August 2019

Vets for Housing Equality: The AVC and Racial Justice

What masqueraded as a policy to create improved housing was, in reality, a means of destroying Black property and community to amplify White wealth and mobility.

by Abigail Brook

It is June, 1961. Mr. Edmund Millard and Mrs. Barbara Hazel, both teachers from D.C. public schools, travel to Belair, Maryland, hoping to buy homes in the newly built Levitt and Sons housing development. But immediately upon their arrival, the salesman for Levitt and Sons denies their request. Why?

The story of Mr. Millard and Mrs. Hazel is not only real, but it is an all-too-familiar story of institutionalized housing segregation throughout the U.S. in the mid-20th century, the relics of which are starkly visible today. The two Black residents of D.C. were denied housing solely because they were “colored”—the Levitt and Sons housing development was “for Whites only.” In response, a man named Paul Cooke, an organizer with the American Veterans Committee, accompanied Mr. Joseph Edwards, another Black D.C. resident and government employee, to inquire about housing the following March. On this visit, the salesman told the two men that, “to sell to Negroes in an area where all other developers refuse to sell to Negroes would be to place Levitt in ‘an unfair position.’ It would be ‘unfair competition.’” Housing segregation defined the period’s massive housing projects that continue to segregate American cities on a de facto basis through the present day. [1]

Map of Washington D.C. in 1944 depicting housing projects by race. Local and federal housing authorities played a major role in making sure that African American residents could only access the worst living conditions with the fewest opportunities. DC Public Library, Special Collections, Washingtoniana Map Collection. Cited by DC Policy Center in Discriminatory Housing Practices in the District: A Brief History.

This article tells the story of how federal agencies institutionalized housing segregation and how an organization called the American Veterans Committee (AVC) confronted these institutions. By examining the history of institutionalized segregation, the consequent activism of the AVC, we can learn both how the AVC fought segregation and imagine how we can create structural transformation in our own movements.

Like other modern racist institutions, the violence of housing segregation is derived from the enslavement and trade of African people and their descendants. The legal end to slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment initiated a massive migration of previously-enslaved peoples to the North and West of the United States. After emancipation, African Americans were consistently prevented from accessing opportunities and acquiring wealth. White Americans used the laws that kept cities deeply segregated across the U.S. to cement racial inequality as a defining feature of their communities.

With the onset of World War II, jobs that had previously been reserved for White men became available for White women and Black Americans. This further propelled migration into urban hubs, but underpaid African Americans were restricted to the worst housing both as a mechanism of segregation and exploiting African Americans economically through their labor, taxes, and property. To address this issue, local governments began the practice of slum clearing. While rationalized as an attempt to create better housing and beautify neighborhoods, slum clearance in practice destroyed and displaced Black people’s homes, communities, and cultures, while constructing homes for middle class White residents in its wake. If relocation was promised, it was rarely manifested.

One means of slum clearance was constructing highways through “blighted areas”, and consequently demolishing Black neighborhoods and communities. Alfred Johnson, a major lobbyist for the 1956 Highway Act that facilitated this practice, recalled that some officials believed “[construction of] urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local ‘n*****town.’”[2] What masqueraded as a policy to create improved housing was, in reality, a means of destroying Black property and community to amplify White wealth and mobility.

At the same time, with the end of World War II, millions of veterans returned from the war in desperate need of housing and other services. In response, the federal government established the GI Bill of Rights, creating privileges for veterans that, in reality, were available only for White veterans. Through the Veterans Administration (VA), the agency responsible for distributing GI benefits, vets had access to low-interest mortgages without down payments. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the VA were the two major institutions responsible for addressing the housing crisis. Together, they issued ½ of the mortgages across the U.S. by 1950.[3]

This photo, titled “Negro family and their home in one of the alley dwelling sections. Washington, D.C.” shows how “reformers” used images of Black poverty to justify destroying “blighted” sections of town. The photo, taken in 1941 as part of a Office of War Information program, was part of a larger movement to push African American residents out of the district to make room for White GIs and their families. Photo by Edwin Rosskam, “Negro family and their home in one of the alley dwelling sections. Washington, D.C.,” July 1941, Library of Congress.

The FHA enabled suburbanization by guaranteeing developers massive loans if they constructed all White neighborhoods. The two agencies shared an underwriting manual, obligating developers to adhere to zoning regulations and deed restrictions, requiring them to sell exclusively to White homebuyers.[4] The glaring “success” of such policy was demonstrated by the fact that “in New York and northern New Jersey, ‘fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill supported home purchases by non-Whites.’”[5] When other builders attempted to create integrated housing developments, their efforts largely proved to be financially infeasible. The FHA would not grant loans to Black borrowers or homes zoned in areas deemed racially mixed because they were “risky” investments.

