Searching for a “Sound Negro Policy”: A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954

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For a “Sound Negro Policy”: A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954

Arnold R. Hirsch University of New Orleans Abstract The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 provided the foundation for slum clearance and urban renewal.

Despite efforts to finesse the issue, race remained central to the formation and implementation of public policy. The Racial Relations Service (RRS), an institutional remnant of the New Deal, tried unsuccessfully to prevent local authorities from using the new federal resources to reinforce existing “ghettos.” Searching for a “sound Negro policy,” the RRS warned housing officials against pursuing such a course and offered bureaucratic resistance to individual projects deemed inimical to minority interests.

The coincidence of demographic and political change in the 1950s, the subsequent dismantling of the RRS, the reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the passage of the Housing Act of 1954 all contributed to the use of urban renewal to create and sustain racially separate neighborhoods even as the civil rights movement gained momentum.

Keywords: Discrimination; Federal; Policy Introduction The long-awaited passage of the Housing Act of 1949 provided a spark of optimism within the aging, decaying cities of postwar America. In Chicago, Ira J. Bach, director of the Chicago Land Clearance Commission (CLCC), excitedly wrote to Raymond M. Foley, administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA) in Washington, DC. The Illinois state legislature, Bach informed Foley, had amended existing state law in anticipation of congressional action.

Now authorized to enter into contracts for federal loans and grants, the CLCC hoped to garner financial support for an ongoing locally funded project and stood ready to “accelerate and expand” its redevelopment program under the slum clearance provisions of Title I of the new law. “You will pardon our pride in the fact that the city of Chicago is furthest along in its plans and activities,” Bach concluded, “so that at least in our minds there is no question...that we will be the first city in the country eligible for a grant contract” (Bach 1949). Hope also reigned supreme in the South Side offices of the Chicago Defender, the institutionalized voice of the city’s African-American community.

Noting the passage of earlier bond issues, the Defender Housing Policy Debate · Volume 11, Issue 2 393 © Fannie Mae Foundation 2000. All Rights Reserved. 393 trumpeted the fact that bulging city and state coffers already had resources in place to match freshly advertised federal revenues (“Government Provides 100 Million” 1949). Indeed, in late August, when the city received a grant and authorization to build 21,000 low-rent units over the next two years, the newspaper rejoiced. Residents in Chicago’s congested ghettos “breathed a sigh of relief,” the paper reported, and believed they had received “assurance[s] of decent and sorely needed housing” (“U.S. OKs Housing Plan” 1949).

Keenly aware of the deplorable housing conditions that precipitated the receipt of some 1,000 despairing letters a week, the Defender’s editors believed they had reason to expect substantive assistance, particularly from the provision of public housing as called for in Title III of the act (“Housing Action Demanded by Irate Tenants” 1949). A good deal of honest confusion, however—or at least ambiguity— accompanied the heightened expectations.

Looking at the nation’s great cities, Illinois’s liberal freshman, Senator Paul H. Douglas, proclaimed that “this bill should do more for the people of this country than virtually any measure of which I know” (1949a). Douglas realized, though, that major difficulties would attend implementation. A demographic revolution that carried nearly 5 million African Americans out of the South and into the cores of northern cities between 1940 and 1970, a severe housing shortage that not only survived but deepened during the Great Depression and World War II, and an era of explosive suburban growth that fueled both an economic boom and a massive migration of whites to the urban fringe had to raise, the senator believed, unresolved, fundamental questions.

On the one hand, Douglas understood that the largely minority “slum dwellers” who would be “displaced” by demolition needed—under present conditions—to be rehoused “on the outskirts of the cities.” Redevelopment plans that called for “the housing of higher income groups” in former “slum areas” made this imperative, the senator acknowledged in a public speech (Douglas 1949a). On the other hand, the bitter opposition of realtors, developers, and an emergent white homeowning class, virtually precluded such a diversion of outlying vacant land. The result was that Douglas, in a private communication to Raymond M. Foley, reminded the HHFA administrator that “his primary obligation is to clear the slums under Title I.”

