Separate and Unequal: The Legacy of Racist Housing Policy in St. Louis
November 1, 2016
“Separate and Unequal”: The Legacy of Racist Housing Policy in St. Louis is the first installment of a three-part series on housing, accessibility to education, and the Voluntary Student Transfer Program. The Globe is dedicating three issues to discuss these topics because, as we dove into this story in May and have continued to learn more and more, the story we want to tell has grown. We felt in order to do this story justice we had to dedicate the space, time and in-depth, long-term reporting to these issues.
“None of said Lots; nor any building or structure at any time situated thereon, may be sold, re-sold, conveyed, leased or rented to or occupied by any person not wholly of the Caucasian race, except that this provision shall not prevent any bona fide servant from being employed by and from living with any resident family which is wholly of the Caucasian race.”
It’s 1985. A lawyer has just purchased a single-family home in Colonial Park, a subdivision less than a mile from Clayton High School’s campus.
“When I moved in, a neighborhood trustee approached me and asked me, ‘I heard you’re a lawyer; we have a little problem we’d like to see if you could address,’” current CHS history teacher Rick Kordenbrock said.
This “little problem” – racial restrictive deed covenants – happens to be a national phenomenon.
If Kordenbrock would have looked on the deeds for any house in his neighborhood, he would have seen words with the sole purpose of preventing black people from living in this Ladue neighborhood.
While the enforcement of these racial deed restrictive covenants – which inhibited the buying, selling and renting of properties in certain neighborhoods to people of non-Caucasian descent – were determined unconstitutional in 1948, the words remain on the deeds as remnants of the oppressive system of housing segregation.
“Despite the fact that this clause was not enforceable after 1948, and the fact it’s now been formally removed, and it’s not there, I’ve lived in that neighborhood since 1985, and I don’t believe we’ve had one African American property owner,” Kordenbrock said. “We haven’t had a black family purchase a home in our neighborhood, and we’re walking distance from Clayton High School. That’s the reality though.”
History of Housing in St. Louis
“There’s such a stark disparity between the conditions found in one half of the city versus another,” lecturer of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis Michael Allen said. “I mean, the conditions in North St. Louis and the south side are very, very different in terms of population density, building density. It’s not accidental, this is the result of many choices, many factors.”
As Allen suggests, the manifestation of these social inequities can not be traced back to one single cause. Despite it being a culmination of many different factors, Chris Hamilton, a fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that the problems have most predominantly been rooted in federal policy and decision-making.
“To backtrack and sort of look back to it, how we got here, I think the most important point to underscore is that it is largely a result of federal, state and local government policy. But especially federal level policy,” Hamilton said. “There’s a myth that our racially segregated neighborhoods came [solely] through individual choices, of people wanting to be around other people like them, the manipulations of real estate agents and brokers, those are all part of the story. But the thing that puts its all into play is federal government policy.”
St. Louis’ unique geography yielded its susceptibility to becoming one of the most heavily segregated cities in the country.
“St. Louis is what we would call a border city that sort of sits right between the north and the south so it has a lot of these racial relations and racial attitudes related to the deeper south, but not a lot of African-Americans lived in St. Louis until the earlier years of the 20th century,” University of Iowa professor and author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” Colin Gordon said. “So as African Americans come in, you see very dramatic and ultimately successful efforts to segregate African Americans in cities like St. Louis much more than other cities.”
In spite of the current and recent existence of racial segregation in St. Louis, this had not always been the case. In the 1930s, for instance, there were neighborhoods in St. Louis that were integrated.
The neighborhood of Desoto-Carr, a housing project on Choteau and 14th, was one example of an integrated community within the city of St. Louis.
“Desoto-Carr used to be a racially integrated neighborhood that was full of European immigrants, as well as black families,” Hamilton said. “They lived together, it wasn’t perfect or without animosity and differences, but these neighborhoods were integrated because this was a time when not everyone had a car and the workers needed to be close to the job centers in downtown St. Louis.”
However, due to local government intervention, the racially diverse makeup of Desoto-Carr was not permanent.
