Friday, August 23, 2013

The Great Migration and Northern Segregation

I learned much from reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent rendering of the twentieth century migration of the southern blacks to northern and western cities: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. It was becoming a difficult task to organize all the material that had been presented into a few pages of discussion. Then I happened upon a note about a court case in a document published by The Southern Poverty Law Center. This organization tries to keep track of hate groups and other extremists and alert us to their activities. This report caught my eye:

"Brian Moudry, 36, who claims to have been the Illinois leader of the neo-Nazi "World Church of the Creator" (since renamed "The Creativity Movement"), pleaded guilty to burning down the home of an African-American family who moved into his Joliet, Ill. neighborhood. Nine people were asleep in the home when Moudry, whose body is covered in racist tattoos, torched it in June, 2007."

This incident, coming more than a half century after a similar incident in another town near Chicago that gained worldwide attention, suggests that the type of segregation the blacks encountered as they moved into the northern and western urban areas is not an old story; rather it is an ongoing story. One cannot understand where we are today unless one understands how we got here. That history is part of what Wilkerson has provided.

The Great Migration extended roughly from around World War I to the 1970s. Wilkerson illustrates the history of the black migrants by recounting the lives of three representative individuals who left at different times from different locations and settled in different places. Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, one of the three, left Mississippi with her children and husband in the 1930s and settled in Chicago. When she arrived, the city was already organized into black and white sections and the black sections were already overcrowded. And there were many more yet to come.

"By the time it was over, no northern or western city would be the same. In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi."

What Gladney encountered in Chicago was typical of what was occurring in other urban centers: a type of segregation that was, in some ways, more extreme than that she had encountered in the South.

"By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work."

"They were confined to a little isthmus on the South Side of Chicago that came to be called ‘Bronzeville,’ the ‘black belt,’ ‘North Mississippi.’ It was a ‘narrow tongue of land, seven miles in length and one and one-half miles in width,’ as the midcentury historians St. Claire Drake and Horace Clayton described it, where a quarter million colored people were packed on top of one another by the time Ida Mae and her family arrived."

Since the blacks were forced to live within this given area, they had little recourse but to pay exorbitant rents to absentee landlords. Edith Abbott of the University of Chicago is referenced.

"’The rents in the South Side Negro district were conspicuously the highest of all districts visited,’ Abbott wrote. Dwellings that went for eight to twenty dollars a month to white families were bringing twelve to forty-five dollars a month from black families, those earning the least income and thus the least able to afford a flat at any rent, in the early stages of the migration."

"The story played out in virtually every northern city—migrants sealed off in overcrowded colonies that would become the foundation for ghettos that would persist into the next century. These were the original colored quarters—the abandoned and identifiable no-man’s lands that came into being when the least-paid people were forced to pay the highest rents for the most dilapidated housing owned by absentee landlords trying to wring the most money out of a place nobody cared about."

Chicago was a city of immigrants. Many of the whites preceded the blacks and had economic stakes that were threatened by the new arrivals. Employers took advantage of the needy blacks and used them as strikebreakers and generally issued threats to the whites that their jobs could be lost to blacks who would work for less pay. This did nothing to benefit race relations. Many of the white immigrants came from regions where they had little or no exposure to black people. Their attitude towards blacks was difficult to describe as anything other than hatred.

"The color line in Chicago confined them to a sliver of the least desirable blocks between the Jewish lakefront neighborhoods to the east and the Irish strongholds to the west, while the Poles, Russians, Italians. Lithuanians, Czechs and Serbs, who had only recently arrived themselves, were planting themselves to the southwest of the colored district."

What is remembered today about our larger cities are the more recent riots in which blacks rampaged, often through their own neighborhoods. However, throughout the longer view of history, riots that broke out tended to be acts of angry whites.

"....from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition."

Harvey Clark and his wife were college-educated blacks who were living, as a family of five in half of a two room apartment and paying $56 a month rent. They found a modern five-room apartment that they could rent for $60 a month, only four dollars more, and decided to move. The new apartment was located in Cicero, just across the Chicago line. It was 1951.

Cicero was a working class section inhabited mostly by first or second generation white immigrants. When the Clarks first attempted to move in they were prevented by the Cicero police and told to go away and not come back. With legal permission in hand they returned to try again. This time they were met by a group of women who had gathered to heckle them as they moved their furniture. Over the course of the day the crowd grew larger and the Clarks were forced to flee as it got out of control.

A mob entered the third floor apartment and threw out a window all the possessions small enough to toss, and smashed everything else. The Clarks’ belongings were then burned in a pile on the grass as the crowd cheered.

"The next day, a full-out riot was under way. The mob grew to four thousand by early evening....They hurled rocks and bricks. They looted. Then they firebombed the whole building. The bombing gutted the twenty-unit building and forced even the white tenants out. The rioters overturned police cars and threw stones at the firefighters who were trying to put out the blaze."

"Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson had to call in the National Guard....It took four hours for more than six hundred guardsman, police officers, and sheriff’s deputies to beat back the mob that night and three more days for the rioting over the Clarks to subside."

"The Cicero riot attracted worldwide attention. It was front-page news in Southeast Asia, made it into the Pakistan Observer, and was remarked upon in West Africa."

Adlai Stevenson was moved to refer to being constrained within segregated housing as being trapped within an "iron curtain."

Racial hatred was not the only motivation for keeping blacks out of an all-white neighborhood. There was also the very real fear of loss in economic value of the homes in the area. The accepted truth was that as soon as a single black moves in, property values plummet. Wilkerson points out that the situation was actually more complicated.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the decline in property values and neighborhood prestige was a by-product of the fear and tension itself, sociologists found. The decline often began, they noted, in barely perceptible ways, before the first colored buyer moved in."

"The instability of a white neighborhood under pressure from the very possibility of integration put the neighborhood into a kind of real estate purgatory. It set off a downward cycle of anticipation, in which worried whites no longer bought homes in white neighborhoods that might one day attract colored residents even if none lived there at the time. Rents and purchase prices were dropped ‘in a futile attempt to attract white residents,’....With prices falling and the neighborhood’s future uncertain, lenders refused to grant mortgages or made them more difficult to obtain. Panicked whites sold at low prices to salvage what equity they had left, giving the homeowners who remained little incentive to invest any further to keep up or improve their properties."

Note that this death spiral needed no action on the part of a black to occur. The threat of blacks moving in, whether real or contrived by real estate speculators, allowed speculators to buy up cheap property from whites and resell it at a premium to blacks who would be willing to pay above market prices to get into the neighborhood.

As the numbers of blacks grew, the black footprint had to grow also. Sometimes it was met with violence or threats of violence, sometimes not. But it was always met with white flight.

In 1968 Gladney and her extended family bought a house in a formerly all-white area called South Park.

"The turnover was sudden and complete and so destabilizing that it even extended to the stores on Seventy-fifth Street, to the neighborhood schools and to the street sweeping and police patrols that could have kept up the quality of life. It was as if the city lost interest when the white people left."

It took only a few years for the neighborhood school to go from essentially all white to essentially all black.

Chicago would go on to earn—and deserve—the title of the most segregated city in America. However, it was only one of many that struggled to keep their blacks behind an "iron curtain."

Is progress being made? Perhaps, but it often seems to be imperceptibly slow.

"In 2000, the U.S. Census found that, of Cicero’s population of 85,616, just one percent of the residents were black, nearly half a century after the riots that kept the Clarks from moving in."

Interestingly, there was one location that integrated with little difficulty: Hyde Park. Hyde Park was an oasis in a sea of black neighborhoods. As the home to the University of Chicago, the residents likely had little in common with those of Cicero. It seems that it was such a desirable location that the white residents could make no sense out of leaving. Where could they go that was comparable? It also helped that it was a very expensive place to buy into. Anyone who could afford to move in was probably "good people" no matter the color of their skin. Hyde Park would become home to a black man who would one day become quite famous.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney attended a neighborhood meeting in 1997 where the featured speaker was her Illinois State Senator, a young black man named Barack Obama. She and the others listened politely, asked a few questions, and then he was gone.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney died in 2004. One has to wonder at what she might have thought if she were told that a black man—from Chicago no less—would soon be President of the United States.

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