomena, and would base my plea somewhat more directly on moral and ethical considerations.” 31
Weaver made some amendments to his manuscript to stress these moral and psychological implications. 32 Yet there was a limit to his willingness to delve into “emotional springs” because his broader argument always stressed that the “Negro ghetto” was an economic problem or anomaly. He pointed out that it was not unusual for urban neighborhoods to deteriorate over time, especially when occupied by waves of low-income groups; typically, these groups would move to less overcrowded places as they prospered, unless artificially constrained from doing so. And these constraints, Weaver stated, were the real issue: racist devices interfered with the “rationality” of the housing market by producing unnatural obstacles and restricting mobility. “Only for housing,” he said, “are Negroes traditionally excluded from freely competing in the open market.” 33 As in 1933, when he asserted that the country’s economic recovery depended on participation from all wage earners, Weaver argued that housing discrimination prevented a significant population from fully participating in American economic and social life — and thus warped the total system.
Weaver’s economic focus was a distinct addition to the largely sociological literature on the ghetto.
Weaver’s economic focus was a distinct addition to the largely sociological literature on the ghetto. As Bauer predicted, it was a perspective that rankled some reviewers, with one even describing his book as “amoral.” 34 And from the perspective of Black Marxists and communists, such as C.L.R. James or Wright, the idea that racism could be understood as separate from capitalism — as if the free market was neutral and color-blind — no doubt seemed pure fantasy. 35 But, as a liberal reformist, Weaver aimed to attack and disprove the economic arguments that were used by “vested interests” to justify discrimination, turning their own language and logic against them. And, despite some unease, many reviewers appreciated Weaver’s debunking of “flawed” (racist) rationales, especially his close examination of how the private home finance industry, in concert with the Federal Housing Administration, used the “myth” that Black people lowered property values to support restrictive lending practices and racial covenants. 36
That it was, in fact, a myth, was one of Weaver’s most influential conclusions, for it overturned an assumption central to the entire racist lending system from redlining on down. After a careful economic analysis of data from numerous sources, including from real estate boards, Weaver categorically stated:
When significant social and economic factors in tenancy are kept constant and race becomes the only variable, few if any differences are observed in the quality of property maintenance, conditions of occupancy, and neighborhood standards, and property values do not decline … 37
In his 1944 article, Weaver focused primarily on real estate operators and neighborhood associations; in his book, he painted a fuller picture of the private and public forces that were perpetrating racist housing policies, including the FHA. Yet he was keen to not overstate the role of any single force in skewing the housing market: pointedly, he subtitled one chapter “More than Racial Covenants.” 38 In this important chapter he traced the intertwining web of formal and informal factors that together distorted the housing market in the urban North, citing seven other factors in addition to covenants: organized White opposition; real estate boards’ “codes of ethics”; FHA acceptance and perpetuation of those practices; neglect of the Black housing market by private builders and financial institutions; local government fears that new housing would encourage Black migration; local political action to restrict Black residents to given areas; and the development of “one-class” neighborhoods. 39
The failings of the federal government deserved particular censure due to its constitutional — and moral — obligations to protect Black civil and property rights.
Rothstein describes The Negro Ghetto as chronicling “how government segregated the nation,” but this is clearly reductive. 40 Weaver took pains to explain the myriad of forces that drove residential segregation; he offered numerous examples of how prejudice, vested interests, and realpolitik could derail Black or integrated housing at any stage, from site acquisition to financing to tenant selection and sales. In his account, many actors were involved in the total housing market and many worked to reinforce racist devices. He portrayed the federal government’s approach not as resolutely segregationist but rather as mixed, with intermittent efforts by some agencies to break down racial barriers undermined by other federal programs or by state or local actors. Yet he also argued that the failings of the federal government deserved particular censure because of its constitutional — and moral — obligations to protect Black civil and property rights and to ensure they benefited equally from public monies acquired through taxation.
In the chapter that followed “More than Racial Covenants,” Weaver took aim at racial covenants themselves. In compelling depth and detail, he again explained why these “vicious” devices were so “dangerous” to many segments of American society, though their impact on Blacks remained his focus. By giving “legal sanction … and the appearance of respectability to residential segregation,” Weaver said, covenants facilitated exploitation of Black tenants in slums, stoked violence against Black people moving to new areas, and encouraged segregationist policies in public facilities and schools. While acknowledging that covenants were “expensively promoted” by property owners, neighborhood associations, and financial institutions, Weaver directly condemned the federal government for tolerating them: “If Federal funds are used to assist in acquiring land or housing Americans, it seems inconceivable that such land … can or should be covenanted against a segment of the public, solely on the basis of color.” 41
It might seem as if Weaver here contradicted his earlier point that the effectiveness of covenants should not be overstated. But his reason for spotlighting them now was strategic: if not the most effective of racist practices, restrictive covenants were among the most obvious and tangible. This tangibility, along with the state’s complicity in their use, made covenants a logical target for legal action. And in these years, as a member of the newly formed American Council on Race Relations, Weaver was part of the NAACP-led coalition, also involving Bill Hastie, that would challenge them in the courts. Notably, after the Supreme Court agreed to hear four restrictive covenant cases in 1947, Weaver and sociologist Louis Wirth prepared a novel memorandum about their destructive economic and social effects for the lawyers to use in briefings. This memo drew substantially on The Negro Ghetto manuscript. 42
Perhaps counterintuitively, it was the state’s now central role in housing and home ownership in the United States — through FHA mortgage insurance, Veterans Administration mortgage guarantees, and HOLC loan schemes — that made Weaver and other activists hopeful: it meant the federal government possessed the power to bring about large-scale change. As Catherine Bauer observed, due to its extensive involvement in housing at all levels, the government had a strong “instrument against segregation” — if it chose to wield it. 43 Weaver believed that the government would choose to use this instrument — or would be compelled to do so by coordinated campaigns by progressive groups, such as those against covenants. His book thus ended on a confident note, envisioning a racially democratic postwar shelter program in which an anti-segregationist federal government would put its “stamp of approval” on open housing, and help plan and build integrated communities.
