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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 lat