Great Society at 50: Prince George’s illustrates domestic programs’ impact — and limits

Joseph M. Parker Sr. has lived in Prince George’s County all of his life, occupying a world that has always been pretty much all black — first by law, then by choice.

He grew up in Fairmount Heights, one of the earliest black towns in a county that was then overwhelmingly white. He graduated from all-black Fairmont Heights High School, then historically black Maryland State Teachers College at Bowie. His first teaching jobs were in the county’s segregated elementary schools.

After Parker married, he and his wife moved to the Addison Chapel Apartments in Capitol Heights. “That was the only place in all of P.G. where a black person could rent in an apartment complex,” Parker recalled.

Now 79, Parker is a retiree living a comfortable life in a spacious rancher in Mitchellville, but he recounts his history with more than a tinge of bitterness. The pattern of exclusion Parker experienced in Prince George’s held for decades, circumscribing his possibilities and those of most African Americans both in the county and across America.

The wall of discrimination stood solid until the mid-1960s, when the historic rush of legislation enacted to fulfill President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society vision — launched 50 years ago this week — made it give way.


Which programs worked, and which didn’t?

The legislation’s broad mix of anti-discrimination, social-investment and affirmative-action policies was pivotal in turning Prince George’s County from a mostly white, highly segregated and semi-rural backwater into the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation over the course of a single generation.

“I don’t think you could have the Prince George’s County of today without the Great Society,” said Bart Landry, a University of Maryland sociologist whose research has focused on the African American middle class.

The county became a premier example of a national migration of African Americans from central cities to the suburbs.

Since the 1970s, the African American population in Prince George’s has swelled from just under 15 percent to 65 percent. At the same time, the county’s median income increased, and it continues to far outpace the national average.

“This had been a horse-and-buggy county up until the late 1960s,” Parker said. “But things sure have changed.”

By 2010, just over half of African Americans in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas lived in the suburbs, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution researcher William H. Frey. By then, nearly eight in 10 whites in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas lived in the suburbs, Frey noted.

But if the shaping of modern-day Prince George’s — with its brick-front McMansions, its nearly 40,000 black-owned businesses, and its generally well-educated and upscale majority-black population — is testament to the transformative power of the federal government, it also offers glaring proof of its limits.

For all of the county’s successes, it remains the least-prosperous county in the Washington suburbs. Its student test scores and housing values are lower, and its crime and poverty rates are higher. Also, the county — where African Americans make up two-thirds of the population — remains largely segregated, with relatively few non-blacks choosing to move in, a pattern that lowers demand and holds housing prices down.

“While Prince George’s is in many ways a source of pride for middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans, it does not offer the same amenities, public or private, or the same wealth-building opportunities as do the other suburban communities in the Washington area,” said Margery Turner, an Urban Institute senior vice president who has studied the county’s housing patterns. “There is not enough demand pressure to push house prices up and create the kind of wealth from house-price appreciation that occurs in other parts of the metropolitan area.”

Black middle class grows

Some critics argue that the Great Society programs hastened urban decline by increasing government dependency and the family breakdown. And in many cases, the grim plight of the nation’s decaying central cities was largely unaltered by the programs launched by the Great Society. Anti-poverty programs could not overcome middle-class flight, and many of the nation’s cities — including Washington — continued a period of decline that has only recently reversed.

Across the D.C. line from Prince George’s County, urban- renewal programs later bolstered by the Great Society cleared out much of Southwest Washington’s working-class black community to build offices and apartments occupied by others. That kind of change became so common across the country that it prompted writer James Baldwin to dub the program “Negro removal.”

Still, longtime residents such as Parker say there is no denying the benefits the Great Society initiatives, including federal education aid and fair-housing ­legislation, brought to Prince George’s.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed the practice of “separate but equal” in the nation’s schools. But that barely made a difference in Parker’s world. White county officials slowed its implementation to a crawl, often leaving black teachers with inferior facilities, less pay and fewer career options than their white counterparts.

School officials in Prince George’s began feeling real heat to desegregate only when the large sums of money provided by Johnson’s education programs were threatened. The 1964 Civil Rights Act empowered federal education officials to withhold federal money from local school systems that were moving too slowly to integrate.

Around that time, large numbers of African Americans in the District began moving into Prince George’s. Most of them were funneled into neighborhoods inside the Beltway, largely because they were blocked from buying elsewhere.

Just as quickly, many whites abandoned those communities, often urged on by “blockbusting” real estate agents and speculators. Blockbusters would try to trigger the sale of white-owned homes by incessantly urging white owners to sell before their neighborhoods became predominantly black, lowering property values.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed blockbusting and other forms of housing discrimination, clearing the way for the mass suburbanization of African Americans in the decades to follow. Being able to buy homes in suburbs with newer homes and schools helped African Americans build wealth, scholars point out.

Mary Pattillo, a Northwestern University professor who has studied the growth of the black middle class, noted that for decades before the 1960s, federal policy often contributed to housing segregation in the country. Low-income public housing projects were largely packed into black neighborhoods. And the Federal Housing Administration, established in the aftermath of the Great Depression, offered guidelines that discouraged mortgage lending in black neighborhoods and communities that were turning black.

“The Fair Housing Act signaled that the federal government was, at the very least, going to be non-segregationist,” Pattillo said.

The Great Society’s impact did not stop there. The legislation providing federal aid for higher education included the nation’s federal college financial aid programs, which fueled a national boom in college attendance and completion. Between 1964 and 2013, the percentage of Americans over age 25 who graduated from college tripled to 33 percent. For African Americans the growth was even more dramatic, going from 5 percent to over 20 percent over that time period.

Meanwhile, the package’s anti-poverty legislation combined with a roaring economy to lift millions of Americans out of the ranks of the poor. Between 1964 and 1976, the African American poverty rate declined from more than 45 percent to 30 percent.

Johnson’s embrace of affirmative action helped lay the foundation for the explosive growth of the black middle class. Now, more than one in three black households have incomes at or above the national median of $51,000 a year, nearly double the percentage that earned that inflation-adjusted income in 1967, according to census statistics.

Affirmative action helped lift black workers — from police officers and firefighters to lawyers and other professionals — into jobs that were previously out of reach. The policies made it easier for African Americans to attend selective colleges and to win business from government, which created new firms and blazed new career paths for a growing black middle class that previously was confined largely to government work.

“There are more African Americans in the Washington area who are technology workers than there are African Americans who teach elementary and middle school or work for the Postal Service,” said William E. Spriggs, a Howard University professor and chief economist for the AFL-CIO.

There are more than 13,000 black technology workers in Prince George’s County alone. Many of them work for firms set up to take advantage of the Small Business Administration 8(a) program, which was established in 1968 to enhance federal purchases from small businesses owned by people from economically disadvantaged groups.

“That community grew as the government’s appetite for computing power grew,” Spriggs said. “This is a big part of what makes P.G. the place that it is.”

Changes in Prince George’s

Today’s Prince George’s County is a long way from the place where Parker came of age. As he grew up, his neighbors included some Howard University employees, federal workers and a fair number of people who worked for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Parker’s parents were raised in Upper Marlboro, where just a few generations earlier the land was worked by slaves. They later moved to Fairmount Heights, then a thriving black town offering its own municipal services. His mother ran a family-owned tavern and delicatessen, and for years the family lived above the business before later moving to a two-story home on 60th Avenue.

“Living above the tavern, we heard and sometimes saw some things we shouldn’t have,” Parker said.

His father was a building engineer for the National Geographic Society before going on to a similar job at Fairmont Heights High School when it opened in 1950.

That put Parker and his family among the black elite in Prince George’s County. And he did what many in the nation’s tiny black middle class did back then: He earned his teaching credentials and began working in the county’s segregated schools.

As his early career unfolded in the 1950s and early 1960s, the nation was witness to historic civil rights breakthroughs in the courts, schools, bus stations and lunch counters. But it was Johnson’s raft of legislation that brought change home to Parker — even if it proved incomplete.

“Johnson’s Great Society speech absolutely made an impression on me,” Parker said. “I thought we had turned the corner.”

It wasn’t long before Parker was personally involved in — and protected by — the laws and programs set up by Johnson. By the mid-1960s, he was coordinator of a federally funded program that provided county youths with homework help, medical check-ups and cultural enrichment, including trips to restaurants and Broadway plays. The program proved to be short-lived when the county refused to pick up its funding after the federal money expired after five years. Parker went on to eventually be a principal in the county schools.

While driving home along Route 450 in 1974, Parker saw a sign advertising new homes in a Mitchellville neighborhood called Enterprise Estates. Curious, he followed the directions to the subdivision.

He stopped by the sales office, only to be ignored by the white real estate agent for 20 minutes. “I was treated like I was the invisible man,” Parker said. “The salesman was very cold, very distant, and obviously not interested in my investment plans.”

Parker finally got his attention but was told there were no houses available. He grabbed some literature and left.

Not long after, he returned with his wife. But they got the same treatment. They returned again and again — and each time they were given the same story. Parker later learned that nearly every black potential home buyer received the same treatment.

At the time, he was chairman of the county’s Human Relations Commission — the county’s vehicle for enforcing local anti-discrimination laws mirroring those passed by Johnson. On the commission, he paid particular attention to police abuses as well as the treatment of black prisoners in the county jail. But he refused to use his power to buy a house.

“If I did that, what happens when a black person who is not politically connected tries to buy a house?” he explained, a quaint view in a county now renowned as a center of black political power.

Parker kept visiting — he says more than dozen times over three months — before, finally, he had a confrontation with the sales agent. Looking up at a display of wall plaques recognizing sales goals met by the agent, Parker began: “Something doesn’t smell well here. You have been BS-ing somebody, and I am going to find out why.”

That evening, he got a call saying a house had suddenly become available. It is the same house where he raised his three sons — all of whom are college graduates, middle-class and living in Prince George’s — and where he still lives today.

Michael A. Fletcher is a national economics correspondent, writing about unemployment, state and municipal debt, the evolving job market and the auto industry.
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