In so doing, the senator advised, “the acquisition of open sites for development purposes should be at all times subordinate” to that mandated duty (1949b). Foley agreed “unequivocally” with Douglas’s formulation, even going so far as to write that the development of vacant land “while essential to the effective execution of slum clearance programs, is subordinate and supplementary to the basic purpose of slum clearance” (1949). Neither mentioned the race issue, but, then, neither had to; Douglas’s Chicago experience and Foley’s wartime stint as Federal Housing Administration (FHA) director in Michigan had acquainted both of them with 394 Arnold R. Hirsch the explosive tensions generated by territorial and housing conflicts.

How one could “subordinate” an “essential” element to an “effective” program remained to be seen. It did not take long for the racial issues tied to redevelopment and relocation to manifest themselves. By the early 1950s, George B. Nesbitt, an official attached to the HHFA’s Racial Relations Service (RRS), warned prophetically that “the way in which these programs are conceived and carried out will…largely determine the physical framework” and “socio-psychological atmosphere” within which the civil rights struggle would be played out.

If officials simply tried to avoid racial problems or deal with them on a case-by-case basis, he admonished, they would only “arise again, sharply and stubbornly.” He knew that the “bitter displacement experiences of racial minority groups” had already revealed that “most communities are disposed rather to retain and extend residential segregation patterns than to seek their abandonment….[L]ocal officials are likely not only to overlook constructive approaches which are permissible, but even to attempt evasion of mandatory requirements” intended as safeguards.

It was, he ruefully concluded, a repudiation of the opportunity that existed to use public powers and funds to “encourage the production of housing free of racial restrictions” (Nesbitt 1952). Nesbitt had one final word that seemed to be penned expressly for the senator and the housing administrator. He, as well as they, recognized the complexity of the dilemma urban redevelopment posed for the nation, and he remained convinced that “despite the awesomeness of its racial implications, the advancing sweep of the process cannot be stayed” (Nesbitt 1952).

Unlike Douglas and Foley, however, he did not try to finesse the issue by prioritizing it out of existence. There was, he concluded, “no greater problem” facing those concerned with race relations and, consequently, no way to subordinate race in the course of slum clearance, relocation, and public housing construction. It would have to be confronted explicitly in selecting policies that would cement a racial accommodation for the next generation.

Neither the hopes of the CLCC nor those of the editors of the Defender would alter that fact, and the best intentions of Douglas and Foley could not overcome it. The Racial Relations Service and early housing policy Nesbitt’s representations on behalf of the RRS indicated not just a willingness but an earnest desire to place race at the center of the postwar housing policy debate. In staking out that position, the RRS both built on and departed from its early New Deal role. The service’s roots could be found in a series of conferences held in 1932–33 that emphasized the growing importance of federal programs in meeting A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 395 the crisis posed by the Great Depression and the need for specific measures to protect, if not advance, African-American interests.

One such conclave, a meeting on the “Economic Status of the Negro” sponsored by the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, recommended the appointment within the government of a special adviser on racial matters. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes proved amenable to the suggestion but initially selected a white, Clark Foreman, for the job. Within a year, Foreman’s assistant, Dr. Robert C. Weaver, an AfricanAmerican, Harvard-trained economist, emerged as the secretary’s key “Adviser on Negro Affairs.” His role, as originally conceived, involved the “protection” of not only minority interests, but—through attentiveness to racial concerns and good public relations—also those of the housing agencies and the federal government itself (Kirby 1980; U.S. Public Housing Administration [PHA] 1954).

Formally titled a consultant to the housing division of Ickes’s Public Works Administration (PWA), Weaver found a home in the newly created United States Housing Authority (USHA) after the passage of the Housing Act of 1937. The USHA took over not only the PWA’s projects and personnel, but its racial policies as well. In so doing, the USHA wedded itself to the goal of achieving racial “equity.” Segregation initially proved a nonissue, as the PWA’s “neighborhood composition guideline” dictated siteand tenant-selection practices.

No new project would be permitted to alter the racial makeup of its surrounding community. After its creation, the USHA entrusted such matters to local authorities with the same practical effect. Instead, the concept of racial equity addressed other concerns. Anchored in the notion that African Americans, as citizens and taxpayers, should receive a “fair share” of the benefits bestowed by the federal government, it became PWA policy to furnish public housing to African Americans in accord with their numbers and needs; and, in fact, by 1940 they occupied more than one-third of the units built by the agency.