“That neighborhood was razed through federal housing projects and in its place an all-black housing project was built there. Further in south St. Louis City, they built an all-white housing project,” Hamilton said. “So they would literally raze racially integrated neighborhoods and replace them with these segregated housing projects. So they kicked off the patterns that we see today.”
Racial division was largely a product of zoning which, according to Washington University in St. Louis professor Daniel Mandelker, is the “way in which cities divide their cities into different zoning districts and only certain uses are permitted in the zoning district.”
Although the Buchanan vs. Warley supreme court case of 1917 ruled that “racial segregation of residential housing was unconstitutional in respect to the 14th Amendment,” racial zoning was and remains in practice nearly a century later, albeit in less explicit ways.
“[Black] neighborhoods were zoned in ways that allowed them, even pushed them to become slums. Black neighborhoods were often zoned to have commercial, residential and industrial all side by side. The white neighborhoods had much stricter zoning policy. So what they did through the zoning that allowed the neighborhoods to have bars in them and saloons and these industrial sites, they zoned them in a way to create centers of vice. The way that the zoning in these cities occurred was that they ensured that these things were going to happen in black neighborhoods,” Hamilton said. “You end up with these neighborhoods with poverty, and vice and industry, that in a way created what became to be known as urban slums.”
Not only were areas zoned in a way which allowed for racial segregation, but racial deed covenants also served as a mechanism to prevent blacks from living in many areas in St. Louis.
“The supreme court outlawed [racial] zoning and they moved on to the local real estate interests and establish basically the same set of restrictions just by the way which regulate the practice of real estate,” Gordon said. “And [real estate agents] encouraged homeowners to attach what are called restrictive deed covenants to the deeds of their homes, so that they can go up and down the street and got people to attach these legal instruments to their deeds that [say], ‘I promise never to sell my property to an African American and I understand my neighbors have the same promise.’ And these spread across St. Louis between about 1910 and the end of World War II so they covered large swaths of the city on the south side and on the north side.”
This practice was not long-lasting.
In 1948, the Shelley vs. Kraemer supreme court ruling, which was in response to a situation where the Shelley’s, a black family, were kept from moving into a home in the white Fairground district of St. Louis due to their race, outlawed the practice of racial restrictive deed covenants.
But society’s seeking of racial separation pervaded all steps of the real estate process.
“These FHA-backed loans for housing developers to build these large-scale projects out in the suburbs… It was explicitly mandated that to receive these federally backed loans, you were only allowed to create sort of white only suburban communities,” Hamilton said. “So developers that tried to create black suburban communities were denied these loans, which meant the loans they had to get, if they could get any at all, would come at a much higher risk and much higher interest rates, and generally they could not get any additional money, even if they wanted to take on those burdens.”
The creation of white suburban communities was attractive to many who were able to live in those communities, which led to the popularization of white suburbia.
“These places became cheaper to live in than buying or renting in the city because of these federally backed mortgages which you could get in these neighborhoods,” Hamilton said. “So [white people] were really incentivized to move to these suburban communities that black families were not able to get into, both on the front and back end.”
Inevitably, the Shelley vs. Kramer supreme court ruling and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were not permanent remedies to the inequity Africans Americans faced in the housing process.
“[Governments] limited affordable housing by limiting multi-family units and limiting the smallest lot sizes that could be constructed. These are some of the tools that were used after the Fair Housing Act and after these more explicitly segregated policies were no longer acceptable,” Hamilton said. “So they turned to this kind of zoning, which in a way, is more of a class based zoning, which continued that initial inertia of the original segregative policies. So it became another tool for these municipalities to ensure the type of populations that they wanted, which were richer and whiter, in general.”
One way in which governments sought to remedy the existence of racial segregation in the home-buying process was through the implementation of housing vouchers.
