In his brilliant, exhaustively researched best seller, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein argues that until the last quarter of the 20th century, racially explicit housing policies of the federal, state, and local governments defined where white and Black Americans should live.

“Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes—private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation—still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression,” Rothstein writes. “Segregation by intentional government action is not de facto. Rather, it is what the courts call de jure: segregation by law and public policy.”

And that’s exactly what happened in the Triangle, experts say.

Rothstein’s work was at the center of a webinar presentation last week called “History of Segregation in the Triangle,” hosted by the Urban Land Institute. It featured Mel Norton, an urban planner and former project director with Durham’s Bull City 150; Kofi Boone, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning with North Carolina State University’s College of Design; and Howard Lee, a former state senator who also served as Chapel Hill’s first Black mayor. 

In the talk, the trio outlined how systemic racial disparities and racist housing policies played out in the Triangle’s three main cities.

Norton kicked off the discussion with a presentation about the history of housing inequities in Durham. Noting that “inequality is a franchise model, and every city has some version of the same story,” she explained that during the 1930s, Durham was a working-class factory town, anchored by tobacco factories in the city center and textile mills in the east and west.

Textile mills were only open to white workers, but tobacco—the city’s primary industry—“was open to both white and Black people, although the jobs were segregated, with the hardest, dirtiest, and most physically intense jobs relegated to Black folks,” she said.

The 1930s also marked the height of Black Wall Street, which was praised as a model of Black capitalism and the Black middle class.

“I’ve heard statistics that Durham had more Black-owned businesses than any other city in the South outside of Atlanta,” she said.

There were five Black neighborhoods—West End, Hickstown, Walltown, the East End, and most significantly, Hayti, the city’s largest Black community.

“What we saw was that in the Jim Crow era in Durham, all the political power was in the hands of white folks,” Norton explained. “This is reflected in many ways, including the distribution of public amenities and what we call ‘public nuisances,’ or ‘public harms.’”

Among the public harms were the trash incinerators that were placed solely in Black neighborhoods, and the negative impact they had on residents’ quality of life.

In contrast, Norton said, virtually all of the public parks during that period were in white neighborhoods.

Black communities were also forced to go without sewer lines, drainage pipes, paved roads, or sidewalks.

Norton noted that redlining emerged during the Great Depression, when the federal government decided it wanted to become involved in the housing market as a strategy to build and stabilize the middle class. Federal agents were sent to more than 200 cities, including Durham. Those federal agents worked with local real estate agents to assess the risks for home lending and created color-coded maps of city neighborhoods. The green areas were deemed most safe for home loans, followed by blue and yellow areas.

The “‘no-go’ areas,” the parts of town without quality of life-improving amenities, Norton explained, were red, hence the term “redlining.” “The areas correspond in Durham, and in city after city across the country, exactly to the parts of town where Black folks live and the poorest white neighborhoods,” thereby creating “blatant racial discrimination in a federal program.”

In the subsequent decades, federal agencies like the housing and veterans administrations, along with the private industry as a whole, adopted the discriminatory home lending guidelines. The practice would severely curtail home ownership based on race for generations to come.

There were other tools, such as restrictive covenants that prohibited Black families from purchasing homes in new Durham subdivisions in Hope Valley, Forest Hills, and Watts-Hillandale, among other neighborhoods.

A similar pattern unfolded in Raleigh.

Boone said that since the city’s founding, Raleigh has been divided along race, class, and income lines. He pointed to the city’s “racialized topography,” where low-lying areas that were difficult to develop were the site of early Black communities, a phenomenon that persists today.

“There is a strong correlation between race and elevation,” he said, referring to the high ground claimed by whites during slavery and maintained during Jim Crow.

The college professor said elements of that racial tradition persist.

He pointed to the city’s Rochester Heights community, the first post-World War II subdivision built by Black Americans in southeast Raleigh, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Boone said the low-lying community was hit hard by Hurricanes Fran and Floyd during the 1990s. 

Predominantly white neighborhoods in North Raleigh received more help dealing with the fallout, Boone said.

“The city of Raleigh assisted those northern communities by retrofitting their infrastructure to protect from future flooding,” he said, adding that the city originally tried to charge Rochester Heights and Southeast Raleigh residents a special fee to cover the cost of similar improvements in their neighborhoods. Residents balked at the racially disparate approach and successfully squashed the idea, he said.

Boone said residential inequities have had other real-world impacts.

He pointed to research that measured life expectancy based on zip codes and determined that residents in the historically Black South Park neighborhood in Raleigh live five to ten years less in comparison to the rest of the county and state.

Howard Lee moved to Chapel Hill in 1964 to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of North Carolina. Five years after his arrival, he was elected as the first African American mayor of a majority-white town; starting in the 1990s, he served two tenures in the state senate.

Lee, who knew little about the town when he first arrived there, said the place had a “checkered history.” It was known as a liberal and progressive stronghold, but at the same time, it was very conservative.

“Change never came easy, but it pretended it wanted to change,” Lee said.

Lee said because Chapel Hill was perceived as liberal, he and his wife thought they would not have any problems moving into a subdivision that was being built in east Chapel Hill. Nonetheless, they found only one realtor who would even talk to them about purchasing a home there.

The Lees ended up purchasing a home in Colony Woods.

“For the next year, we lived under threat of death,” he said. “And our kids were threatened when they went to school.”

The family survived, and Lee went to the city council and asked its members to consider passing an ordinance that would force realtors to sell to everyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

When the town council members refused to pass an open housing ordinance, Lee says he started “to look around and recognize that the Black section of town had been totally neglected for years.” 

“There were unpaved streets, no sidewalks, and no houses being built in that section,” he said.

Several years later, after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Lee went back to the town council and again petitioned its members to pass an open housing ordinance to attract a broad array of people.

When the council again refused, Lee decided to run for mayor. Lee said he did not realize the enormity of the challenges Black residents were facing. “Sewage lines and water lines had not been extended into the Black community,” he said. “There was very little interest in accommodating students. There were very few apartments, but there were a lot of mobile home parks in the area.”

After Lee was elected mayor in 1969, he made history again when council members passed the first open housing ordinance in the town’s history.

To create a level of fairness and accessibility, Lee said, the Town paved the streets, extended water and sewer services, and provided recreational opportunities to the Black community.

These days, Lee is concerned for working-class residents who may be forced out of the community.

“Chapel Hill is not very accommodating, not very inviting, I should say, to people of color,” he said. “We still don’t have very many people of color choosing to live in Chapel Hill.”

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