Similarly, Ickes and Weaver believed that African Americans should participate in the planning, development, and management of projects, particularly those to be occupied by African-American tenants. The secretary also inserted a nondiscrimination clause into every PWA contract to guarantee black access to a fair share of the construction jobs flowing out of this Depression-era program. In the latter case, Weaver helped devise an enforceable labor quota that placed the burden of proof on employers rather than the government.

An Office on Racial Relations within the USHA oversaw the transition and implementation of such policies. Finally, as head of that office and Special Assistant to the USHA administrator, Weaver selected a committed staff. Most notably, Corienne Robinson (later Corienne Morrow) left her PWA post to become Weaver’s assistant, and New York–born Dr. Frank S. Horne became Weaver’s lieutenant following a stint in the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (Kirby 1980; PHA 1954).

396 Arnold R. Hirsch The USHA and Weaver, however, did not simply reinstitutionalize the PWA concept of racial equity. The 1938 directive defining the role of the agency’s special assistant on racial relations manifestly, if vaguely, hinted at more than the acquisition of a fair share of federal benefits. Among other enumerated duties, the USHA charged the special assistant with clearing correspondence and reviewing proposed projects to make certain they were “satisfactory in terms of a sound Negro policy.” That Weaver conceived of a “sound Negro policy” in a way that went beyond nondiscrimination in hiring or the proportionate allocation of housing units became clear when he recommended basic guidelines for the agency’s program.

Indeed, in a detailed 1940 memorandum, he staked out new ground when he stated unequivocally that “public housing should not be used to extend residential segregation.” Tenacious resistance by white neighborhoods and local governments, however, not to mention organizational and staffing problems within the RRS (regional offices with the authority to approve projects were set up without racial relations personnel) and a lack of enthusiasm among the HHFA’s leadership, prevented the adoption of Weaver’s suggested policy.

His departure from the USHA shortly thereafter left his successor, Frank Horne, to endure the same rejection during the wartime crisis. Sharp and overwhelming political opposition (including the occasional outburst of threatened or actual violence) attended virtually every effort to provide emergency African-American war housing on outlying vacant land (PHA 1954).

The consolidation of the nation’s myriad housing agencies under the umbrella of the new HHFA in the summer of 1947 set the stage for the postwar redevelopment program. For its part, the RRS fended off a bevy of political enemies during the reorganization and survived to pursue its agenda—if barely. Its budget and ranks slashed, the service found its surviving officials assigned to the Office of the Administrator (OA) of the HHFA, the PHA, and the FHA.

Horne, however, as racial relations adviser to the OA, occupied a slot in the central office that now offered oversight of all the nation’s housing programs, not just public housing. Such a position meant that Horne and the RRS had at least a theoretical opportunity to influence broad policy; employing remarkably strong and blunt rhetoric—the tone and substance of which seem almost out of place in the pre–civil rights era—they served as the HHFA’s racial conscience and held an often unflattering (but revealing) mirror up to the government’s housing hierarchy. It was from that new, lofty perch that Horne and his colleagues examined the legislative proposals for slum clearance and redevelopment in 1949—and they did so (as Weaver had earlier) with an expansive notion of what constituted “sound Negro policy” (PHA 1954).

A month before the passage of the housing act, Horne detailed the grave dangers posed by the proposed bill in a lengthy memorandum to HHFA Administrator Foley on the “Racial Implications of Title I of A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 397 the Housing Act of 1949.” He indicated at the outset that the legislation had been the subject of discussion among race relations staff for “more than a year” and that they remained “very much concerned” by troubling differences that separated the emergent policy from “the views and experience” of his office.

If the act’s framers, proponents, and later academic analysts tended to downplay or look past the racial issues inextricably tied to the problems of “blight” and “slum clearance,” the RRS did not hesitate to send up early warning signals as debate on its provisions proceeded (Gelfand 1975; Horne 1949). The problems, Horne believed, were not insurmountable. The HHFA needed only to face facts and “boldly” establish “policy and procedures that reflect at once sound and modern housing and civil rights principles.” Examining local programs then under way, Horne had sharp words for New York’s Stuyvesant Town project, Chicago’s attempt to rehabilitate its South Side Black Belt, and early slum clearance efforts in Washington, DC.

He charged that such exercises in urban revitalization, negative examples all, had been “perverted” by their “failure to face squarely the racial considerations involved.” Each had subsequently generated resistance and charges of “Negro clearance” as demolition uprooted established communities. Even worse, particularly in the case of Stuyvesant Town, state power and money had been used to construct a development that first displaced, and then banned, African Americans.

