Social History

Jim Crow's unexpected allies


Credit: Jay Corey

When Nathan Connolly was a young boy in South Florida, schools were often racially segregated. So were most neighborhoods. Connolly, who is black, spent part of his youth growing up in a monochromatic community that, despite being developed in the 1940s, didn't receive sewers or streetlights until the 1980s, unlike the white enclaves surrounding it. Miami bills itself as a multicultural city, but as Connolly grew into his college years he began to suspect that there was another dimension to the saga: Ethnicities abounded, but they rarely intermixed. "For me, Miami became a much more complicated place with a whole lot more racial segregation than I knew or cared about as a kid," he says.

Now 34, Connolly, an assistant professor of history at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, has spent the bulk of his young career finding out why. He has centered his research on housing policies and pricing schemes that have perpetuated segregation in the United States, with a particular eyeon his home state's long-standing discriminatory real estate practices. And he has reached a conclusion that is sure to ruffle feathers there and elsewhere: Even after federal laws enacted in the 1960s ended race-based discrim- ination, segregation in the following decades not only persisted in South Florida but was abetted by black landowners, who participated in and got richer by playing a role in keeping the races separate.

"White entrepreneurs and politicians found other ways to have segregation without Jim Crow," says Connolly, citing socioeconomic status as the dividing line that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. "Black landholders found it to their advantage to maintain the status quo as well. By keeping wealthy neighborhoods exclusive and poor areas isolated, landowners maintained their share of markets in each of them." Connolly argues that his South Florida example applies more broadly across the United States: "The American real estate market is built on the maintenance of segregation and poverty. Capitalists maximize their profit on both ends. Landowners have disingenuously offered up market-based solutions to slum housing problems, but market solutions to segregation don't work when the market itself benefits from the problem."

Following up on a doctoral dissertation he wrote four years ago at the University of Michigan, Connolly is putting the final touches on A World More Concrete: Race and Real Estate in the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida, to be published next year by the University of Chicago Press. The book will outline how geographic segregation, steeped in discriminatory laws that dominated African-Americans in Southern states from around 1876 and well into the 1960s, continued after those laws were abolished. With theaid of property owners and developers—both black and white—on either end of the real estate spectrum, "separate but equal" policies were transformed into biracial political alliances that augmented longtime racist housing practices. Those alliances courted politicians, fought against zoning changes, and subsidized public housing plans, while reinforcing long-standing dividing lines within the local real estate market.

Other academics who have studied the ins and outs of historical housing segregation say Connolly has broken new ground by including the roles of black property owners and developers in his analysis. "This story does not fit neatly in popular understandings of real estate and discrimination," says David M.P. Freund, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Black entrepreneurs operated in a market shaped by the decisions of white elites, but nonetheless made money off of a development process that clearly harmed sectors of the black community."

Part of his reason for writing the book, Connolly says, is to examine how "property owners learned to govern, or effect policies in their favor. There was a moment in this country when people needed to learn how to navigate the state, to learn to exert power even though they were denied formal entry into politics." Black property owners, who joined forces with well-connected whites to protect their financial interests, were often the most egregious of Miami's slumlords. M. Athalie Range, a civil rights activist who was later appointed by President Jimmy Carter to sit on Amtrak's board, threatened to bulldoze her ramshackle houses whenever tenants would complain—threats that, if realized, would have left tenants homeless. "Among the black bourgeoisie, including black media, there was little recognition that this was a problem," Connolly says.

Connolly pored over old Federal Housing Administration papers at the National Archives, in Washington, to analyze who got loans for properties from World War II to the 1960s. ("You couldn't integrate neighborhoods in the 1950s," Connolly says. "You couldn't get the loans to do it.") He gathered old FBI files on The Overseas Club, a group of black, mostly Caribbean immigrants, to see how they fared in the local housing market. He combed databases on black activism and struggle, as well as black newspapers in Miami for evidence of unjust real estate practices. And he managed to track down a manager of slum properties in the 1950s and 1960s who told him that South Florida slumlords of all races reaped 27 percent profits on their tumbledown buildings. Typically, rent on such properties brings in 4 to 6 percent. By limiting the amount of housing available to African-Americans, property owners artificially increased the cost of renting, Connolly says: "In the Jim Crow South, people would shout from the rooftops how profitable blackhousing was because blacks had nowhere else to go."

Unmixed neighborhoods are a tradition that South Florida can't seem to shake, Connolly says. Miami is still a city of barrios, ghettos, and mansion districts. In the past generation, inequalities there have, in part, led to riots, a take-back-the-land movement to point out a lack of affordable housing, and squatting in foreclosed homes.

A majority of the city's people would need to move into new neighborhoods to approach a 50-50 balance between black and non-black residents. "Segregation, in the abstract, is thought to be evil. But we don't always talk about what it really means," Connolly says. "We use euphemisms—'exclusive community,' 'safe neighborhood,' 'good schools,' 'blighted.'" He hopes his book delivers a broader message about the economics surrounding the world of racially biased housing: "You can't expect the free market to solve all the problems of the poor. When they suffer, we all pay more. What more evidence do we need than the housing-based predatory lending that duped the poor and nearly poor, and then led to the international economic disaster we're in right now?"

Posted in Politics+Society

Tagged history, sociology