Detroit, 1941. The Federal Housing Administration required a developer to build a wall separating his whites-only project from nearby African American residences.
EXCLUSIONARY ZONING ORDINANCES could be, and have been, successful in keeping low-income African Americans, indeed all low-income families, out of middle-class neighborhoods. But for those wanting to segregate America, zoning solved only half the problem. Zoning that created neighborhoods of only single-family homes could not keep out middle-class African Americans. Herbert Hoover’s seemingly race-neutral zoning recommendations could not prevent African Americans who could afford to live in expensive communities from doing so.
Frequently, the African Americans who attempted to pioneer the integration of white middle-class neighborhoods were of higher social status than their white neighbors, and they were rarely of lower status. The incident that provoked Baltimore to adopt its racial zoning ordinance in 1910 was a prominent African American lawyer moving onto a majority white block. Economic zoning without racial exclusion could not have prevented Frank Stevenson or his African American co-workers from moving into Milpitas subdivisions where many of their white Ford union brothers were settling.
To ban Frank Stevenson and his friends, different tools were needed. The federal government developed them in full contempt of its constitutional obligations. First, the government embarked on a scheme to persuade as many white families as possible to move from urban apartments to single-family suburban homes. Then, once suburbanization was under way, the government, with explicit racial intent, made it nearly impossible for African Americans to follow.
THE FEDERAL government’s policy of racial exclusion had roots earlier in the twentieth century. The Wilson administration took the initial steps. Terrified by the 1917 Russian revolution, government officials came to believe that communism could be defeated in the United States by getting as many white Americans as possible to become homeowners—the idea being that those who owned property would be invested in the capitalist system. So in 1917 the federal Department of Labor promoted an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign, handing out “We Own Our Own Home” buttons to schoolchildren and distributing pamphlets saying that it was a “patriotic duty” to cease renting and to build a single-family unit. The department printed more than two million posters to be hung in factories and other businesses and published newspaper advertisements throughout the country promoting single-family ownership—each one had an image of a white couple or family.
Here, too, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover played an important role. Upon assuming office in 1921, he not only developed a campaign to encourage exclusionary zoning, but to complement that effort, he also headed up a new Better Homes in America organization. Although it was nominally private, Hoover served as president. The executive director was James Ford, who had overseen Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., when he designed the whites-only public housing program during World War I. The chairman of its advisory council was Vice President Calvin Coolidge, and a member was the president of the American Construction Council, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Hoover boasted that the organization was “practically directed by the Department,” which published a pamphlet, “How to Own Your Own Home,” and conducted other promotional activities. It sponsored forums in communities across the nation on the benefits of property ownership, including how to avoid “racial strife.” Such strife, Better Homes representatives probably told audiences, could be avoided by moving to single-family houses away from African Americans in urban areas. In 1923, another department publication promoted ethnic and racial homogeneity by urging potential home buyers to consider the “general type of people living in the neighborhood” before making a purchase.
Later, as president, Hoover asserted that it was “self-evident” that “every thrifty family has an inherent right to own a home.” He convened the President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, hoping, in the depths of the Depression, to revive housing construction and sales. In his opening address, he told the conference that single-family homes were “expressions of racial longing” and “[t]hat our people should live in their own homes is a sentiment deep in the heart of our race.”
On the eve of the conference, Better Homes in America published The Better Homes Manual, a compendium of housing recommendations from the organization’s leaders. James Ford explained that apartments were the worst kind of housing, frequently overcrowded because of the “ignorant racial habit” of African Americans and European immigrants. John Gries, director of the president’s conference, and James S. Taylor, chief of the Department of Commerce’s housing division, listed thirty items a prospective purchaser should consider. In the midst of the advice—such as use a dependable real estate expert, and make sure there is good transportation to work—was item number nineteen: “Buy partnership in the community. ‘Restricted residential districts’ may serve as protection against persons with whom your family won’t care to associate, provided the restrictions are enforced and are not merely temporary.” There was little doubt about who the persons to be avoided might be.
