Yet building the system would cost more than the millions of dollars that states and the federal government poured into construction. In Charlotte, it meant bulldozing Brooklyn, a vibrant Black neighborhood where, former resident Barbara C. Steele recalled in a 2004 oral history, “everybody knew everybody, and everybody was somebody.”
Her displacement was more norm than exception. Between 1957 and 1977, the U.S. Transportation Department estimates, more than 475,000 households were forced out for the highways’ construction. A majority of those lived in urban communities with low incomes and high concentrations of people of color.
In many cases, that was by design.
“The interstate highway system provided a safe, fast way of getting from coast to coast,” said historian Gretchen Sorin, author of “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” “The problem was when you put in highways, you have to figure out where to put them.”
Rectifying at least some of these past transgressions is a goal of the Biden administration’s massive infrastructure push, with billions of dollars proposed to “reconnect” communities and address historic inequities. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has acknowledged the “racism physically built into some of our highways” and the “lasting damage” suffered by the communities that were targeted.
Many of those decisions were set in motion long before the interstates themselves, at a time when America was booming — and bursting at the seams. Veterans had returned home from World War II and started or expanded families; Black Southerners continued streaming to Northern cities for greater opportunity. Urban centers grew more and more crowded.
In response, the federal government underwrote a massive construction program that fueled the rise of the suburb. But people of color were systematically excluded. Around the country, redlining and racially restrictive deeds and covenants discouraged and often outright forbade them from buying or renting suburban homes.
The supposed blight of America’s central cities, especially racially mixed, lower-income neighborhoods, became a cornerstone of the interstate highway system.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the program’s greatest champion, originally envisioned a network akin to the German Autobahn that would largely bypass cities as well as help them empty fast in the event of a Cold War-era nuclear attack. State leaders eager to use federal funds to eradicate what they saw as slums and transportation planners who wanted to connect suburbs to downtown cores as efficiently as possible ultimately forced him to settle for a highway system that sliced through cities — and neighborhoods of color.
“Blight was a code word used to identify Black, working-class communities” said Eric Avila, a UCLA historian and author of “The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City.” Urged on by officials like Robert Moses, New York’s “master builder,” cities were sold on the idea of highway construction as a way to save themselves.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 promised 41,000 miles of asphalt. And when it became time to finalize route plans, Avila said, “race strongly influenced routing decisions.”
Many interstate advocates made no secret of their intentions. In Miami, for example, White leaders invoked decades-old plans to remove all Black residents from the city’s historic Black center, Overtown.
The Interstate 95/395 interchange was slated to bypass Overtown and use a nearby rail corridor before planners acquiesced to pressure and routed it directly through the neighborhood instead. No public hearings were held in the community.
The interchange, a behemoth 20 blocks square, displaced over 10,000 residents. With few options because of economic constraints and racial restrictions, they squeezed into crowded “second ghettos” nearby.
The pattern was repeated over and over across the nation: White leaders used the specter of urban deterioration to justify construction through low-income neighborhoods of color. Homes and businesses were razed.
Logan Heights, the bastion of San Diego’s Latino community, was severed in two by Interstate 5.
Black Bottom, Detroit’s majority-Black neighborhood, was bulldozed to make way for Interstate 375.
In Montgomery, Ala., the state’s highway director, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, ignored swaths of empty land in favor of a route that displaced Black civil rights leaders.
The new interstates fed suburbanization. (A 2007 study found that the average new highway routed through a central city reduces its population by 18 percent.) As population dwindled, poverty concentrated, and investment further declined.
Many White residents could seek success elsewhere. Those left behind faced a vicious cycle of poverty and de facto segregation.
“It was the path of least resistance,” Sorin said. “The people with the least power were the ones who were hurt.”
Impacted community members fought back, protesting what they called “White men’s roads through Black men’s homes.” Revolts were staged in at least 50 cities. But despite packing city council meetings, organizing marches and circulating petitions, most failed to prevent interstates from coming through their neighborhoods.
“There are very few instances where that kind of formal political protest was able to find any success,” Avila said.
Ironically, the cross-country network offered unprecedented independence to Black motorists even as it destroyed the fabric of many of their communities. “Black people were frightened of little towns,” Sorin noted. “You might encounter an angry mob.” With the dawn of the interstates, “you could stay at highway speeds, stop at rest stops and hopefully be a little safer.”
Highway routing decisions still cast a long shadow on American cities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people of color live near interstates and other major roadways than their White counterparts, and these groups experience “disproportionately larger adverse health effects from air pollution.” Such proximity is associated with higher levels of asthma, cardiovascular disease and death.
It can be dangerous in other ways, too: Traffic fatalities disproportionately impact drivers, passengers and pedestrians of color. A study released in June by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that places with low-income populations and concentrations of people of color have measurably higher levels of vehicle traffic and higher speed limits despite having more residents who walk, bike or take public transportation to work.
For some, the overpasses and on-ramps that ignited the imagination in the 1950s have become everyday mundanities. But for the displaced, they represent a painful past.
“Urban people of color remember what freeways did to their neighborhoods,” Avila said. “They remember what was lost. They carry that memory with them.”