The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More cities seek to redress widespread 20th-century destruction of Black neighborhoods

Descendants offered compensation for properties taken by eminent domain for freeways and other public projects

Hattie Thomas Whitehead stands in front of Creswell Hall, a student dormitory at the University of Georgia that was built on land seized from Black families using eminent domain in the 1960s. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
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More than 50 years ago, Santa Monica, Calif., used eminent domain to build the Interstate 10 highway, slicing an east-west swath to the Pacific Ocean that destroyed homes, businesses and churches and displaced more than 600 mostly Black families in the thriving Pico neighborhood.

Now residents affected by the construction project are set to get financial compensation. The city recently announced that it is offering affordable housing to those forced out by the freeway.

The program, initially open to about 100 displaced families or their descendants, will give priority access to apartments with rents well below open-market rates. After proving they or their families were displaced, and meeting income requirements, residents would receive preferential treatment on its waitlist for low-income apartments in the community.

City officials say the move recognizes the harm done to largely Black communities during the post-World War II era of freeway building and so-called urban renewal, a term associated with widespread destruction of neighborhoods for housing, highways and civic projects.

“This is an attempt to right a historic wrong,” says Santa Monica City Council member Kristin McCowan, a second-generation Santa Monica resident who grew up in the Pico neighborhood. “We hope other communities see this and start making the same efforts to recognize the wrongs of the past.”

All across the country, descendants of Black homeowners pushed out for similar projects are pressing for financial compensation to help make amends for the impact of past practices. They’re being joined by activists and housing advocates who are calling for recognition of the harm done by government housing policies — including redlining — that disproportionately impacted the real estate fortunes of generations of Black Americans.

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The push for accountability is spreading as more cities reckon with the insidious ways structural racism in housing policies of the 20th century largely kept African Americans out of homeownership — a fundamental pillar of the American Dream.

The efforts of cities and states to raise awareness and atone for the past comes as Black homeownership rates continue to hover at their lowest level since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, landmark legislation outlawing housing discrimination. Black homeownership levels reached 46.4 percent in the third quarter of 2021 compared with 75.8 percent of White families, according to census data.

Historian Richard Rothstein, a housing policy expert at the Economic Policy Institute, draws a direct line between discriminatory government housing policies of the 20th century and the low Black homeownership rates in the United States today.

“When you consider the decades of explicit government housing policies put in place to bar African Americans from many areas of housing there’s little surprise that Black homeownership rates continue to lag far behind Whites in this country,” says Rothstein, author of the book “The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” “These are the long-term effects of racially explicit government housing policies.”

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Loss of generational wealth

Interstate 496 in Michigan runs through downtown Lansing connecting tens of thousands of vehicles each week with the townships and communities that surround the state capital.

But for Diane Sulayman, a Lansing native whose family was displaced by the construction of I-496, the 11.9-mile ribbon of concrete has come to symbolize how eminent domain destroyed a thriving African American community.

Sulayman’s parents owned one of the more than 800 homes and businesses demolished to make way for the roadway, which began construction in 1963. Through eminent domain — which gives jurisdictions broad power to seize private property to boost economic development — the government paid Lansing families to move, cutting checks that some critics say were far less than what the properties were actually worth.

Under the agreement, the families had 60 days to leave their homes.

“What most people don’t realize is that this was a thriving African American community,” says Sulayman, 72, whose story is part of Pave the Way, a research project at the Historical Society of Greater Lansing that explores the impact of I-496 on the communities erased to build it.

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“These were working-class families with well-paying jobs in the auto industry in a community where you had thriving local businesses,” Sulayman adds. “That was all destroyed to build a highway.”

Eminent domain’s impact on Black communities stretched far beyond Lansing during the post-World War II era of freeway building in the country. Hundreds of neighborhoods were erased across the country to make way for roads and highways that federal and state officials say helped cities expand economic opportunities.

And while poorer immigrant neighborhoods with little political muscle were often the target, underserved Black communities largely bore the brunt of government wrecking balls and bulldozers, housing advocates and scholars say.

Many of these communities were populated by working-class Black families and small, minority-owned businesses, but the government considered them disposable, says Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. “The federal government called them ghettos,” he says.

Though efforts were made to help with relocation, racial covenants at the time and redlining restricted areas where Blacks could live. Most were forced into apartments in less desirable parts of town with homeowners losing the ability to earn generational wealth that comes with owning property. Many of the small businesses never recovered.

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“Historically speaking, eminent domain abuse was merely one of several legal maneuvers that disproportionately impacted Black and low-income communities,” says Thomas Mitchell, a property law scholar and professor of law at Texas A&M University whose research on legal doctrines that deprive Black families of their property and real estate wealth has been used to amend laws in more than a dozen states.

“The most significant consequence of razing some of these communities — even in the name of economic development — is the impact it had on the economic livelihoods of the people who lived there and their descendants,” he said.

Repairing the damage

The effort to rectify past actions is gaining steam across the country.

Evanston, Ill., announced plans to make reparations available to eligible Black residents for what it describes as harm caused by “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the city’s part.”

The Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, grants qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs. It is the first initiative of the city’s $10 million reparations fund established to address historical wealth and opportunity gaps for Black residents.

In Georgia, the mayor of Athens issued a proclamation honoring Linnentown, a working-class Black community of more than 50 families in northeast Georgia that was razed in the 1960s to build parts of the University of Georgia.

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Using eminent domain, residents of Linnentown were given about $1,450 for their seized properties. The proclamation, which was read aloud outside City Hall by Mayor Kelly Girtz last February, promised to provide reparations for Linnentown descendants — the first such act in the state.

Though plenty of hurdles still exist before it’s determined if or how much the community will receive, Hattie Thomas Whitehead, who was in high school when her family’s shotgun house was bulldozed to make way for college dorms, said the mayor’s actions prove that progress can be made.

“I cried when the mayor read that proclamation,” says Whitehead, 73. Part of a fourth generation of families living in the community, she joined the Linnentown Project, a group of fellow former residents and descendants of residents pushing the city to provide redress. “We asked for an apology and when I saw the document, tears actually began flowing from my eyes,” says Whitehead, who chronicles the history of the community in the book “Giving Voice To Linnentown.”

Research projects and exhibits

Courtney Taylor’s grandparent’s South Minneapolis house was one of hundreds of homes and businesses razed in the 1960s to make way for Interstate 35W.

The highway was one of two major roadways built in the city in the 1960s using eminent domain to force residents to leave their homes. Eighty-two percent of the residents displaced for the projects were African Americans, according to research from “A Public History of 35W,” a project that examines how the construction of the interstate affected the mostly Black communities emptied to build it.

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City officials last year passed the Minneapolis 2040 plan, housing legislation that includes “freeway remediation,” a provision calling for compensating Black families and descendants impacted by the razing of communities of color to build highways.

“Rather than looking at the people who built the highways, the city is looking at the people who were affected by it,” says Greg Donofrio, a professor of historic preservation and public history at the University of Minnesota who is leading the 35W project.

Taylor, 28, says her father often recounted how her grandparents were never bitter about displacement, preferring instead to see it as an upgrade. Her grandfather — who lived to be 100 years old — used the money from the government to build a new home from the ground up in a nearby neighborhood.

But like so many in her community, Taylor says she's pleased to see her grandparents' story now being told through research projects and exhibitions in Minneapolis like the 35W Project.

“Usually, when you think of Black history, the focus is heavily on the civil rights movement and the South and there’s not much documented on what happened up North,” she says. “It’s great to learn that my grandparents had an important civil rights story of their own.”