The first step towards fulfilling this vision was taken more quickly than even Weaver dared hope. Right before his book’s release, in May 1948, the Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking decision in the racial covenant cases, ruling that while covenants were not illegal, they could no longer be enforced by the state. Weaver’s publishers then sought to rush publication to capitalize on interest in the decision. In his typically understated way, Weaver welcomed the move, expressing hope that The Negro Ghetto would encourage “the substitution of fact for fancy” in future discussions of the issue. 44 And he knew there would be future discussions: racial covenants were only the thin end of the wedge as far as challenges to residential segregation were concerned. Over the next decades, the innovative socio-legal argument which Weaver and his allies established in the covenant cases would point the way for many of these civil rights cases. 45
Disappointingly, but not unexpectedly, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the Federal Housing Authority did not forswear its preference for racially separate neighborhoods; the agency continued to insure developers, such as Levitt & Sons, which openly discriminated against minoritized groups. 46 For many scholars, the toleration of racist practices by housing agencies established during the New Deal has clouded the era’s legacy. Rothstein argues that these agencies sought to produce residential segregation where none had existed; in other words, that segregation was de jure not de facto. And given the devastating long-term effects on Black communities, Ta-Nehisi Coates has influentially argued that the government should pay reparations. 47 Yet others, including Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal, warn that “excessive state blaming” risks reinforcing the right-wing argument that “government is the problem not the solution” to societal inequalities. 48
Weaver’s career and copious writings add nuance to this polarized debate. In particular, his early years in Washington summon up the febrile and experimental nature of the New Deal at a moment when the federal government was claiming new authority in many spheres. Towards the end of his life, in an interview conducted in the early 1990s, Weaver reasserted the radicality of the New Deal agenda, but stressed that civil rights were not its priority. 49 Yet the racial impacts of New Deal programs did not go unremarked or uncontested either. Black Cabinet members emerged as “in-house critics,” developing strategies that would inform subsequent civil rights and affirmative action campaigns. Importantly, as historian Arnold Hirsch has argued, they staked out a more expansive definition of “racial equity,” that would supersede “separate but equal.” 50
Nor did the Black Cabinet’s hard-won experience disappear. It returned to government not least through the figure of Weaver himself, who came back to Washington and federal service in the early 1960s. In the intervening years, he worked at the American Council on Race Relations and co-founded the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing; as historian Thomas J. Sugrue notes, the NCDH was vital to the rise of an organized open housing movement — a broad interracial coalition of faith groups, labor unions, and civic organizations. 51 Weaver also dove into municipal and state politics, serving first as New York State Rent Administrator and then as one of three members of New York City’s Housing and Redevelopment Board, charged with overhauling the country’s largest and most controversial urban renewal program.
Despite these experiences, Weaver’s return to federal government service was hardly inevitable. Many observers, and Weaver himself, were surprised when, in 1961, newly elected president John F. Kennedy proposed he take charge of the Housing and Home Finance Agency. Because the HHFA combined public housing, home financing, and renewal programs, this appointment would make the former New Deal race relations watchdog the leader of New Frontier housing and urban programs, with a staff 11,000 strong. And, in no little irony, the role included oversight of the FHA. 52
This was an audacious move on Kennedy’s part. Weaver’s allegiances and his advocacy of open housing were well known: not only had he previously been president of the NCDH; at that very moment, he was chair of the NAACP’s board of directors — associations that underscore a surprising degree of fluidity between civil rights groups and government. 53 Predictably, Weaver’s nomination alarmed real estate lobbyists and southern segregationists, who levied the undeniable charge that the candidate was “prejudiced” towards integration. Yet Weaver was approved; only later would he confront more effective resistance.
In his later years of government service, Weaver was chagrined to see symbolic commitment to racial justice followed by executive caution or legislative defeat.
Weaver enjoyed some early success with the passage of the Housing Bill of 1961, which modestly expanded support for existing housing and renewal programs. At the same time, however, Kennedy wavered on his election pledge — and personal assurance to Weaver — to sign an executive order that would end housing discrimination with “one stroke of the pen.” After a damning report from the Civil Rights Commission and sustained campaigning from the NCDH, Kennedy at last signed the Executive Order for Equal Opportunity in Housing of 1962, prohibiting discrimination in federally financed housing — but, to Weaver’s chagrin, the order did not extend to that which was privately financed. Meanwhile, Kennedy’s attempt to create a new Department of Urban Affairs was defeated, in part due to southern legislators’ antipathy to Weaver, whom Kennedy had named as its likely head. 54
These experiences set the pattern for Weaver’s next years in government: symbolic commitment to racial justice followed by executive caution or legislative defeat. As the New Frontier gave way to the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson, a former New Dealer like Weaver, would press forward with an extraordinary volume of progressive legislation, most famously the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. The Johnson administration also established the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, in 1966, Weaver was approved — this time unanimously — as its first secretary. 55 But Johnson’s agenda stalled at fair housing legislation, which proved too divisive to pass. Instead, the federal government doubled down on renewal programs, which many blamed for intensifying racial conflicts in the first place. Weaver — a vocal past critic of these programs — now served as their ever more rigid defender.