A third institution that aided housing segregation, and especially White flight, was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. It created the practice of redlining, where it graded neighborhoods based on occupation, income, race and ethnicity, and housing stock. Real estate agents or lenders would use these delineations to determine where they should or should not sell homes to Whites. This practice aided generally held belief that “racially homogenous” neighborhoods benefited the community in a codified manner. The result was further undesirability of inner-urban neighborhoods for White people, who flooded into government-subsidized single-family homes in the suburbs.

These policies of discriminiation assisted in generating the massive wealth gap between Black and White Americans. For example, a recent report found that in Chicago Black homebuyers lost at least 3.2 million dollars collectively due to redlining.

Alley dwellings like the one pictured here were common in Washington, D.C. throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. These small lean-to style shacks were an important source of housing for impoverished African American residents and were targeted by city officials and the Federal Housing Authority for demolition. Photo by Carl Mydans, “Alley dwelling near Union Station, showing crowded, tiny backyards, Washington, D.C.,” September 1935, Library of Congress. See also Nancy Tristani, “History: Capitol Hill Alley Dwellings,” HillRag, March 8, 2018.

In Washington D.C., these shifts were drastic. In 1950, the White population was about 440,000 and the Black population was about 187,000. By 1970, the Black population increased by 193 percent at the same time that the White population decreased by 52 percent. By the 1970s, over 71 percent of Washington’s population was Black, as White suburbs with subsidized loans shot up on the city’s edges.[6]

Every step along the way, these policies were met with resistance from organizations like the NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This article, however, focuses on the role of the AVC—a lesser-known interracial group of activists who carried a particular positionality in relation to housing segregation. As an integrated advocacy group of veterans, formed after World War II, they were ideally positioned to protest this precise method of state-sponsored plunder of African American. In the 1950s, the organization channeled its activism towards dismantling a political giant: housing segregation. As veterans, they were in a unique position to contest inequality: the GI Bill financed 1/5 of all single-family residences through 1966. By upholding segregationist practices created by the FHA, the GI Bill essentially funneled taxpayer capital to White service members at the expense of their comrades of color–a blatantly racist policy.[7] Yet from Washington D.C., the center of FHA and VA policy as well as Black life and culture, the AVC fought for structural transformation on two fronts: racist beliefs held by D.C. residents as well as local and federal policy, ranging from housing developers to executive orders by President Kennedy.

The first of the AVC’s major campaigns against housing segregation in DC was a campaign to convince newspapers to stop listing housing advertisements by race. The AVC believed that this was, as they stated in their letter to supporting organizations, “an insidious influence in fostering racial segregation, racial ghettos and racial tensions.”[8] They thought that this served not only to logistically enable White flight and the prevention of mixed neighborhoods by providing the necessary information for people to segregate themselves, but it also developed the cultural schema that housing should be segregated–that this was justified.

Racial profiling was a major way that White property owners maintained segregation. Here a racialized advertisement for an apartment in the Washington Post sought “refined colored” tenants. Washington Post, Classified Ads 3, 1940.

The AVC’s  second major campaign brings us back to Levitt and Sons and their new development in Bowie. With this campaign, the AVC took alternative approaches, which included advocating for federal legislation, directly communicating with Levitt and Sons, and organizing the local community. They called on President Kennedy to deliver an executive order to end housing segregation, wrote to Levitt himself, and gathered local community members in support of desegregating. Although the development was not desegregated in response to the AVC’s activism, the campaign was carried on by many organizations, including the NAACP. The development wasn’t desegregated until 1967 with a Maryland state law, a result of extensive grassroots efforts and the federal Fair Housing Act.

The AVC’s campaigns each engaged a different component of structural racism. The newspaper campaign tried to shift the generally-held belief that segregated housing was normal and just. Through the Levitt and Sons campaign, the AVC pressured various governmental bodies as well as the housing company to undo their policies promoting segregation. The first thing we can learn from the AVC’s efforts is that structural change requires both schematic shifts in the community and major reorganization of powerful institutions that control (re)distribution of resources.

Letter written as part of the AVC’s testimony to The United States Civil Right Commission. Statement to The United States Civil Right Commission on the Subject of Racial Limitations on Housing, April 13, 1962, MS2144, Series 3, Box 83, Folder 1, GWU Archives.

