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Eminent Domain & African Americans

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Eminent domain is the power of the government to take private property for public use. The use of eminent domain has been controversial in the United States, particularly when it comes to its impact on African American communities.

Eminent domain still poses barriers to Black homeownership today, contributing to the wealth gap. Often local governments justified these actions by declaring areas “blighted,” a word advocates say became synonymous with low-income, under-resourced neighborhoods. Source

A study of more than 2,532 “blight” projects nationwide found that the projects displaced more than 1 million Black Americans from 1949 to 1973. Those were the years the Federal Housing Act first authorized cities to use eminent domain to clear “blighted neighborhoods,” according to the Institute for Justice.

In addition, many African American communities have been displaced by highway construction projects. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain. It left a deep psychological scar on neighborhoods that lost homes, churches and schools.

Focusing specifically on the Federal Housing Act (FHA) of 1949, Dr. Fullilove finds that “between 1949 and 1973 … 2,532 projects were carried out in 992 cities that displaced one million people, two-thirds of them African American,” making blacks “five times more likely to be displaced than they should have been given their numbers in the population.” Source

Advocates for the prominent redevelopment projects of mid-century were often quite up front about their intentions to use urban renewal projects for racially discriminatory ends. As quoted in the body of this report, displacement of African-Americans and urban renewal projects were so intertwined that urban renewal was referred to as “Negro removal.”

In Chicago in the 1940s, protesters claimed that the “Lake Meadows” re-development project on the near Southside was “Negro clearance” rather than “slum clearance” and said, “If it is a slum clearance program, then let’s make it that and start where the slums are.” Although their complaints delayed the project, these efforts ultimately did not stop the clearance of the area.

In New York, a leading proponent of the 1940s “Stuyvesant Town” redevelopment project, Metropolitan Life Insurance Chairman Frederick Ecker, infamously defended the company’s decision to deny admission to blacks by declaring that “blacks and whites just don't mix.” One study reports that, between 1949 and 1973, government officials executed 2,532 projects in 992 cities, displacing one million people, two-thirds of whom were African American. Source

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