“[The government] would give housing vouchers to some of these families to move somewhere else and these white suburban communities wouldn’t accept them. They were again relegated to these small sets of neighborhoods in North St. Louis city,” Hamilton said. “This is how North St. Louis city became largely a black residential enclave. So as housing was being demolished in other places, as that was happening, these black tenants and homeowners found themselves confined to the areas in which they might be able to take these vouchers or otherwise, they just legally were not allowed to move to any other neighborhoods.”
The remnants of these underlying issues are visible to those living in St. Louis today.
In addition, the history of racial segregation has yielded residential complacency, producing a largely divided city in terms of its racial makeup.
“Sometimes there’s this psychogeography — like the sort of mental image of the city. The sort of perception of safety and comfort. People aren’t blind to what’s happening one neighborhood over and it impacts their ability and their desire to stay where they are,” Allen said. “These sort of political boundaries, these dividing boundaries, are these visual divides. You know you can follow these lines.”
The distinct racial segregation that once separated St. Louis city from St. Louis county has manifested itself in all parts of St. Louis as racial segregation has also become a suburban phenomenon.
“Our suburbs are mainly very highly racially segregated. We have few that are not,” Hamilton said. “We have a pattern in the North St. Louis county populations where most of the population is black, we have a handful of suburbs to the west that tend to be a little more integrated, and in the South, the suburbs tend to have a high white population. The suburbs in the far west in the county tend to be overwhelmingly white.”
For Allen, the long history of racial segregation in St. Louis has confined both white and black people to a limited understanding – which further allows for this racial divide to permeate society.
“If you’re rich and white or you’re poor and black, you’re more likely to be surrounded by people just like you. You’re not really thinking outside yourself,” Allen said. “Very few districts really cross those social stratifications. We’ve isolated these groups and are not cooperating.”
Gordon suggests that the consequences of these issues are felt not just by members of the African American community, but by the entire community.
“I think it is a tragedy in many respects to think that cities clearly suffered from this history. And it’s not just African-Americans in the city but for the city as a whole,” Gordon said. “I think the more diverse and integrated settings are now safer, they’re more politically tolerant, they tend to have stronger political institutions, stronger patterns of political engagement, all of these are good things. But so much damage has been done over a long period of time for St. Louis and other cities like it, that it’s really hard to get there from where we are now.”
“A line was drawn in 1876 around [St. Louis City] when the city separated from the county and cannot annex anything. Boston is like that, San Francisco is like that. It is very small in its geographic area and it cannot expand. That left way for new suburbs away from the city like University City and Webster Groves,” Howard A. Stamper Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis Daniel Mandelker said. “Beyond that, you had cities developing as bedroom suburbs. Like Chesterfield, like Wildwood. That’s why that happened. But it happened here more readily because the inner city could not expand. It happened particularly here because the city was choked by this permanent line. This permanent 1876 boundary line choked the city. When they drew this line they thought they had enough room for 100 years. By 1904, because of the streetcar and then the highways, they had reached their limits.”
Because the 1876 boundary line was unable to be pushed, people looked beyond the city limits and to surrounding areas for expansion.
“The city of St. Louis ends at Skinker Boulevard and the river, so it’s crescent-shaped, and existed from the 1870s on and as it grew, private developers would go and build attractive houses beyond the city’s edge just on land that they bought,” Gordon said. “And then over time, the residents there would say, ‘Well we want to have a better tax base, we want a better school system, a local fire department, we want the kinds of things that a municipality has.’”
With these desires, new municipalities were being popularized in St. Louis county. In fact, the 2010 census indicates that there are 90 municipalities in St. Louis county.
According to Gordon, “Missouri has very peculiar rules that made it very easy to create a new town. As the metropolitan area did grow in the middle years of the 20th century, you have this frantic pattern of people building a development in the cornfields and then some time later, five, 10 years later, coming to the state and saying ‘we want to make a town’ and the state would say ‘fine, just tell me where the borders are. The rules weren’t any stricter than that so then everyone had the incentive to make their own little enclaves. And they could try to make it work exactly the way they wanted to, but over time, it makes no sense for the region because you end up having all of these little towns basically competing with each other to get people to live there, to get good schools, to get tax base to get the next Target or Walmart to locate there.”