The conference documents themselves, written and endorsed by some of the nation’s most prominent racial segregationists, clarified what restricted residential districts should accomplish. One member of the conference planning committee was Frederick Ecker, president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, who chaired a committee on financing homeownership. His report, adopted and published by the federal government, recommended that zoning laws be supplemented by deed restrictions to prevent “incompatible ownership occupancy”—a phrase generally understood to mean prevention of property sales to African Americans. Under Ecker’s leadership, a few years after the conference concluded, Metropolitan Life developed the largest planned community in the nation, Parkchester in New York City, from which African Americans were barred. When one apartment was sublet to a black family, Ecker had them evicted.
The Hoover conference’s committee on planning new subdivisions included Robert Whitten, who had designed Atlanta’s racial zoning scheme in 1922 that flouted the Supreme Court’s Buchanan decision. Another was Lawrence Stevenson, president-elect of National Association of Real Estate Boards, which had recently adopted its ethics rule prohibiting agents from selling homes to African Americans in white neighborhoods. The committee was headed by Harland Bartholomew, who ten years earlier had led the St. Louis Plan Commission in using zoning to evade Buchanan, while enforcing segregation.
One of the conference’s thirty-one committees was devoted to Negro housing. Its report was written by the prominent social scientist, Charles S. Johnson, with help from other African American experts. It documented violence against African Americans who attempted to live in previously white neighborhoods but issued no call for measures to prevent this. With just a hint of disapproval, it described court permission for zoning and other legal devices to impose segregation. It concluded by recommending “the removal of legislation restrictive of Negro residence” and “that Negroes follow the trend in urban communities and move out into subdivisions in which modern homes can be built.” The report did not address the inconsistency of such proposals with the conference’s endorsement of residential segregation. Most of Johnson’s report was devoted to recommending improvements in the quality of urban apartments where African Americans were forced to live in northern cities.
The Johnson report on Negro housing garnered little attention, and the federal government’s insistence that African Americans be excluded from single-family suburbs became more explicit during the New Deal. As with the public housing programs of the PWA, federal promotion of homeownership became inseparable from a policy of racial segregation.
ALTHOUGH THE federal government had been trying to persuade middle-class families to buy single-family homes for more than fourteen years, the campaign had achieved little by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. Homeownership remained prohibitively expensive for working- and middle-class families: bank mortgages typically required 50 percent down, interest-only payments, and repayment in full after five to seven years, at which point the borrower would have to refinance or find another bank to issue a new mortgage with similar terms. Few urban working- and middle-class families had the financial capacity to do what was being asked.
The Depression made the housing crisis even worse. Many property-owning families with mortgages couldn’t make their payments and were subject to foreclosure. With most others unable to afford homes at all, the construction industry was stalled. The New Deal designed one program to support existing homeowners who couldn’t make payments, and another to make first-time homeownership possible for the middle class.
In 1933, to rescue households that were about to default, the administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). It purchased existing mortgages that were subject to imminent foreclosure and then issued new mortgages with repayment schedules of up to fifteen years (later extended to twenty-five years). In addition, HOLC mortgages were amortized, meaning that each month’s payment included some principal as well as interest, so when the loan was paid off, the borrower would own the home. Thus, for the first time, working- and middle-class home-owners could gradually gain equity while their properties were still mortgaged. If a family with an amortized mortgage sold its home, the equity (including any appreciation) would be the family’s to keep.
HOLC mortgages had low interest rates, but the borrowers still were obligated to make regular payments. The HOLC, therefore, had to exercise prudence about its borrowers’ abilities to avoid default. To assess risk, the HOLC wanted to know something about the condition of the house and of surrounding houses in the neighborhood to see whether the property would likely maintain its value. The HOLC hired local real estate agents to make the appraisals on which refinancing decisions could be based. With these agents required by their national ethics code to maintain segregation, it’s not surprising that in gauging risk HOLC considered the racial composition of neighborhoods. The HOLC created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation, with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red. A neighborhood earned a red color if African Americans lived in it, even if it was a solid middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes.
For example, in St. Louis, the white middle-class suburb of Ladue was colored green because, according to an HOLC appraiser in 1940, it had “not a single foreigner or negro.” The similarly middle-class suburban area of Lincoln Terrace was colored red because it had “little or no value today . . . due to the colored element now controlling the district.” Although the HOLC did not always decline to rescue homeowners in neighborhoods colored red on its maps (i.e., redlined neighborhoods), the maps had a huge impact and put the federal government on record as judging that African Americans, simply because of their race, were poor risks.