Weaver seemed sincerely to believe urban renewal could be implemented more humanely and attractively — this was one rationale for the Model Cities program, which sought to coordinate housing and social programs through renewal projects. 56 But this stance alienated many of his colleagues in civil rights circles, who saw renewal as irredeemable due to its brutal entrenchment of social inequities. 57 And they were now far less inclined to go along with Weaver’s cool, moderate approach. When lobbying Kennedy to sign the executive order, housing campaigners had been content to deluge the president with pens by mail. A few years later, they were engaging in direct action, staging demonstrations and realtor sit-ins. These protests could quickly flare into violence: Martin Luther King, Jr. was aghast at the “hate” he encountered on his open housing marches through Chicago’s working-class White neighborhoods in 1966.
In a militant decade, Weaver’s cool, moderate approach alienated many of his colleagues in civil rights circles.
This more militant turn, and the hardening of opposition witnessed in Chicago and elsewhere, led activists to question Weaver’s other significant goal — fair housing legislation — which he continued to pursue alongside renewal. Despite growing questioning both of integration as a goal and the possibility of achieving it through legal means, Weaver remained committed to it. He believed fair housing legislation was essential to preventing Black people from being “hemmed in” to ghettos: only when freedom of choice and movement in housing was guaranteed could equality of opportunity be unlocked, whether in cities or in suburbs. This was crucial for improving access to jobs, healthcare, and schools: unless housing was desegregated, Weaver noted, schools would remain de facto segregated too. 58
It was in this charged context that Weaver’s decision to reissue of The Negro Ghetto becomes significant. By 1967, many assumed that a fair housing bill was all but impossible: opposition was too strident; Johnson’s political capital too diminished by Vietnam. But in the preface to the new edition, Weaver expressed the hope that people would again rally to the cause when reminded of “the toll the Negro Ghetto extracts from all elements of our society.” 59 Tellingly, he signed the preface simply “R.C.W.,” distancing himself from his cabinet position and giving himself license to re-present earlier facts and analyses, which he felt still mostly held. In his view, the main change was that the FHA’s overtly racist practices had, since Kennedy’s Executive Order, been reigned in (though with considerable resistance on its part). In Weaver’s account, the government’s reform of its own agencies now left the real estate industry as “the principal institution” in creating and maintaining racial ghettos and attacking open housing. 60
While Weaver’s exoneration of government agencies and renewal programs stretched credulity, his insistence that antidiscrimination laws would never be effective unless they also extended to private entities was hard to dispute. Crucially, Johnson recognized the need for stronger federal laws and, against expectations, sought to pass another fair housing bill. At first, despite energetic lobbying, the bill stalled in Congress in March 1968, and seemed likely to fail. Tragically, the assassination of King, on April 4, gave it a surge of momentum and one week later, on April 11, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, widely known as the Fair Housing Act, was signed into law by Johnson, prohibiting discrimination in public and private housing. One month after that, a second major bill, the Housing and Urban Development Act, was passed, greatly increasing funding for the production of more low- and moderate-income housing.
Within a year, Weaver and Johnson would both leave public office; Weaver had already informed Johnson in March of his intention to resign, fulfilling a promise made to his beloved wife, Ella. Although arguably exiting on a career high, Weaver’s reaction to his achievements — to legislation barely imaginable in his Black Cabinet years — was restrained. Possibly this was due to fatigue after so many eventful years. 61 Or possibly it reflected his long experience; he knew that the actual success of the new laws would depend on implementation — on funding, staffing, and enforcement. As if to prove the point, the Fair Housing Act was immediately weakened: Weaver’s request for $11 million to staff a national network of fair housing offices was cut by Congress to $2 million. 62
HUD programs would be challenged in the 1970s and beyond, with a moratorium on federal housing construction and the elimination of almost all public housing.
Indeed, many of the programs Weaver oversaw at HUD would be challenged in the 1970s and beyond. The gathering retreat from New Deal/Great Society liberalism was exemplified by the moratorium on federal housing construction, imposed by the administration of Richard Nixon in 1973; this was soon followed by the elimination of almost all public housing programs and their replacement by rent-subsidy programs, such as Section 8 vouchers. But Weaver did not speak out against these publicly, at least not loudly. He mostly shifted his energies to academia, serving as president of Baruch College and then as a professor at Hunter College. He also took on consultancies and board positions, including at the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which was charged with rescuing New York City from insolvency.
Pritchett suggests that Weaver’s relatively marginal role in national debates between the 1970s and 1990s reflects the emergent political consensus that market-centric neoliberal solutions were the best way to solve housing problems. 63 Even if he did not agree with these solutions, Weaver was likely to take a long-range view. In a series of fascinating interviews, conducted by future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly after Kennedy’s death, Weaver comes across as the most determined of realists. At every turn, he resisted Moynihan’s efforts to push him to speculate about unmet goals, or to consider how his actions would be judged in the future; that assessment, he insisted, was the job of historians. At one point, invited to comment on the ruinous effects of Eisenhower’s interstate highway program on American city centers, Weaver responded, only, “it’s never too late to mend.” 64
The fight for fair housing has been restaged in every generation.