A direct consequence of the ease of expansion and urban sprawl in the St. Louis area was political fragmentation.
“So you have the fragmentation and the development of all these little settings because Missouri law makes it possible and in part you get it because at the time, people had reasons, people had motives for making rules on a very local basis largely because they wanted to segregate the population by controlling land use,” Gordon said.
These ‘motives’ were driven by the desire of the municipality to cordon themselves off to increase the average socioeconomic level and thereby improve the funding of their school districts and keep their property values high.
“No one really saw it as a problem in the 1940s and 50s,” Gordon said. “The city would keep sprawling west and no one was anticipating the environmental costs of that and no one was really paying much attention to the fact that this was really coming at the expense of the central city. And people were moving out of the city permanently and its population was declining.”
These trends of the displacement out of the central city into the surrounding county are still evident in St. Louis.
The city’s population in 2013 was 318,416, and the county’s, roughly one million.
“It’s segregated, and it’s sprawled. We have more than most because there’s nothing to stop us [from spreading west]. We have nine times the land we need for the population,” Gordon said. “In terms of the different types of housing, we have a pretty well identified western suburbs with growing densities, we have a group of older suburbs like Webster Groves and Kirkwood, and then we have the city itself, which is in decline.”
However the sprawl has had serious repercussions on St. Louis’ balance of governmental powers.
“In the last 50 years, the lack of regional government structures, there’s almost no regional government, there’s not really any cooperation or collaboration across these district boundaries, so solutions are very competitive and the landscape is very competitive, population tax dollars employment. The city is really not the priority of the region, everybody’s kind of looking out for themselves and that just perpetuates more and more investment outside of the center of the region and continues this low-density sprawl geography,” Allen said.
The ease at which expansion occurred and new municipalities were formed in St. Louis is still noticeable today.
When former CHS history teacher Donna Rogers-Beard moved to St. Louis from Chicago in 1969, the most distinctive feature of St. Louis she noticed was the plethora of municipalities, each with their own tax-funded amenities.
“All these small towns. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Where am I? How did I get from Charlac to Jennings to whatever to whatever. What is this? A town of 50 people. A town of 300, and all of these different police cars. It was just mind-boggling. I immediately thought ‘what a waste of money and duplication of services,’” Rogers-Beard said.
Odis Johnson, a professor of education and sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, argues that the alleviation of these structural issues requires a cohesive effort on behalf of all its stakeholders.
“There needs to be some kind of effort where all these city, municipality, and township leaders get together and plan to join,” Johnson said. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this situation where you have all these people in Florissant being cited so many times by their police in order to pay a bill, to pay the court system. There has to be some recognition of that, and that needs to be a priority.”
Housing and Education
Segregation in schools is not a recent development.
Rather, Johnson argues that it dates to more fundamental times in American history.
“We can look back to the Jim Crow Era within the South and then you’ll see that neighborhoods were more integrated because Jim Crow laws made it so that whites would expect basically no interaction with African Americans within public institutions such as schools,” Johnson said. “They had white drinking fountains, black drinking fountains; everything was completely separate, so they were actually okay with living in similar neighborhoods because there was just no social interaction permitted by law.”
As Jim Crow laws were outlawed and some schools became integrated, another shift in schooling took place: the downfall of our city’s public schooling.
“When you look at people moving out of the city, both white families and African-American families, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, most of what they’re following is good schools. It’s not that they feel unsafe, it is that they feel like the local public resources, especially the local schools, are no longer any good,” Gordon said.
The high status of suburban schools was fueled by the large amount of tax dollars available to them.
As population and economic decline ensued in the city, their educational systems were weakened.
“Schools are funded with local tax money, so if an area goes into decline and its property values start to fall off, there’s less money for schools and if the local government says, ‘Oh my god, we’re in decline, we need to give tax breaks to businesses to come in’ those businesses aren’t paying property taxes, so there’s no money for schools,” Gordon said.
These patterns still exist and are large contributors to the disparity in public education between St. Louis City and St. Louis County.
