Earlier this month, an Oklahoma judge ruled that the City of Tulsa cannot be held legally or financially responsible for the actions of the violent mob that burned down the city’s Greenwood section, known as the Black Wall Street, in 1921. Three survivors of that murderous riot will not, it appears, receive compensation. Despite their disappointment, the legal effort has revived the historical prominence of what was once an unjustifiably obscure tragedy but has now become the subject of an official state inquiry and formal apology from Tulsa’s city government.
The destruction of Greenwood, unfortunately, was not an unusual fate for historic black communities in the U.S. While the Greenwood massacre stands out for the horrific means and scale of its destruction, dozens of similar communities were demolished, legally, by local governments through use of a federal urban-renewal “slum-clearance” program. These actions, no less than the events of the Greenwood riot, robbed black Americans of wealth, businesses, and civil society institutions. These lost neighborhoods—the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Mill Creek Valley in St. Louis, Kenyon-Barr in Cincinnati, Black Bottom in Detroit, Bronzeville in Chicago, West Ninth Street in Little Rock, 18th and Vine in Kansas City, the Fillmore District in San Francisco—hummed and thrived until planners decided that they were slums that had to be altered, cleared entirely or in part, or replaced (most often) with public housing projects or highways.
These federal urban-renewal funds—authorized by the federal Housing Act of 1949—were used on a truly massive scale. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that “approved projects had cleared (or intended to clear) over 400,000 housing units, forcing the relocation of over 300,000 families, just over half of whom were nonwhite” (emphasis added). “The proposed clearance areas included nearly 57,000 total acres (90 square miles), of which about 35 percent was proposed for residential redevelopment, 27 percent for streets and public rights-of-way, 15 percent for industrial use, 13 percent for commercial use, and 11 percent for public or ‘semi-public’ use.”
Progressives such as Eleanor Roosevelt, an early champion of public housing, believed that, by constructing blacks-only public housing such as the Brewster Homes in Detroit, whose ceremonial opening she attended, they were doing blacks a favor by including them in these programs. Many then viewed public housing as desirable quarters. As Edward Banfield and Martin Meyerson wrote in their landmark book about Chicago public housing, Politics, Planning and the Public Interest, “The leaders of the race relations organizations wanted Negroes to have their fair share of public housing.”
But as the nature of slum clearance became clear, black thought leaders came to oppose such projects. A notable example was the clearance of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which would, ironically, gain fame in absentia as the setting for playwright August Wilson’s greatest plays, such as Fences and Jitney and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. (Wilson’s home is preserved today, but the neighborhood is gone). As Brian Robick wrote in his Carnegie-Mellon dissertation, “Initially, the prospect of improvement won the approval of some of the neighborhood’s elites, but these projects, all intended for a primarily white audience that lived beyond the borders of the Hill, coupled with an inadequate relocation effort, quickly ignited grassroots resistance. Neighborhood activists objected to renewal plans and to official definitions of Hill District blight, which implicated not only buildings but also the African American population that lived, worked, and shopped in them, as factors contributing to urban decline” (emphasis added). In other words, the Hill was “blighted” because it was black.