“It’s never too late to mend” is, on one level, an empowering message. But it can also be understood as a warning: programs are not permanent or irreversible; fights are never decisively “won.” This has certainly been the case with the long struggle for antidiscrimination in housing, which has been restaged by every generation in response to shifting political, legal, economic, social, and now environmental imperatives. Most recently, we have had President Joe Biden’s 2021 memorandum on discriminatory housing practices. Here, Biden acknowledges the failings of the federal government; the memo radically affirms its obligation to take actions to “undo historic patterns of segregation” and to “afford access to long-denied opportunities.” 65 In his measured way, Weaver would no doubt have welcomed this turn. He never wavered from the conviction that the federal government was essential to solving housing inequality. But his faith in government was also tempered by an awareness that it could not achieve this goal alone: a wide array of actors had to align to achieve racially democratic housing, driven along by legal measures and citizens’ campaigns and sustained, as ever, by the facts.
Race Restrictive Housing Covenants
by Robert C. Weaver
1. Negro Occupancy and Neighborhood Structure
The rapid influx of Negroes into industrial centers during the first World War and its aftermath was associated with physical and neighborhood blight in areas where these new industrial workers were concentrated. While there is far from agreement as to the initial influence of this “invasion” upon property values, there can be no doubt of the physical decay which occurred. In every instance, the pressure of mounting populations upon a limited supply of housing resulted in overcrowding, conversions, and excessive wear and tear. It was inevitable that rents per unit would rise, and it was no less inevitable that the life of the buildings would be shortened.
This, of course, is an old, established process. It occurs whenever a neighborhood is occupied successively by families of low income. In the case of the Negro, there is an artificial restriction of the number of housing units available for his occupancy, and the process is accelerated and intensified. This rapid deterioration of the neighborhoods has become associated with racial characteristics. As a matter of fact, it is a process which occurs regardless of race or color. But the majority of citizens expect the occupancy of property by Negroes to occasion inevitable physical decay, neighborhood deterioration, and decline in property values. People do not stop to recall that many areas and their presence did not give rise to the results which are expected today. Nor are they impressed by the instances where there are a few Negroes in an area and where whites remain without loss in property values or blight to the neighborhood.
As a result of beliefs about Negro occupancy, an elaborate and extensive system of race restrictive covenants has arisen.
As a result of the general beliefs about Negro occupancy, an elaborate and extensive system of race restrictive covenants has arisen. These are compacts entered into by a group of property owners and real estate operators in a given neighborhood who have agreed not to sell, rent, lease, or otherwise convey their property to colored people for a definite period unless all agree to the transaction. There are two motivating forces behind the spread of these covenants: race prejudice and interest in property values. From the point of view of democratic ideals, race prejudice is a danger to American cities. Certainly it is not a valid basis for a socially undesirable institution, and the restriction of colored citizens to limited areas has extremely unsocial results for the masses of Negroes and for our cities. Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma has described the current situation as follows:
Segregation has little effect on the great bulk of poor Negroes except to overcrowd them and increase housing costs, since their poverty and common needs would separate them voluntarily from the whites, just as any European immigrant group is separated. The presence of a small scattering of upper- and middle-class Negroes in a white neighborhood would not cause conflict (unless certain whites were deliberately out to make it a cause of conflict), and might sere to better race relations. The fact is neglected by the whites that there exists a Negro upper and middle class who are searching for decent homes and who, if they were not shunned by the whites, would contribute to property values in a neighborhood rather than cause them to deteriorate. The socially more serious effect of having segregation, however, is not to force this tiny group of middle- and upper-class Negroes to live among their own group, but to lay the Negro masses open to exploitation and to drive down their housing standards even below what otherwise would be economically possible.
The mass influx of Negroes into many neighborhoods has caused, and will cause, physical deterioration. This is, in itself, a by-product of restrictions on the areas in which Negroes can live. As a result of these restrictions, there are extreme pressures for colored people to find shelter. When a new area is opened to them, they rush in and the process described above takes place. Race restrictive covenants, however, have not prevented and cannot prevent the expansion of the living space for mounting Negro populations. They delay this movement, make this final break-through almost a rout, and create vested interest on the part of present occupants to keep Negroes out.
The primary causes for blight and decline in property values are not racial: they are economic.
The primary causes for blight and a decline in property values are not racial: they are economic. Many of the areas into which Negroes move are already blighted. Groups of low and uncertain earning power cannot pay rents above a certain level. When there is no available housing designed to meet their needs, they move into any structures which are open to them. Where these are large, old buildings, the new occupants double up, take in roomers, engage in questionable practices, and often receive the undesirable elements from other races who have lost face in their own group. Owners and managers of these properties have little impetus for maintaining them since usually the demand for any type of housing open to Negroes far exceeds the supply; competitive maintenance standards are eliminated as a factor in attracting and holding rental occupants. The longer additional low-rent housing units are kept inaccessible to any group in the population, the greater their push and the more rapid their general influx into high-rent neighborhoods.
