We say that home is sacred and it’s easy to see why. Our homes hold more than our belongings and even more than our memories. They hold the key to the possibility or impossibility of true opportunity. Where we reside can determine our education, our jobs, our ability to create prosperity and even the likelihood of whether or not we’ll live in health. Vibrant, diverse communities where people interact in dignity and have every opportunity to blossom into their full human potential has never been fully experienced in this nation.
In my one-woman show, Dividing Lines: the Education of a Chicago White Girl in 10 Rounds, I set out to discover why Chicago like so many other U.S. cities was so segregated. I discovered that there was a time when Chicago was more integrated. The first strategic and protracted wave of segregation came during the 1920s when through bribes, threats, violence and other illegalities such as Restricted Covenant laws, politicians and others in power set out to create separate white and black residential areas. Black people were herded into the oldest, wholly inadequate and massively overcrowded sections of town.
In my research I heard stories from people who lived through this period. They told me of trips to the emergency room because of young children being hit by fallen plaster from rotting ceilings, old people being trapped in tenements because the landlords refused to fix stairwells and whole families killed in fires because greedy, predominantly white landlords had strung extension cords and makeshift wiring to create yet another improvised apartment in a basement, attic or storage shed.
With so little housing supply for Blacks, white business people made fortunes from life-threatening housing. With no mortgages for Black people and no Open Housing laws in effect, African Americans had few alternatives but to live in these dangerous, dilapidated buildings in the designated “Black Belts” of our city. While African Americans rose to the challenge and created incredible cultural institutions and support systems, they were left, nonetheless, vulnerable to the vultures who came to feed and capitalize on their physical entrapment.
A black family could protest and move out, but where were they going to go? And with so many other families desperate to move in what leverage did anyone have who tried to stand up to the injustice of deplorable living conditions?
Meanwhile, in the white areas, politicians and others who benefitted from these divide and conquer tactics fed on white’s fear and existing prejudices. They pointed to the rundown areas as proof that blacks were unfit to live with and said that competing blacks would pry away the working class whites’ tenuous hold on the ladder of economic security.
Thus, by the end of the 1930s our cities began to take on a familiar look with more prosperous white areas and more rundown black neighborhoods.
Next week: the second wave of segregation