Collectively, such measures led Horne to insist that “human and civil rights considerations” needed to be moved “from the fringes into the very core” of HHFA policy determinations. Such priorities in the federally administered program, Horne claimed, would be entirely consistent with the theory behind the housing act (which expressed “national concern for the debilitating effects...of slum living”) and Administrator Foley’s public wish that “the Federal Government...make no compromise with the basic civil rights of its citizens.”

However much he took heart from Foley’s idealistic expressions, though, the racial relations adviser nevertheless trembled at the dangers still lurking in the act’s fine print (Horne 1949).1 As far as Horne was concerned, none of the bill’s reputed legal safeguards preclude[d] the possibility of Federal funds and powers being utilized by localities to clear entire neighborhoods, change the location of entire population groups and crystallize patterns of racial or nationalistic separation by allowing private developers—for whose benefit the legislation is primarily drawn—to prohibit occupancy in new developments merely on the basis of race. (Horne 1949) 398 Arnold R. Hirsch 1 For more about redevelopment in Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York, see Gillette (1995), Hamilton (1991), and Hirsch (1983).

The HHFA might be legitimately charged, he warned, of using “Federal funds and powers to harden into brick and mortar the racially restrictive practices of private real estate and lending operations.” As Horne framed it for his bureaucratic superiors, “The central issue is whether racial discrimination...is to be sanctioned in a program...which depends on public funds and powers as well as on private investment” (1949). Clearly, the “sound Negro policy” and “sound and modern housing and civil rights principles” envisioned by the RRS in 1949 went far beyond notions of mere “equity,” and, in fact, Horne’s memo included an explicit rejection of any attempt to “enforce residential segregation through state action.”

The legislative and judicial branches of government, he noted, had already had their powers to impose such segregation clipped by the U.S. Supreme Court. Citing the decisions that outlawed racial zoning ordinances (Buchanan v. Warley, 1917) and rendered racially restrictive covenants unenforceable in the courts (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948), Horne reasoned that “the administrative branch of government” was also “subject to these judicial rulings” and could not therefore “aid and abet any locally enforced restrictions upon the ownership or occupancy of real property based upon race or color.”

Seeking exemption from the still regnant constitutional doctrine embodied in Plessy v. Ferguson, Horne argued further that “residential segregation must be regarded quite differently” from the realms of education or public accommodations where, theoretically, “separate but equal” services were possible. “[N]o two residential districts are equal,” he asserted.

The “denial of a right to purchase or occupy property is an injury that is not redressed merely by the opportunity to exercise that right elsewhere” (Horne 1949). Horne concluded his jeremiad with a list of principles that he wished to see govern the redevelopment program. First, he called for the humane treatment of those to be displaced and the provision of more than lip service to their relocation needs. Second, each contract let by the government needed to be “contingent upon [a] firm and explicit agreement,” he wrote, that all land assembled through “the use of Federal funds or powers” would remain free of racial restrictions.

And third, exhibiting a continuing concern for fairness, Horne hoped that each city’s “total redevelopment plan” would “adequately and equitably” embrace the needs “of all population elements of the community.” As for the implementation of such principles in the face of foreseeably powerful local opposition, Horne believed that the federal government could exercise irresistible financial leverage. Budget realities would limit the scope of initial efforts, he informed the administrator, providing the opportunity to produce “a ‘model’ program in housing and racial relations on a basis both legally and morally unassailable.” The “small number of cities ready to participate” simply meant, for Horne, that there was “less reason than ever to justify compromise on racial A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 399 considerations for the ‘larger interests’ of a national program.”

In his hopes, concerns, and prescriptions, then, the racial relations adviser exposed both the limitations and the potential of the housing act then pending before Congress (Horne 1949). More, he had lectured and hectored his white bureaucratic colleagues in his call for equal rights; and by using “moral unassailability” as a measuring stick for policy, he raised concerns and used language that seemed alien to their everyday experience. In an attempt to convene a meeting between the administrator and HHFA staff to consider his proposals, Horne wrote his memorandum just weeks before the final passage of the Housing Act of 1949.