Racial covenants give a sense of false security to their signers. Rather, it is economic pressure which offers protection to high-rent neighborhoods.
As Negro populations have grown in our industrial centers in the North, restrictions hemming them in have become tighter and tighter. The most complete system of race restrictions is in districts adjacent to existing Negro neighborhoods. These districts may be made up of houses now occupied by low-income families or they may be composed of dwellings occupied by middle-class whites. In the present situation, the cessation of new construction in America (except to house war workers) has created a general housing shortage. The usual process of draining off present occupants in the areas surrounding the Negro districts has stopped. Hence, there are no vacancies and no economic incentives for present occupants to move out. Owners, too, are without an economic urge to change racial occupancy, since the Office of Price Administration has generally frozen rents. The net result is a tightening of restrictions and the creation of a fetish for maintaining and strengthening racial covenants. Such agreements give a sense of false security to their signers at a time when there are no vacancies and practically no new construction. It is the economic pressure of no vacancies rather than the agreements which offers the principal protection to high-rent neighborhoods during the current war.
But this is a temporary situation. As soon as materials are released and construction revived there will be other places available to the present occupants of areas adjacent to Negro homes. Many of the present occupants will move, some because of their fear of ultimate Negro encroachment, more because of the desirability of new and better homes. The result will be vacancies, lower rentals, and a decline in values.
At the same time, there will be little new construction for Negroes and their need for housing will become relatively greater than that of any other element in the population; they will pay more per unit than any other potential tenant. The profit urge will permit racial covenants to be broken here and there, and it will prevent the renewal of racial covenants which will lapse in the near future.
In low rental neighborhoods, the pressure of potential Negro renters will be great and the mass movement of Negroes into many of these areas will be inevitable. Racial covenants, in addition to delaying it, will lead to extreme activity on the part of present occupants to preserve the racial composition of the area. The iron band against Negro occupancy will be moved back a little farther where it will be challenged ultimately by the same pressures.
Where adjacent areas are of a higher rent character, the process will be delayed and may be postponed for a period of time, depending in length upon developments elsewhere in the city. Here and there, a break-through will occur. It will be fought. But there is every reason to believe that, as the structures become older and less desirable, the restrictions will finally give way. When they do, the old pattern of occupancy with its attendant results will occur. If, however, there is an adequate supply of low-rent housing units adapted to the income and family composition of the masses of Negroes, fewer colored families will move into the high-rent areas where the size and high rental of existing structures necessitate overcrowding.
As a city develops, the patterns of its neighborhoods and land use change. The speed with which this process takes place usually varies with the rate of population growth. While population changes have furnished the background in which such shifts take place, the rate of new construction has been an even more important factor in facilitating these changes. “The added population causes a pressure for space, a rise in rents, and an increase in building,” wrote economist Homer Hoyt in The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities. “But the effect of its entry is not confined to a mere quantitative change in building supply; it also causes qualitative neighborhood changes.”
War production has required large movements of workers into American cities; at the same time, it has delayed the construction which would normally follow. This means that when materials are released there will be extreme activity in home building. The normal trend toward neighborhood change will be accelerated and with it the movement of families from older houses to newer places will be initiated. The availability of newer houses with the latest modern equipment will push all existing structures down in the scale of desirability. At the same time, the most pressing demand for these “less desirable” house will often come from the Negroes whose present needs for shelter are most acute.
2. Negro Housing in Chicago
The expansion of housing facilities available to Negroes in northern urban centers follows a fairly well-established pattern. It varies from place to place in specific details, but its overall features are rather universal. The most striking examples of this process are found in cities where there are sizable Negro populations and where in-migration has been rapid and concentrated. Chicago is one such city; it is especially significant for this analysis since there are current as well as World War-I data for it.
Negroes have lived in Chicago since the city’s incorporation, and prior to World War I they were fairly widely distributed geographically. When, after 1910, the city began to grow rapidly, Negroes were not able to get into new areas which were opened up to residential use. As Myrdal wrote, “The South Side area — largest in 1910 — has expanded enormously in a thin strip, which has come to be known as Chicago’s ‘Black Belt,’ and the other areas have also expanded slightly, but no new areas within the city proper have been open to Negroes.” Myrdal has described the process in Chicago as follows:
The history of the expansion of the Chicago South Side Black Belt has exhibited the full gamut of Negro housing problems. The constant immigration of Southern Negroes into this segregated area caused doubling-up of families, the taking in of lodgers, the conversion of once spacious homes and apartments into tiny flats, the crowding of an entire family into a single room, the rapid raising of rents, the use of buildings which should be condemned. … Light industry, wholesale commercial establishments, gambling and vice resorts have been pressing the poorer Negroes southward from the direction of the downtown area. The holding of land for speculation, the high cost of building, the lack of capital have left huge gaps of vacant land in the midst of the most over-crowded Negro areas in the northern half of the Black Belt. The west boundary of the section is sharply delineated by a series of railroad tracks which cut off the Negroes from their poorer white neighbors. The south ward expansion has been marked by bitter conflict between the dispossessed whites and the harassed Negroes.
