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How White Housing Riots Shaped Chicago

Over two decades, the city was wracked by violence. The policies that fed attacks, and those that resulted from it, changed the landscape of Chicago—and Baltimore.

A burning piano outside 6139 W. 19th St. in Cicero, where residents rioted after learning an African American family planned to move in, July 11, 1951.   Photo: Chicago Tribune archives

Daniel Kay Hertz, a master’s student at the U. of C.’s Harris School for Public Policy, a past contributor to Chicago (and a ton of other places), and a writer I like a lot, has a new post for us on the history of urban riots in Chicago. And he makes a point about urban riots that’s well worth remembering: “It is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in L.A.).” It wasn’t always so.

Drawing on Arnold Hirsch’s legendary work Making the Second Ghetto, he describes how those riots of the 1960s were actually a considerable break from the historical pattern. Or, as sociologist Gary Marx put it not long after those riots, “in some ways we may simply be seeing a continuation of an earlier pattern, although disturbances have changed from the classic race riot where whites attack Negroes to one in which Negroes attack the police and system.”

In the book, Hirsch calls it “an era of hidden violence,” beginning that chapter with the statement that “the late 1940s and 1950s have been viewed has a relatively quiescent period insofar as the outbreak of racial violence is concerned. Circumscribed chronologically by the riots of 1943 and the massive explosions of the 1960s, this era is characterized as the peaceful interlude between recurring large-scale disorders.”

And then goes on to demonstrate how it wasn’t so. Not just the Marquette Park riot in which Martin Luther King was hit in the head with a rock, or even the still fairly well known 1951 riot in Cicero, but multiple incidents with mobs of thousands of whites, including an estimated ten thousand in one incident on Peoria Street in Englewood. In 2000, the Reader published an account of what it was like from the inside:

Knowing about these riots hadn’t prepared the Bindmans or Sennetts for what happened to them. “Some of the mob was actually up on our porch, pushing on the door,” says Louise. “We were terrified. We put empty bottles on the floor to slow them down if they actually got inside. We had already barricaded the doors, and I remember breaking the table legs off our kitchen table to defend ourselves. We started boiling water to throw on anybody coming in. We were pretty defenseless. We didn’t expect help from the police, who were obviously assisting the hoodlums.” Aaron adds, “Remember, we had two young girls in the house at the time.”

Barbara Sennett, who was eight at the time, says, “I remember the sound of the windows being broken to this day–and all the lights turned off in the house so we could hide. We had to whisper so the people who were so close to the house wouldn’t know where we were. I still remember the crowd yelling stuff like ‘commies,’ ‘dirty Jews,’ ‘nigger lovers.’”

The Bindmans and the Sennetts were white, but it was believed that they’d let blacks into their home for a union meeting; that was enough to draw five to ten thousand people, as the Defender and the Daily News estimated.

Both families managed to stay in the neighborhood for awhile, though they were assigned round-the-clock police protection; they would have been foreclosed on anyway had a banker friend not stepped in the breach. In other words, violence worked to keep neighborhoods segregated, but not for long.

The Rise of Blockbusting

The use of violence to keep Englewood white was, obviously, futile. Blockbusting—defined as “real estate practices in which brokers encourage owners to list their homes for sale by exploiting fears of racial change within their neighborhood"—was an immensely powerful tactic: “for several years prior to 1962, blockbusters had helped ‘change’ an average of two to three blocks a week in Chicago.” It was powerful because it was profitable: “The blockbusters in the 33-parcel study apparently earned an average premium of 73 percent from their speculation…. On average, for an equity investment of $20,000, the blockbusters earned $10,530 per year more in their contract payments than they paid out in mortgages.”

It would be impossible to exclude explicit, individual racism from the housing riots of the first half of the 20th century, but economic fears driven by the state unquestionably played a role. As Elaine Lewinnek documents in her history of Chicagoland suburbanization, The Working Man’s Reward, immigrants clawed their way to a foothold in the city based on the ownership of property with the tenuous leverage of blue-collar jobs and community lending institutions. “[Frederic] Thrasher found relatively few gangs in the rooming houses and apartment districts of Chicago, or in areas that were entirely industrial without any residences,” Lewinnek writes. “He did find gangs in areas where immigrants owned homes, and especially where Catholic parish boundaries gave a strong sense of place. These youths’ families had invested heavily in homes now threatened by declining property values.”

Whether or not race determined property values, as sociologists and economists at the time believed, or racism, as W.E.B. DuBois argued, became a moot point when race and property values were connected in federal law. “These self-fulfilling prophecies came to be known as redlining and became national policy in the 1930s, when New Deal programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration—led by the Chicagoans Frederick Babcock and Homer Hoyt—made these local practices national,” Lewinnek writes.

The results were revealed, from the inside, by the 1962 Saturday Evening Post piece “Confessions of a Blockbuster”:

All the residents were plainly worried. Among them were a widow who had been living alone and had no assets but her home, and the parents of four young children who feared what “change” might mean to the youngsters’ safety. “Relax,” said the bungalow owner. “I’m selling this through a white real-estate man. I won’t even talk to a Negro.”