To solve the inability of middle-class renters to purchase single-family homes for the first time, Congress and President Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934. The FHA insured bank mortgages that covered 80 percent of purchase prices, had terms of twenty years, and were fully amortized. To be eligible for such insurance, the FHA insisted on doing its own appraisal of the property to make certain that the loan had a low risk of default. Because the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement, racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program. The FHA judged that properties would probably be too risky for insurance if they were in racially mixed neighborhoods or even in white neighborhoods near black ones that might possibly integrate in the future.
When a bank applied to the FHA for insurance on a prospective loan, the agency conducted a property appraisal, which was also likely performed by a local real estate agent hired by the agency. As the volume of applications increased, the agency hired its own appraisers, usually from the ranks of the private real estate agents who had previously been working as contractors for the FHA. To guide their work, the FHA provided them with an Underwriting Manual. The first, issued in 1935, gave this instruction: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values.” Appraisers were told to give higher ratings where “[p]rotection against some adverse influences is obtained,” and that “[i]mportant among adverse influences . . . are infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups.” The manual concluded that “[a]ll mortgages on properties protected against [such] unfavorable influences, to the extent such protection is possible, will obtain a high rating.”
The FHA discouraged banks from making any loans at all in urban neighborhoods rather than newly built suburbs; according to the Underwriting Manual, “older properties . . . have a tendency to accelerate the rate of transition to lower class occupancy.” The FHA favored mortgages in areas where boulevards or highways served to separate African American families from whites, stating that “[n]atural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences, . . . includ[ing] prevention of the infiltration of . . . lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.”
The FHA was particularly concerned with preventing school desegregation. Its manual warned that if children “are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist,” and mortgage lending in such neighborhoods would be risky.
Subsequent editions of the Underwriting Manual through the 1940s repeated these guidelines. In 1947, the FHA removed words like “inharmonious racial groups” from the manual but barely pretended that this represented a policy change. The manual still specified lower valuation when “compatibility among the neighborhood occupants” was lacking, and to make sure there was no misunderstanding, the FHA’s head told Congress that the agency had no right to require nondiscrimination in its mortgage insurance program. The 1952 Underwriting Manual continued to base property valuations, in part, on whether properties were located in neighborhoods where there was “compatibility among the neighborhood occupants.”
FHA policy in this regard was consistent. In 1941, a New Jersey real estate agent representing a new development in suburban Fanwood, about twenty miles west of Newark, attempted to sell twelve properties to middle-class African Americans. All had good credit ratings, and banks were willing to issue mortgages if the FHA would approve. But the agency stated that “no loans will be given to colored developments.” When banks told the real estate agent that without FHA endorsement they would not issue the mortgages, he approached the Prudential Life Insurance Company, which also said that although the applicants were all creditworthy, it could not issue mortgages unless the FHA approved. Today, Fanwood’s population remains 5 percent black in a county with a black population of about 25 percent.
In 1958, a white San Francisco schoolteacher, Gerald Cohn, purchased a house with an FHA-guaranteed mortgage in the Elmwood district of Berkeley. By the closing date, Mr. Cohn wasn’t ready to move in and, while keeping up his mortgage payments, rented the house to a fellow teacher, Alfred Simmons, an African American. The Berkeley chief of police asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to inquire how Mr. Simmons had managed to get into this all-white community. The bureau questioned Gerald Cohn’s neighbors in San Francisco but failed to find evidence that he had obtained his mortgage under false pretenses—in other words, that he had never intended to occupy his Berkeley home but had always planned to rent to an African American. The FBI referred the case to the U.S. attorney, who refused to prosecute because no law had been broken. The FHA, however, then blacklisted Mr. Cohn, advising him that he would be “denied the benefits of participation in the FHA insurance program” and never again be able to obtain a government-backed mortgage. The director of the San Francisco FHA office wrote to him, “This is to advise you that any application for mortgage insurance under the programs of this Administration submitted by you or any firm in which you have ten per cent interest, will be rejected on the basis of an Unsatisfactory Risk Determination made by this office on April 30, 1959.”
In thousands of communities between Fanwood and Berkeley, FHA policy was the same, with very few exceptions: no guarantees for mortgages to African Americans, or to whites who might lease to African Americans, regardless of the applicants’ creditworthiness.