Organizations have been set up to prevent any white owners from selling or renting to Negroes; Negroes who succeeded in getting a foothold, or whites who seemed inclined to give them one for large sums of money, were terrorized and physically maltreated; bitter fear and hatred has marked many of the other contacts between whites and Negroes because of the whites’ beliefs that the Negroes were dangerous to their persons and property. There has been practically no expansion to the east despite all Negro pressures and needs. The housing difficulties of the Negroes in Chicago are apparent at every point, and yet neither the City Council nor any other white groups have been willing to do anything about it.
At the present, however, something has to be done about this problem. Chicago has been an area of racial tension for the past few years, and it is generally admitted that there can be no permanent easement of this tension until something fundamental is done about the housing of Negroes in the city. In its simplest terms, it is the old, old problem of finding more space in which Negroes can live. Of course, there are matters of slum clearance, reclamation of blighted areas, and enforcement of health and sanitary codes; but all of these proposals are dependent upon finding places in which the overcrowded Negro population can be drained off temporarily and permanently. The need is manifest. The method of achieving it with the minimum of difficulty is not clear. But there are some leads.
There can be no easement of racial tension in Chicago until something fundamental is done about the housing of Negroes in the city.
The Chicago Plan Commission recently prepared a memorandum on the Population in the South Side Negro Area. In 1939 the main South Side Negro area had 252,201 persons living in 4.2 square miles. The Plan Commission observes that such “a density is more than is desirable were the area occupied entirely by three-story walk-up apartments, whereas much of it is taken up with smaller structures.” According to the Chicago Residential Land Use Plan, this area had an excess population of about 87,300 persons. Even if it had been built up to the maximum, with a density of 50,000 per square mile, there would have been an excess population of 16,200. The commission concludes: “By either method of attaining a desirable density in the main South Side Negro area, there would be an excess population which would have to be provided for else where.” There are two other South Side areas now largely occupied by Negroes and surrounded by vacant land adaptable to residential development. These areas, if built up with single-family homes, as their location would suggest, could house 12,000 persons per gross square mile, and the total land available in them would accommodate 200 persons. If, through a combination of single-family homes and group houses, these areas were developed at a density of 15,000 per gross square mile, 40,000 could be housed in them.
There are several other areas of Negro occupancy in Chicago. All are small and all have excessive populations. It is extremely doubtful if the Negro population of 1939 could have been housed in the existing Negro areas without involving higher densities than are desirable. Also, it must be remembered that the two outlying areas on the South Side are only theoretically open to Negro occupancy. Recent plans for locating public and private housing projects in them have met violent opposition from whites who have come to feel that they have vested interests even in vacant land contiguous to their homes. In addition, some 70,000 more Negroes have come into Chicago since 1939. They are chiefly concentrated in the main South Side Negro section, and they have added to the pressure and over-crowding in this and other areas open to Negroes.
Since this large migration has occurred there has been practically no expansion of the supply of housing open to Negroes. On the contrary, there has been a rapid extension of race restrictive covenants. In Park Manor, for example, the Improvement Association has had a second racial covenant executed by such property owners in the district as did not sign the first one. The association reports that, in the 104 blocks it covers, the property is practically 100 per cent restricted against Negro occupancy. There is a public housing project under construction far south, a private development under construction in one of the South Side “Negro areas,” and a public housing project planned in the same area.
Statistics can be and often are misleading. Although the figures quoted above indicate the need for new areas and new housing units for Negroes, they do not reflect the whole picture nor the true size of the problem. Plans for rehabilitating the South Side must involve the demolition and complete renovation of many buildings which are now occupied. If there is to be an effective job in this regard, it will have to be done on a large scale, preferably in large units at a time, for according to the Chicago Plan Commission, “a new building on any small parcel of blighted land would lose much of its value immediately upon completion because of the adverse surroundings.” The enforcement of health and sanitary codes, too, will require additional demolition. While any such programs are under way, present occupants, many of whom are now living almost on top of one another, will have to find some place to live.This means that any real rehabilitation of the in-lying Negro areas will create an additional demand for more space and more houses for Negroes.
Already the pressure of the mounting Negro population has led to the movement of colored people into new areas. In one instance, they have gone into a run-down building on the West Side; in another, they have moved into an old area on the near Northwest Side and have been abused by their Italian neighbors. In still another instance, they were moved into a building which was leased from a bank; this building was covered by a race restrictive covenant and the bank has gone to court to get possession. Because there was no place for the colored families to move, the court stayed their eviction; it also avoided a decision on the legality of racial restrictions. There was, in the early spring of 1944, evidence that the pressure of numbers and the pressure of economic motivation is again forcing the Negro to break out of the existing ghetto. There is no indication, however, that the move will do more than create another ghetto or an extension of the old one. Save for the three projects noted above, no steps have been taken to open additional areas for the swelling Negro population.
The present situation had many parallels just prior to the race riot in Chicago after World War I. As Charles Johnson wrote in The Negro in Chicago:
Practically no new building had been done in the city during the war, and it was a physical impossibility for a doubled Negro population to live in the space occupied in 1915. Negroes spread out of what had been known as the “Black Belt” into neighborhoods near by which had been exclusively white. This movement … developed friction, so much so that in the “invaded” neighborhoods bombs were thrown at the houses of Negroes who had moved in. … From July 1, 1917, to July 27, 1919, the day the riot began, 24 such bombs had been thrown.
3. Negro Occupancy and Property Values
The primary need of the Negro community in industrial centers is more housing. Since this community is made up predominantly of low-income workers, the bulk of this housing should be designed to meet the needs and pocketbooks of families with limited earnings. If such housing is not available, Negroes will be forced to move into older structures poorly designed for occupancy by people of their general economic level. This will mean that there will be more conversions, more doubling up, and greater physical deterioration. On the other hand, when properly designed and managed housing is provided for low-income groups (regardless of their race), it can be and is maintained according to accepted standards. Only recently has the urban Negro dweller had a chance to prove his response to such housing. But competent observers admit that in the public housing projects constructed in the past few years, the Negro is proving to be a good tenant and a good neighbor.
In the public housing projects constructed in the past few years, the Negro is proving to be a good tenant and a good neighbor.
The units made available to colored families under this program often represent the first well-designed, new housing which they have enjoyed on anything approaching group, as opposed to isolated individual, occupancy. Already, according to Frank S. Horne of the Federal Public Housing Authority, there is a body of evidence which indicates that Negroes with steady incomes who are given the opportunity to live in new and decent homes “… instead of displaying any ‘natural’ characteristics to destroy property have, if anything, reacted better towards these new environments than any other groups of similar income.” Colored tenants have also displayed desirable rent-paying habits when housed in structures designed to meet their rent-paying ability. For 155 projects in 59 cities having two or more FPHA-aided projects, at least one of which is occupied by Negro tenants, the following results are reported: Collection losses do not exceed one per cent of the total operating incomes for a total of 142 of these projects, 72 of which are occupied by Negroes and 70 by white or other tenants. Five of the 13 projects showing rental losses in excess of one per cent are tenanted by Negroes and 8 are tenanted by whites or others. The collection loss records between the two racial groups do not differ more than one percent in 51 of the 59 cities, and the records are identical in 34.
Although private builders have not generally developed large numbers of houses for Negro occupancy, their experience in recent years affords some pertinent evidence. The Federal Housing Authority has recently stated that, “our experience with Negro mortgagors has been good, and on the basis of credit analysis we consider them as good or better risk than white mortgagors. Many FHA-insured and otherwise financed houses have been constructed on sites contiguous to public housing projects. Field investigations by the writer in a score of cities have shown that these new houses are uniformly well kept. They have usually taken on the neighborhood characteristics of maintenance which typify public housing projects. Despite these developments, public as well as private efforts have encountered much resistance incident to finding sites for Negro occupancy even in instances where the new projects are planned for vacant areas.
There are no conclusive studies on the influence of Negro occupancy upon property values. There is, however, strong evidence in everyday observations to support Alonzo Moron’s contention that “smart real estate dealers have encouraged Negroes to move into old white neighborhoods where property values had begun to decrease. In the change of settlement, the same houses automatically acquire a higher resale value or command higher rentals; while, in the case of rent property, the assessed valuation for tax purposes continues to decrease as if there had been no reversal of the income trend.” Certainly during the transitional period many of the white owners are encouraged to sell by the lure of higher prices than are current for similar properties in other sections of the city, and investors often turn to Negro occupancy in order to halt temporarily the natural decline in income and values.
In American cities, the Negro has become a handy dumping-ground for obsolescent property.
Because private builders have generally failed to provide new housing to meet the needs of upper- and middle-class Negroes, these groups have been forced to go into existing structures. The owners in a transitional area have a monopoly on the available supply; this means that many Negroes buy homes simply because that is the only way they can get decent housing. It also means that the selling price is usually above the market value prior to Negro occupancy. It is inevitable that after the transition is made the value will decline in accordance with the trends in property values in the particular area. It is also inevitable that many of the new buyers will find it difficult to maintain old structures on which they are contracted to pay an extremely large proportion of their earnings. In American cities, the Negro has become a handy dumping-ground for obsolescent property. There is a psychological factor — evidence at times of conspicuous consumption — in this, for the higher income Negro family often proudly moves into areas where property is being abandoned because it no longer meets modern needs. These families usually pay excessive prices for houses which have become obsolete because of changes in the size of families of certain classes or because of changes in living habits.
Equally important as the observations made above is the influence of the Negro’s economic status upon the value of the property he occupies. The income from property in the Negro ghetto fluctuates widely and conspicuously. This occurs because the area is so concentrated, and the incomes of its occupants are so unstable, that the area reacts more or less as a unit. In periods of depression, there is a great decline in the earnings of the masses of Negroes, and property incomes in the area fall appreciably. When it is remembered that areas are opened to Negroes during periods of intense industrial activity, it is clear that the subsequent decline in property incomes and values is due to the fact that the majority of the occupants are insecure marginal workers.
If there is a genuine desire to protect property values in high-rent areas contiguous to the Black Belt, there is a more effective instrument than a restriction based on race, creed, or color. As we have noted above, racial covenants may delay Negro occupancy, but they are not an absolute bar; once they give way at any point — under the pressure of the swelling housing needs of Negroes — they no longer prevent the mass influx of Negroes. Nor do they offer protection against the invasion of white tenants of low income — tenants who will also, because of economic necessity, resort to over-crowding and the acceptance of roomers. Most important for property values, however, is the fact that under the current system of racial covenants and its mental framework, once there are a few Negroes in an area, the whites move out en masse. It is this movement of the whites out — rather than the movement of a few Negroes in — that leads to a drastic fall in property values. For once there are vacancies, Negroes, without regard to income, standards of living or community attitudes, rush in. They are looking for some place to live. Many are not concerned primarily with neighborhoods or housing standards.