Since school districts rely heavily on residential taxes, there is inherently a direct relationship between housing and education.
“Most of our school funding comes from local property taxes. So that is one of the first and most direct ways that place influences schooling because we are often schooled in the same kinds of places that we live in,” Hamilton said.
Due to socioeconomic differences between towns, some school districts receive disproportionately less funding than others. This uneven allocation of funding has direct consequences on the quality of the education that is provided.
“What we do have a problem with is the disparity in the amount of money spent on schools because it’s based on housing,” retired CHS history teacher Donna Rogers-Beard said. “The places that’ve been devastated by segregation, white flight, urban renewal, urban destruction, all the things that happen, their schools and those communities just don’t have the money that some of the more affluent schools have so that is the residual of all of this, and that hasn’t changed.”
Allen suggests that the venue of education serves as an indicator of the existence of segregation.
“I think the schools are important because they’re the one part of the government that everyone has to live with and where those values and that segregation is taught,” Allen said. “That is where you learn that you’re black or white. You don’t know that until you go to school.”
Although Clayton is notorious for being one of the most affluent communities in the region, its history is not separate from the common St. Louis story.
Among many other things, a prevailing similarity between Clayton and other wealthy municipalities is its rather one-dimensional racial composition.
According to 2010 census data, 78 percent of Clayton residents are white and 8.2 percent are black.
Like many other largely white municipalities, Clayton does not offer affordable housing.
The median single-family home price in Clayton was 581,000 dollars in 2011, according to the City of Clayton. Whereas in the same year, the City of St. Louis’ median single-family home price was a mere 89,325 dollars.
The City of Clayton is also zoned analogously to that of municipalities like Ladue, Kirkwood and Chesterfield, all of which have demographics that align similar to Clayton.
A resounding majority of Clayton is zoned as “Single Family Dwelling Districts” or “Large Lot Single Family Dwelling Districts.”
These neighborhoods, such as Claverach Park, the Moorlands and Brentmoor Park contain many large, colonial style homes that attract buyers to the city of certain socioeconomic status.
But, the City of Clayton does have some districts zoned for one and two family dwellings, and multiple family dwellings.
Although Clayton holds duplexes, condominiums, and apartment buildings in some districts, many of these properties are luxury-styled and are similarly priced to the homes in Clayton.
Clayton’s lack of affordable housing has made its predominantly white demographic somewhat irreversible, and integration an immense challenge.
“Everytime I see a 340,000 dollar ranch torn down for a 1.6 million dollar megamansion, again Clayton is not really doing the things necessary to make this a racially integrated community. Let’s face it; there’s not only an academic gap, there’s a wealth gap,” Rogers-Beard said. “The chances that Clayton is going to get a 20 percent black population with housing prices as they are, no, not that great. To me, anything else is artificial. What are you supposed to do? Put up signs? I just don’t know what you do other than making sure that housing is available so you’re really, really part of community. That’s the only way that it’s going to be legitimate.”
Mike Musick, former assistant principal and football coach at CHS, experienced first-hand the harsh reality of St. Louis’ racial segregation when he drove home his football players who did not reside in Clayton.
“There were certain neighborhoods that the cabs wouldn’t go to. It was too dangerous. They would never say it, but they would say that the cab would be there in 20 minutes and it would never show up. Then we would call again and the cab would never show up. Now it’s midnight, and we would just load the kids in our cars. I was a young coach. We had to get the kids home,” Musick said. “There would be situations where the players would say, ‘Coach Mike don’t go down that street because that’s not where you want to go.’ And I’d say, ‘That’s the fastest way to get you home.’ They’d say, ‘That’s where the Bloods or the Crips are. If you drive down there it’s going to get real dangerous for everybody.’ I literally learned from block to block to block in many of our neighborhoods, there was danger. I’d get to the kid’s house and all around the neighborhood I would know some families. A lot of those kids were going to Clayton. It was an interesting to have conversations with parents about their neighborhoods and their hopes and dreams for their kids.”