A FEW years ago I received a note from Pam Harris, a schoolteacher in Georgia who had heard a radio program where I discussed the history of neighborhood racial segregation. As it happened, Ms. Harris’ family traces its roots to Hamburg, South Carolina, the town where white terror persuaded many African Americans to seek safety and security in the North. Her family story, like that of Frank Stevenson, exposes how de jure segregation operated to establish the racial divisions we know today.
Ms. Harris told me about a great-uncle, Leroy Mereday, who was born in Hamburg fourteen years after the Red Shirt massacre. His father worked in the brickyards, and Leroy himself became a blacksmith, shoeing horses for the cavalry in France in World War I. There he caught the attention of railroad tycoon August Belmont II, who was serving in the U.S. Army’s supply department. A passionate horse racer, he had built the Belmont Race Track on Long Island, New York. Impressed with Leroy Mereday’s skill, Belmont asked him to work at his track. Mr. Mereday went on to have a successful career there, shoeing Man o’ War, among other great thoroughbreds.
He found lodging in Hempstead, not far from the racetrack, and soon sent for a younger brother, Charles, who in turn persuaded brothers Arthur and Robert, sister Lillie, and their parents to come north. Charles recruited several classmates to join them. The extended Mereday family and other Hamburg refugees all initially lived on a single street in Hempstead, an early African American settlement on Long Island.
Robert Mereday, the youngest of the brothers, played the saxophone and in the 1930s was part of a well-known jazz ensemble. During World War II the federal government sponsored the United Service Organizations (USO) to support the troops and workers in defense plants, and he joined a USO band that entertained workers at the Grumman Aircraft plant in Bethpage, Long Island. The contacts Robert Mereday made there led to the company hiring him as one of its first African American employees. Grumman, like the Ford Motor Company in Richmond, California, had exhausted the supply of white workers available to meet its military contracts and had begun to recruit African Americans for the first time.
At Grumman, Robert Mereday was able to save money to start a trucking business when the war ended. He bought inexpensive army surplus trucks and repurposed them himself for heavy hauling. In 1946, when William Levitt was building houses for returning veterans in Roslyn, Long Island, the Mereday company got work hauling cement blocks that lined the development’s cesspools. Soon Levitt began to develop the massive Levittown subdivision nearby, and Robert Mereday won a contract to deliver drywall to the construction site. His business expanded to half a dozen trucks; when several nephews returned from military service, they joined the company.
Robert Mereday had a solid middle-class income in the late 1940s and was able to pay his nephews decently. He had married and was raising a family, but Levitt and other subdivision developers would not sell homes to any of the Meredays or to other African Americans who were helping to build the nation’s suburbs. African Americans did not lack the necessary qualifications; the Meredays’ economic circumstances were similar to those of the white workers and returning veterans who became Levittowners. But as Robert Mereday’s son later recalled, his father and most other relatives didn’t bother to file applications, although the Levittown homes were attractive and well designed: “It was generally known that black people couldn’t buy into the development. When you grow up and live in a place, you know what the rules are.”
Nonetheless one nephew who worked for the trucking business tried. Like most of those who moved into Levittown, Vince Mereday was a veteran. He’d been in the navy during World War II, stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside Chicago. Just before the war, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had told President Roosevelt he would resign if the navy were forced to take African Americans in roles other than their traditional ones in food service and as personal servants to officers. However, when it became widely known that the most heroic American sailor at Pearl Harbor was Private Dorie Miller, an African American kitchen worker—he had run through flaming oil to carry his ship’s captain to safety and then grabbed a machine gun and shot down Japanese aircraft—public pressure forced Knox to accede. At Great Lakes, however, African American recruits were not permitted to train with whites, and the navy established a segregated training camp for them. Vince Mereday passed tests to be a pilot, but because African Americans were barred from entering flight training, he was assigned to mechanic duty for the war’s duration.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Vince Mereday went to work for his uncle delivering material to Levittown. When he attempted to buy a house in the development, his application was refused. Instead he bought a house in an almost all-black neighboring suburb, Lakeview. Although Levittowners could buy property with no down payments and low-interest Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages, Vince Mereday had to make a substantial down payment in Lakeview and get an uninsured mortgage with higher market interest rates. His experiences of discrimination in the navy and in the housing market permanently embittered him.