If, instead of restrictions on account of race, creed, and color, there were agreements binding property owners not to sell or lease except to single families, barring excessive roomers, and otherwise dealing with the type of occupancy, properties would be better protected during both white and Negro occupancy. This would afford an opportunity for the Negro who has the means and the urge to live in a desirable neighborhood and it would protect the “integrity of the neighborhood.” It would also prevent, or at least lessen, the exodus of all whites upon the entrance of a few Negroes. But it would do more; it would become an important factor in removing racial covenants in other improved and vacant areas. Such action would permit areas open to Negro occupancy to expand more normally. It would provide more space and housing units for colored people. This, in turn, would lessen the pressure upon other, ill-adapted (from the economic point of view) neighborhoods, permit selective in-migration of Negroes into such areas, and reinforce the type of protection mentioned above.
The only permanent protection to values in the better class neighborhoods contiguous to present Negro occupancy is to secure adequate space and housing for the colored population elsewhere. If, as has been said before, this housing is well located and well designed, it will be more desirable to low-income Negro families than are the existing structures in the high-rent neighborhoods. Were such facilities available, the demand of Negroes for high-rent houses in neighborhoods near to the Black Belt would be small. Those who sought such houses would, as in the case of earlier in-migrant groups, be largely persons of comparable or higher cultural and economic status than the present inhabitants. The infiltration of such people, if properly timed and understood, would not lead to mass exodus of present white occupants. It would not occasion physical decay; it would not lead to a decline in property values.
From this analysis, it follows that race restrictive covenants are, in the end, the death knell to white occupancy and desirable occupancy standards in the high-rent areas contiguous to the Black Belt. This follows because the existence of similar racial covenants elsewhere in the city diverts a low-income group from its normal avenues of expansion. Because it cannot go elsewhere, it follows a geographic path of slow but steady and inevitable expansion. When higher income whites “protect” their property against Negroes (what they should be concerned about is not racial occupancy, but occupancy standards and neighborhood integrity), other whites “protect” their property against Negroes too. It is this latter fact which constitutes the greatest threat to the high-rent areas.
4. What Can Be Done
Negroes move into northern cities principally in response to economic demands. Thus the two great waves of Negro migration into industrial centers have been incident to the labor demands of two World Wars. In the first, the migration of Negroes was initiated early because there was an immediate and pressing demand for their labor in war plants. In World War II, Negroes did not begin to move into industrial centers until the fall of 1942, long after there had been heavy in-migration of white workers. During both wars, the restrictions on areas into which colored workers could live created serious economic, social, and racial problems. At the end of World War I, housing figured largely as the principal cause for the race riots which spread throughout the country.
At the end of World War I, housing was the principal cause for race riots throughout the country.
Some cities view the in-migration of large numbers of Negroes with alarm and hesitate to improve their housing lest it encourage the arrival of more colored people or discourage the out-migration of those who have moved in recently. Such an attitude is unrealistic. As has been pointed out above, the mass movement of Negroes (as of all the elements in the population) is motivated primarily by the prospect of job opportunities. If there continue to be expanding needs for workers, Negroes will continue to move into industrial centers, regardless of the availability of adequate shelter. On the other hand, when there are less economic opportunities the rate of in-migration will diminish. The stability and growth of Negro population in urban centers during the past three decades is amply attested by census data. Past population trends indicate that the great bulk of colored in-migrants are in our cities to stay. It is doubtful if the availability of housing will influence this movement very much. The problem which our cities face, therefore, is to provide adequate, decent housing for their increasing Negro populations.
The analysis which has been presented above indicates that: Negroes need more housing; this housing should be designed to meet the rent-paying ability and family composition of its occupants; more land area must be opened to the use of colored people; and racial occupancy restrictions prevent a rational approach to this problem. The pressure of numbers and the changes in property use which will come once construction is revived will inevitably lead to extensions in the areas and facilities occupied by Negroes. This can be achieved in an unplanned manner, or it may be planned. If the former occurs, racial tensions and possible conflict are inevitable; if the latter is engineered, these tensions can be minimized, and conflict may be avoided.
A community wishing to meet this problem in a constructive manner should take the following action:
First: Plan now to make new housing available to Negroes. Municipal authorities should prepare for well-conceived public housing projects, and private enterprise should be encouraged to develop planned communities. These actions should be followed by large-scale slum clearance and reclamation projects. Every effort should be made to prevent building up new ghettos. The extent to which privately financed developments can meet the needs of Negroes depends upon the wages and degree of steady employment Negroes receive in the postwar period.
Second: Be sure that this new housing is located and designed to meet the requirements of the market. It should be available at rents or at selling prices within the reach of its occupants so that they will not have to resort to doubling-up and over-crowding. Group developments will be required, and there should be enforceable occupancy standards.
Third: Take steps now to open new, non-segregated areas to Negro occupancy. It is important to keep these new areas open to all racial groups in the population so that any of these groups can expand in the future without encountering the opposition of other groups which have vested interests in certain neighborhoods.
Fourth: Become informed about the limitations and ultimate social costs of race restrictive covenants. They do not protect property values; they prevent a rational approach to the housing of minorities; they establish ghettos; and they create economic and social problems which lead to racial tensions. As long as they are widespread, each increase in Negro population will occasion the same problems which we now face.