To Understand America's Failure on Housing Desegregation, Look at the Capital CityHistorians in the News
tags: racism, civil rights, segregation, housing, urban history, Washington DC, Lyndon Johnson, Kerner Commission
Kaila Philo is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., where she covers politics, policy, and law. She currently works as an investigative journalist at Talking Points Memo.
ON A COOL SPRING DAY in April 1968, President Lyndon Johnson walked into the White House’s East Room, where he was greeted with what the Associated Press described as “loud, enthusiastic, and sustained” applause from civil rights leaders and politicos alike. It had been a week since James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot, triggering a wave of civil unrest some called the Holy Week Uprisings. A day after the murder, Johnson had sent a letter to Congress urging them to expedite a bill that would outlaw housing discrimination based on “the color of his [a man’s] skin.” Then, six days later, he was in the House Chamber to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act. “Now the Negro families no longer suffer the humiliation of being turned away because of their race,” he said.
But saying so did not make it so. While blatant discrimination faded in some areas of Black American life, the real estate market was not transformed with the stroke of LBJ’s pen. Even now, after more than half a century has elapsed, statistics show persistent inequality in the housing sector. In 1960, eight years before passage of the Fair Housing Act, 65 percent of white Americans owned their homes, compared to 38 percent of Black Americans. Last year, 74.6 percent of whites owned their homes while only 45.3 percent of Blacks did. Over the last sixty-two years, not only has the racial gap remained, it has grown from a 27-point gap to a more than 29-point gap today.
Washington, D.C. itself is a case study in failed aspirations, and not just because of legislation that didn’t deliver on a promise. A city with a rich history of Black migration and a growing Black middle class has remained segregated, almost as if it were two: one city serving as a bastion of opportunity for the educated elite, the other as a once-imagined cultural utopia in decay. In the wider metropolitan area, the disparity is especially pronounced, as is the case with most urban-suburban comparisons. The Center for Economic Studies reported last year that, based on 2020 census data, the level of segregation in the greater Washington area (often called DMV, for District, Maryland, and Virginia) ranked as “very high.” On an index that measures Black-white segregation among fifty metro areas in the United States with the largest Black populations, D.C. was thirteenth highest. Census data also shows that white homeownership in the D.C. metro region is around 50 percent, while it’s just shy of 26 percent for Blacks.
“In terms of the laws on the books, we are measurably better now,” Mechele Dickerson, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Homeownership and America’s Financial Underclass, told me. But if the question is whether we’ve achieved housing equality, “we are no closer now than we were fifty years ago.”
There was a time when it seemed things might go differently in Washington, D.C.—that the nation’s capital might lead the way toward integrating Blacks into middle-class prosperity. Between the start of the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than twenty-five thousand Black Americans moved to D.C., fleeing violence in the South. They often settled in a few areas near military forts, like Fort Stevens and Fort Totten, which were built to protect D.C. from Confederate attacks, because the Union Army provided medical care, education, shelter, and jobs that weren’t available elsewhere. “We were widely considered the capital of Black Americans as far back as the 1890s, just because of the amount of Black athletes, but also large Black institutions . . . even though in the 1890s we were nowhere near a Black majority,” George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor and co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, told me.
By 1900, the city’s Black population swelled to around eighty-seven thousand residents. Black leaders established institutions like the Bethel Literary and Historical Association; the Colored Preparatory High School, which was the nation’s first public Black high school. Howard University, known as the “capstone of Negro education” back then and “The Mecca” today, drew Black students from around the country. Howard’s graduate schools would go on to produce many of the country’s Black professionals, not to mention the city’s own Black elite. Black intellectuals, artists, and activists gravitated in droves to the city, alongside migrants from the South looking for quality work. Washington provided stable, well-paying jobs through the federal government, and federal workers soon formed the core of the city’s Black middle and upper classes.
The city was also remarkably integrated at this point. Throughout Reconstruction, every quadrant of D.C. featured diverse neighborhoods with Black and white, wealthy and poor residents sometimes living in the same area. In 1860, for example, the city’s wealthiest man, a white banker, lived on the same block of H Street as a Black hotelier and a poor Black widow. But D.C. was also evolving into the first (and largest) predominantly Black city in the nation.
Yet developers envisioned a different future. When William Stewart, a wealthy New Yorker, moved to the city in 1865, he embarked on an ambitious plan to redevelop the West End. Soon, property taxes in the area climbed, and poor Blacks who could once afford the area were forced out. Stewart’s influence was aided by a Nevada mining millionaire named Francis Newlands, who bought seventeen hundred acres of land in Northwest Washington to develop luxury country homes.
Newlands, who was both a U.S. senator and an active investor in land and trolley systems, and who believed the United States should be a “white man’s country,” screened potential buyers to ensure that they’d “maintain or increase values” of the property and protect against “undesirable elements.” As a result of Stewart’s and Newlands’s ambitions, LeDroit Park, the West End, and Chevy Chase developed into exclusive enclaves for upper-class buyers. New developments created for the upper and middle classes sprung up, as well, in populous D.C. neighborhoods like Kalorama, Washington Heights, Brookland, and Petworth; they made no space for poor or Black residents.
Citizens associations, made up of white male property holders, also popped up throughout the District. By 1900, twenty such groups used their collective power to reinforce segregation on claims that Black residents would bring crime and poverty to their neighborhoods. One association’s brochure bragged about keeping “objectionable classes” out of their neighborhood.