William Levitt’s refusal to sell a home to Vince Mereday was not a mere reflection of the builder’s prejudicial views. Had he felt differently and chosen to integrate Levittown, the federal government would have refused to subsidize him. In the decades following World War II, suburbs across the country—as in Milpitas and Palo Alto and Levittown—were created in this way, with the FHA administering an explicit racial policy that solidified segregation in every one of our metropolitan areas.
AFTER WORLD War II, the newly established VA also began to guarantee mortgages for returning servicemen. It adopted FHA housing policies, and VA appraisers relied on the FHA’s Underwriting Manual. By 1950, the FHA and VA together were insuring half of all new mortgages nationwide.
The FHA had its biggest impact on segregation, not in its discriminatory evaluations of individual mortgage applicants, but in its financing of entire subdivisions, in many cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white enclaves. Frank Stevenson was not denied the opportunity to follow his job to Milpitas because the FHA refused to insure an individual mortgage for him. Vince Mereday was not denied the opportunity to live in Levittown because a VA appraiser considered his individual purchase too risky for a mortgage guarantee. Rather, in these and thousands of other locales, mass-production builders created entire suburbs with the FHA- or VA-imposed condition that these suburbs be all white. As Frank Stevenson and Robert Mereday understood, and as Vince Mereday learned, African Americans need not bother to apply.
Levittown was a massive undertaking, a development of 17,500 homes. It was a visionary solution to the housing problems of returning war veterans—mass-produced two-bedroom houses of 750 square feet sold for about $8,000 each, with no down payment required. William Levitt constructed the project on speculation; it was not a case in which prospective purchasers gave the company funds with which to construct houses. Instead, Levitt built the houses and then sought customers. He could never have amassed the capital for such an enormous undertaking without the FHA and the VA. But during the World War II years and after, the government had congressional authority to guarantee bank loans to mass-production builders like Levitt for nearly the full cost of their proposed subdivisions. By 1948, most housing nationwide was being constructed with this government financing.
Once Levitt had planned and designed Levittown, his company submitted drawings and specifications to the FHA for approval. After the agency endorsed the plans, he could use this approval to negotiate low-interest loans from banks to finance its construction and land-acquisition costs. The banks were willing to give these concessionary loans to Levitt and to other mass-production builders because FHA preapproval meant that the banks could subsequently issue mortgages to the actual buyers without further property appraisal needed. Instead of local FHA appraisers taking the Underwriting Manual and going out to inspect the individual properties for which mortgage insurance was sought—there was, after all, nothing but empty land to inspect—the FHA almost automatically insured mortgages for the eventual buyers of the houses, based on its approval of the preconstruction plans. The banks, therefore, were exposed to little risk from issuing these mortgages.
For Levittown and scores of such developments across the nation, the plans reviewed by the FHA included the approved construction materials, the design specifications, the proposed sale price, the neighborhood’s zoning restrictions (for example, a prohibition of industry or commercial development), and a commitment not to sell to African Americans. The FHA even withheld approval if the presence of African Americans in nearby neighborhoods threatened integration. In short, the FHA financed Levittown on condition that, like the Richmond suburb of Rollingwood during the war, it be all white, with no foreseeable change in its racial composition.
The Veterans Administration subsidized the “Sunkist Gardens” development in Southeast Los Angeles in 1950, for white veterans only.
The FHA’s involvement was so pervasive that full-time government inspectors were stationed at the construction sites where Levittown and similar projects were being built. As William Levitt testified before Congress in 1957, “We are 100 percent dependent on Government.”
In 1960, a New Jersey court concluded that Levitt’s project in that state was so dependent on the FHA that it was “publicly assisted housing” and that it therefore could not refuse to sell to African Americans under New Jersey law. The court opinion included a detailed description of the numerous ways in which the FHA directed the project’s design, construction, and financing, as well as Levitt’s acknowledgment of his dependence on government involvement. The case had no national consequences because the order to sell to African Americans was based on New Jersey, not federal, law.
