The Federal Housing Act of 1949, which was in effect from 1949 through 1973, authorized cities to use the power of eminent domain to clear “blighted neighborhoods” for “higher use.” According to an excellent paper published by the Institute for Justice, “Eminent Domain and African Americans,” written by Mindy Thomson Fillilove, MD, in 24 years, 2,532 projects were carried out in 992 cities that displaced one million people, two-thirds of them African American.
African Americans, who were 12% of the population in the US, were five times more likely to be displaced than they should have been given their numbers in the population. Most African Americans were confined because of their race to ghetto neighborhoods. It would appear that two-thirds of the projects, more than 1,600, were directed at African American neighborhoods. This forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Most were black, a reality that let to James Baldwin’s famous quip that “urban renewal means Negro removal.”
Unsurprisingly, the condemned neighborhoods were overwhelmingly African American, and to a lesser degree Hispanic and Asian. In city after city, highways that were built to appease white suburban commuters, and enabled through eminent domain and funds from the 1949 Housing Act and 1956 Interstate Highway Act, were shoved through these areas, causing surrounding blight and pollution. Among the black neighborhoods divided by highways were Treme in New Orleans, the Brooklyn area of Charlotte, and Overtown in Miami.
The problem, though, is that these neighborhoods weren’t really slums. They were areas that black citizens had been contained into through private covenants, government zoning and mob violence. While the housing was run-down due to overcrowding and poverty, the neighborhoods at large were still functional, full of churches, groceries, restaurants and shops.
In 1949, President Truman signed the Housing Act into law and thereby empowered local governments with virtually unchecked powers of eminent domain through a process termed urban renewal. In response to the new law, Robert Moses formed the New York City Slum Clearance Committee and set about demolishing numerous communities that he deemed to be “slums.”
An article from Portside.org specified that “In all, [Moses] would demolish some 2,000 city neighborhoods to these ends, throwing at least 300,000 people – and probably more – out of their homes. As Robert Caro points out in his magisterial study of Moses, The Power Broker, while only some 12% of New Yorkers were listed as “non-white” in the 1950 census, at least 37% of those evicted by Moses’ projects were minorities.”
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