Imagine their shock, then, when the FOR SALE sign came down and the new owners moved in—Negroes. And consider the impact of what happened next. Three more buildings, which were already owned by property speculators, “turned” immediately. Other Negro families arrived to look at homes in the block. Real-estate men, both white and Negro, swarmed in.

Almost overnight the family with four children sold out at a sizable loss. So did six other homeowners in quick succession. “We’ll stay,” a few owners said. “We’re broad-minded.” But the situation was out of their control. Finally the last of the whites left—whether or not they could afford to move. Like hundreds of others who have been similarly blitzed, they never really knew what hit them.

I knew. I triggered the whole sequence of events by buying the bungalow and quickly selling it to a Negro. I am a blockbuster.

But what of the blockbusters themselves? Beryl Satter, author of Family Properties, the daughter of a crusading lawyer and Lawndale landlord, puts their method in its own historical perspective:

Lawndale’s operators, its schemers and hustlers, had much in common with the area’s idealists. Like my father, several of them were first-or second-generation immigrant Jews. Their early years, like those of my father, were marked by anti-Semitism and poverty. But while my father’s childhood disability and exposure to his father Isaac’s social idealism inspired in him a profound empathy for the oppressed, these men drew very different conclusions from the harsh realities they had witnessed during the Depression. They had observed a world of victims and of victimizers, of those who “worked the system” and those who were destroyed by it. And they knew which side of that divide they wanted to be on.

“White flight was the policy of our federal, state, and local government,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. That gave the blockbusters considerable leverage, and the machinations of that market were more powerful than the vigilante violence that sought to preserve white enclaves. At most, according to Hirsch, it had “mixed results.”

But some of those results were quite powerful, if not obvious, Hirsch writes.

At most, they exercised a negative power, never able to thwart plans they opposed but able to extract concessions when they viewed their interests as too severely threatened…. Most significantly, whites in outlying residential neighborhoods were able to shape the policies of the Chicago Housing Authority and transform that agency from one that tinkered with the status quo into one that served as a bulwark of segregation. Essentially, however, the position of such white neighborhoods was still one of relative weakness compared to the forces that were creating the postwar reconstruction program. Unable to do anything in a positive sense for themselves, they could only, to a limited extent, prevent things from being done to them.

The way in which the city’s “ethnics” made their voices heard and their power felt was through violence. Although not universally efficacious—some neighborhoods successfully employed violence to prevent racial succession, whereas others simply endured it as part of the transition process—local disorders were instrumental in molding both CHA site selection and tenant selection policies…. Moreover, by the mid-1950s there were significant changes in CHA personnel, which also indicated its inability to overcome hardened white resistance. Most important among these was the replacement of Elizabeth Wood as executive secretary during the Trumbull Park disorders. The personification of the CHA’s nondiscriminatory postwar policies, her removal marked a turning point in the process in which the housing authority was first subdued and then enlisted in the struggle to maintain the racial status quo. More political than pathological, Chicago’s housing violence, if limited in scope, was nonetheless effective.

Baltimore and Chicago

These changes did not occur in a vacuum; Chicago and Baltimore share this history, perhaps more closely than any others. Baltimore preceded Chicago in implementing racial covenants, legal agreements among homeowners to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods; in 1911, it passed a segregation ordinance intended to have the same effect. When the courts shot it down, Baltimore’s mayor, James H. Preston, specifically sought to follow Chicago’s model. Decades later, the cities would follow parallel paths in the location and construction of public housing, as Hirsch writes in his article “A Racial Agenda for the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954,” with the two cities serving as labs for federal housing policy:

At the time the NAACP registered its protest, [Housing and Home Finance Agency] data indicated that Chicago and Baltimore served as exemplars of the Housing Act of 1949 in action. The 266 slum sites already selected for the Title III public housing program projected the displacement of 55,778 families; of these, three out of four (74 percent) were African American. Similarly, 53 “Title I slum project areas” slated the removal of 41,630 inner-city families; African Americans comprised 85 percent of those displaced…. Such targeted and disproportionate uprooting, combined with relocation policies that enhanced segregation, clearly eroded the concept of equity and laid bare its limitations.

[snip]

Significantly, redevelopment along the lines of the Chicago and Baltimore models remained permissible under the new regime. Neither the selective, massive, and disproportionate dislocation of African Americans nor their resettlement in a segregated pattern more extreme than before merited proscription. Building on the November 1951 “Chicago Principles” and previous “operating experience,” the new procedures focused on the land question and simply tried to “assure that the living space available in a community to Negro…families is not decreased.” Waverly- and Lake Meadows–type developments (as well as Baltimore’s and Chicago’s intensely segregative public housing programs) remained acceptable, although they now required the ostensible consultation and nominal consent of local minority leadership.

Hence the title of Hirsch’s book, Making the Second Ghetto. That construction would come back to haunt Chicago, as in other cities caught up in the civil disorders of the next decade: “The ‘invisible’ violence of the postwar era, judiciously applied by those having some measure of influence, set the stage for the more spectacular, but less effective, black upheavals of the 1960s.”

When those happened, they resulted in the hastily assembled “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” better known as the Kerner Report after commission chair Otto Kerner, then the governor of Illinois. One of its explanations for the widespread riots of 1967 echoes Hirsch’s conclusion: “A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest.” The repercussions of these cities’ shared history is still being felt today.

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