Although Levittown came to symbolize postwar suburbanization, Levittown was neither the first nor the only such development financed by the FHA and VA for white families. Metropolitan areas nationwide were suburbanized by this government policy. The first was Oak Forest, built in 1946 on Houston’s northwest side. Shortly thereafter Prairie Village in Kansas City mushroomed, also financed with FHA guarantees. The extraordinary growth of California and the West in the decades following World War II was financed on a racially restricted basis by the federal government: Westlake, a 1950 development in Daly City, south of San Francisco; Lakewood, south of Los Angeles, constructed between 1949 and 1953 and only slightly smaller than Levittown; Westchester, also south of Los Angeles and developed by Kaiser Community Homes, an offshoot of the wartime shipbuilding company; and Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley—all were FHA whites-only projects.
A ST. LOUIS story illustrates how stark the FHA policy could be. Charles Vatterott was an area builder who obtained advance FHA guarantees for a subdivision of single-family homes in western St. Louis County. Vatterott called his development St. Ann and intended it to be a community for lower-middle-class Catholics, particularly returning war veterans. He began construction in 1943, and while he made a special effort to recruit Catholics, he did not prohibit sales to non-Catholic whites—he barred only blacks, as the FHA required.
Vatterott had relatively moderate attitudes on racial matters and believed that the housing needs of African Americans should also be addressed but in separate projects. So after completing St. Ann, he constructed a subdivision for African Americans—De Porres, in the town of Breckenridge Hills, a few miles away from St. Ann. He intended to sell to African Americans whose incomes and occupations, from truck drivers to chemists, were similar to those of St. Ann buyers. These were the kinds of potential purchasers who, if they were white, could have bought into St. Ann or any of the many other subdivisions developed throughout St. Louis County in the postwar period.
But because De Porres was intended for African Americans, Vatterott could not get FHA financing for it. As a result, the construction was shoddier and the house design skimpier than it had been in St. Ann. Because potential buyers were denied FHA or VA mortgages, many of the homes were rented. Vatterott set up a special savings plan by which families without FHA or VA mortgages could put aside money toward a purchase of their homes. But unlike St. Ann residents, the De Porres savers could not accumulate equity during this process. The De Porres development for African Americans also lacked the community facilities—parks and playgrounds—that Vatterott had built into the St. Ann subdivision.
WHEN THE FHA rejected proposals for projects like De Porres that might house African Americans or otherwise threaten future integration, the agency didn’t mask the racial bases of its decisions. In 1940, for example, a Detroit builder was denied FHA insurance for a project that was near an African American neighborhood. He then constructed a half-mile concrete wall, six feet high and a foot thick, separating the two neighborhoods, and the FHA then approved the loan. Occasionally, FHA mortgage holders did default, and the agency repossessed the property and resold it. To make certain that such resale did not undermine its segregation policy, the FHA contracted with real estate brokers who refused to sell to African Americans.
On rare occasions, the FHA approved loans for segregated African American developments. In 1954, responding to a severe housing shortage for African Americans and hoping to dampen civil rights protests, New Orleans mayor DeLesseps S. Morrison begged the FHA to insure a development for middle-class black professionals and promised the agency that no units would be sold to whites. The New Orleans NAACP chapter protested the creation of a segregated housing development. The agency ignored the protest, and the development eventually consisted of one thousand homes for African Americans only, surrounding a park and golf course and adjoining a similar FHA-insured development for whites only. In 1955 an FHA spokesman toured fifty cities where he addressed African American audiences, boasting of New Orleans’s achievements and telling his listeners that such segregated projects were “the type of thing [the] FHA wanted.”
A pattern emerges from these examples. Government’s commitment to separating residential areas by race began nationwide following the violent suppression of Reconstruction after 1877. Although the Supreme Court in 1917 forbade the first wave of policies—racial segregation by zoning ordinance—the federal government began to recommend ways that cities could evade that ruling, not only in the southern and border states but across the country. In the 1920s a Harding administration committee promoted zoning ordinances that distinguished single-family from multifamily districts. Although government publications did not say it in as many words, committee members made little effort to hide that an important purpose was to prevent racial integration. Simultaneously, and through the 1920s and the Hoover administration, the government conducted a propaganda campaign directed at white middle-class families to persuade them to move out of apartments and into single-family dwellings. During the 1930s the Roosevelt administration created maps of every metropolitan area, divided into zones of foreclosure risk based in part on the race of their occupants. The administration then insured white homeowners’ mortgages if they lived in all-white neighborhoods into which there was little danger of African Americans moving. After World War II the federal government went further and spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create the all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities.
In 1973, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing. . . . Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.”