RRS officials reported that their approach elicited “sympathetic understanding and general acceptance” from those working on redevelopment policy and procedures, but had to admit that “the lack of guiding principles on [the] legal and civil rights issues involved preclude[d] fundamental agreement.” An ardent advocate, Horne tried to force the agency to engage and explicitly link racial and urban affairs; he fairly shouted on behalf of his colleagues that “these issues constitute questions of major policy” (1949). To ignore them—or consciously evade them—courted disaster. Open discussions of race, however, attended not Title I debates over redevelopment, but rather Title III’s support for an unprecedentedly large public housing program.

Moreover, that discussion emanated from the political right, not the left, and from the bill’s opposition, not its supporters. In its final form, the Housing Act of 1949 called for the construction of 810,000 units of public housing, provoking consternation and determined opposition from developers and the real estate lobby. Republican senators John Bricker of Ohio and Harry P. Cain of Washington, implacable foes of public housing, unabashedly injected the race issue into congressional debate over the bill in an attempt to derail it.

The Bricker-Cain amendment called for a flat prohibition on segregation and reflected the sponsors’ calculation that its adoption would strip away vital southern support. Indeed, Democrat Allen Ellender of Louisiana, who pioneered the housing bill, vowed to vote against it should the amendment be passed. Liberal Paul Douglas candidly acknowledged it as the “death knell” of slum clearance and redevelopment, and Democratic majority leader Scott Lucas of Illinois similarly denounced the brazen attempt to “kill” the program.

“The people who are for civil rights and housing are not going to be fooled by it,” Lucas declared (Davies 1966, 1993; “Housing Bill Fight” 1949; “Big Housing Bill” 1949). If not fooled by the proposal, however, the principled opponents of segregation were considerably discomfited by it. Douglas knew that many of those voting in favor of the Bricker-Cain amendment “were individuals not usually considered sympathetic to the civil rights pro400 Arnold R. Hirsch gram.”

And in the end, the senator from Illinois had to choose between a ban on segregation and the housing bill—he could not have both. It was with a “heavy heart” (and only after more than 12 hours of occasionally raucous debate) that he “and other Northern Republicans and Democratic liberals” made their priorities explicit and decided to “choose housing” (“Big Housing Bill” 1949). Much more than a failed attempt to defeat a single piece of legislation, the debate over the Bricker-Cain amendment had a powerful, lasting impact on the nation’s housing agencies and programs. Sensing the danger, reluctant opponents of the measure, as well as the RRS, tried to inoculate themselves against the arguments they knew would be forthcoming.

Racial relations advisers quickly asserted that the “debate in the Senate was not on the merits of…racial segregation.” Rather, they wrote, “The issue debated was whether or not the legislation would pass if the Cain-Bricker anti-segregation public housing amendment were attached.” And when, in the midst of that debate, one senator suggested that rejecting the prohibition would “be at least an implication, if not a direct indication, that the Senate…condones and approves segregation,” he was dismissed out of hand. No such inference should be drawn, Douglas insisted. Those who opposed the amendment simply decided that the production of housing was “the most important thing” (Nesbitt n.d.).

The protests—though prescient—were to no avail. Within months, high PHA officials made clear their refusal to require nonsegregation in federally supported projects. Falling back on the principles of local control and racial equity, the agency’s first assistant commissioner declared that the distribution of “low-income tenants” would be “left to local determination so long as equitable provision is made for all races.” In examining the sources for this policy, RRS staffers pointed a finger at the Senate’s rejection of Bricker-Cain. “PHA felt it could not do, by its regulations,” they wrote, “what Congress did not see fit to do by legislation” (1954).

It was an argument that would be made with great frequency and force in coming years. The Housing Act of 1949 The passage of the housing act in the summer of 1949 found a number of cities already engaged—under municipal and state laws—in slum clearance, redevelopment, and public housing programs. As Ira Bach’s eager missive to Administrator Foley indicated, they stood ready to enlist federal support for local initiatives already under way. This sequence of events proved crucial in establishing the parameters of Washington’s influence and defining the character of the federal effort.

First, it quickly became abundantly clear that the national government could not arrogate unto itself the right to grant prior approval to plans A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 401 that were already being implemented. HHFA could, in theory, reject questionable applications for aid, but political pressures (including, but not limited to, the administration’s desire to make the program work, the calls for cash coming from heavily Democratic city ha