Another strength of the AVC’s organizing was the breadth of solidarity and support they received from organizations with different focal issues. In its newspaper campaign, the AVC gathered signatures from 45 local organizations, including lawyers groups, women’s groups, Jewish organizations, Catholic organizations, civil rights groups and many others. To gain this support, they sent a letter to each organization outlining the situation and why it was significant. The extent to which they demonstrated uniform interest by diverse communities across D.C. was an important factor in the success of the campaign. This teaches us an important lesson: our movements must be built in solidarity with other marginalized peoples and must leave no one behind.

Letter written by leaders of AVC to John F. Kennedy regarding failure to deliver an executive order addressing housing segregation. Statement to The United States Civil Right Commission on the Subject of Racial Limitations on Housing, April 13, 1962, MS2144, Series 3, Box 83, Folder 1, GWU Archives.

Despite these two positive aspects of the campaigns, the AVC seemed to have missed a critical area of resistance in their battles for integrated housing. They believed that the best way to challenge these massive agencies was an executive order from President Kennedy, which he had promised during his campaign.[9] Yet this strategy lacked a grassroots component to directly pressure the VA. While millions of veterans continued to move into government subsidized homes, where was the VA’s incentive for change? This presents the core challenge: in order to truly change the VA, widespread grassroots pressure by veterans was necessary, which would have gone directly against the personal interest of a majority of veterans. This dilemma is applicable to anyone organizing to challenge inequality. They will always have to confront resistance from the beneficiaries of unequal systems of wealth and power.

There is no denying that veterans were in great need of housing, and without the massive loans provided by the FHA, it would have been impossible to construct homes at the same rate. While mixed housing was critical, so was providing homes to those in need. One local activist from Chicago described this tradeoff, “we think that public housing is wrong in the way it’s being handled, but on the other hand, we can’t oppose it too much because we don’t want to penalize people who need housing somewhere of some kind.”[10]

So how could the AVC create a grassroots component to housing, which would go against the veterans’ self-interest and challenge their investments and reliance on the VA–a blatantly racist organization? The AVC did not seem to broach this in their activism. Although this question is undeniably difficult, who better to answer it than veterans themselves? As members of the greater community of veterans, they could access the values, perceptions, and beliefs of veterans. They might have used this cultural capital to influence the larger community in their views on segregated housing.

This brings us to the final take away from the AVC’s history, which is two-fold: First, we must mobilize our own communities to challenge institutions that benefit us and oppress others. Second, when we have successfully altered or absolved those institutions, we must anticipate the challenges our community will face from this change and develop community-based solutions to justly resolve challenges that result from the rescindment of these privileges.

Abigail Brook is a student and human rights activist with a focus on Middle East–US relations. She recently graduated from the George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs. Passionate about the power of student activism, she was a leader in Students for Justice in Palestine and founded a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, both organizations advocating for human rights, peace, and justice for the Palestinian people. Additionally, Abigail worked as a research assistant for Jewish Voice for Peace, Institute for Policy Studies, and Amnesty International’s Middle East North Africa Department. She has lived in Jordan and Lebanon, studying Arabic, and is currently a candidate for a Masters in Middle East Studies at the American University of Beirut. She hopes to continue grassroots organizing and advocating for policy that positively affects the people of the Middle East and justice for all people in the world. 

Further Reading

[1] Statement to The United States Civil Right Commission on the Subject of Racial Limitations on Housing, April 13, 1962, MS2144, Series 3, Box 83, Folder 1, GWU Archives.

[2] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law, (New York: Norton and Company, 2017), 124.

[3] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 70.

[4] Rothstein, The Color of Law, 85.

[5] Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/28/books/review/when-affirmative-action-was-white-uncivil-rights.html.

[6] Statistical Abstract of the United States, US Census Bureau, Retrieved from https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/1950/compendia/statab/71ed/1950-01.pdf

[7] U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, “VA History”, Retrieved from https://www.va.gov/about_va/vahistory.asp.

[8] Letter from Arnold Feldman, August 12, 1960, MS2144, Series 1, Box 22, Folder 10, GWU Archives.

[9] Statement to The United States Civil Right Commission on the Subject of Racial Limitations on Housing, April 13, 1962, MS2144, Series 3, Box 83, Folder 1, GWU Archives.

[10] Christopher Bonastia, “The Federal Government and Residential Segregation, 1866–1968,” In Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), 42.

0 comments on “Vets for Housing Equality: The AVC and Racial Justice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: