Long winding streets, beautiful public parks, and history, in the form of a red-bricked trail dedicated to the liberation of the United States and the freedom of all peoples (the Freedom Trail), defines the city of Boston. At the heart of this modern city, located across Beacon Street from the State House, is a memorial dedicated to the men of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American unit of the Union Army. It stands quietly amongst the vibrancy of downtown Boston, serving as a monument to the bravery and sacrifice of the 54th Regiment, and also of the terrible human cost of the Civil War. But it also exists as a reminder of how far the nation still must go to achieve true racial equality: the city of Boston, like most other major American cities, is defined also by its racial segregation.Just three miles south from the 54th memorial, across the Massachusetts Turnpike and the South End, stands a neighborhood neglected.
It has Victorian-style triple deckers with flat roofs, dusty lots, and stores alongside the streets. But the lots are mostly abandoned, relics of the Boston housing crisis of the 1950s and the 1960s, and the run-down, derelict triple deckers stand as reminders of the area’s poverty and hopelessness. The neighborhood is also predominantly black.The racial segregation of Boston is accentuated if one walks two miles either north or south from the center of the South End, a diverse neighborhood characterized by rows of bowfront, five-story, red-brick homes. Racial segregation in Boston has clear and defined boundaries, and it becomes even more evident as one crosses the Boston Extension of the Mass Pike. Walk two miles north from the South End, and one arrives at the iconic rowhouses and narrow, gaslit brick streets of Beacon Hill, where 86.8% of the population is white (2% are black) and the per capita income is $78,569.
Two miles south, and one happens upon the projects, public housing, and triple deckers of Roxbury, where 56.9% of the population is black (whites make up 8.1%) and the per capita income is just $18,998. Outside Boston, the suburbs are almost entirely white.What happened in Boston in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to create such a city reflected what was happening in major industrial cities all across the United States during this time.
A postwar black Great Migration into northern urban cities was followed by white flight and racist housing policies, and the construction of highways straight through and around urban areas served only to expedite this process and to make clearer the physical separation between whites and minorities in metropolitan areas. Whereas urban highways once promised a future of economic prosperity and the prospect of cultural diversity to Bostonians and other urban Americans, in reality, they had the opposite effect. Urban highways racially and economically segregated American cities by facilitating white flight to the suburbs, by destroying local, predominantly minority businesses and communities during construction, and by acting as a physical and symbolic barrier between various communities. The construction of highways through and around Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, paired with the mass movement of blacks into Boston and federal housing guidelines, created two distinct cities. In the end, it was these three factors, and not self-segregation, that created the deep racial segregation that exists in the Greater Boston area today.The story of how Boston, and other major northern industrial cities, came to epitomize modern segregation begins immediately after the end of the post-Civil War Reconstruction efforts. As white supremacy was rapidly restored across the South, an era that was once viewed as an opportunity to reform the South gave way to an era “defined by the rise of Jim Crow segregation, disfranchisement, the emergence of sharecropping, and lynchings”.
Black migration thus began after Reconstruction, and continued throughout World War I, but exploded in the 1940s and 1950s during the Second Great Migration. The motivation of migrating blacks remained the same post-Reconstruction, during the First Great Migration, and post-WWII, during the Second Great Migration: Southern lynching, anti-black riots, Jim Crow racism, and white efforts to eliminate black advancement all helped to reignite a mass migration of blacks from the South to northern cities. In 1910, the percentage of blacks living in the South was 89%, and in 1940 this figure stood at 77%. By 1970, this had decreased dramatically to 53% as a result of the Second Great Migration.Boston’s ethnic patterns reflected the overall pattern of the nation during these years. In 1930, Roxbury was only about 14% black, and in Boston as a whole, blacks remained a relatively small minority until the Second Great Migration.
As the black population rapidly increased, they expanded into other parts of Roxbury in search of housing, and later into Dorchester and Mattapan. Yet, even as Boston became blacker and more diverse, racial segregation in the metropolitan areas continued to rise. As the black population began to increase in some communities (including Roxbury), whites continued to flee Boston in increasingly larger droves to its outer suburbs. The gradual rise in racial segregation between the suburbs of Boston and the city itself can be observed in Boston’s demographic trends throughout the late-1900s: in 1940, Boston was 96.7% white and just 3.1% black.
The share of the black population slowly begins to rise: in 1950, it was 94.7% to 5.0%; in 1960, it was 90.
2% to 9.1%; in 1970, 81.8% to 16.3%.
By 1980, the ratio of whites and blacks in Boston was 70.0% to 22.4% (later years show the impact of Hispanic immigration into Boston). This demographic change was accompanied by increasing de facto segregation between blacks and whites. As whites streamed out of Boston, blacks were increasingly segregated, concentrated, and isolated within the city of Boston.Yet even these figures fail to accurately capture the degree of racial segregation within Boston itself. Within Boston are distinct neighborhoods, each characterized by some degree of wealth and racial homogeneity. The two wealthiest major residential neighborhoods (per capita), Beacon Hill and the North End, are 86.
8% and 90.88% white (2% and 1.13% black), respectively, while the two poorest neighborhoods, Roxbury and Mattapan, are 56.
9% and 82% black (8.1% and 11 % white). Beacon Hill and the North End lie north of Interstate-90; Roxbury and Mattapan both rest south of I-90.
One reason for the separation between the races within Boston was due to racist federal housing policies. These policies constituted a major part of residential segregation, and directly contributed to the rise of homogeneous neighborhoods within an overall diverse area. Redling, the “practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition”, was formalized in the housing industry with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934.
The FHA released guidelines endorsing, and even recommending, redlining in neighborhoods. A 1936 FHA Underwriting Manual instructed potential lenders to protect themselves and their neighborhoods against “adverse influences” – defined as “the infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower-class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.” It claimed that “the infiltration of inharmonious racial groups will… tend to lower the levels of land values and to lessen the desirability of residential areas” and that “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” It even went as far to support segregation in education: “schools… should not be attended in large numbers by inharmonious racial groups”.In 1935, the FHA created the now-infamous “residential security maps” in order to appraise neighborhoods for their level mortgage insurance risk. The “desirable” areas were shaded green, and denoted “Type A – First Grade”.
“Still Desirable” neighborhoods were blue, and known as “Type B – Second Grade, while “Declining” areas were labeled “Type C – Third Grade”, and outlined in yellow. Neighborhoods that were considered the riskiest for investment were known as “Type D – Fourth Grade”, and shaded red (hence the term “redlining”). Type D neighborhoods were almost exclusively poor and black. A 1936 FHA map for the Greater Boston area shows Roxbury entirely redlined, while large portions of Dorchester and Jamaica Plain are redlined.
Boston real estate companies and banks took advantage of these guidelines to exploit both black and white property owners in the Greater Boston area during the 1950s. Blockbusting tactics were used to scare white residents to sell their houses quickly for below-market prices, before “the infiltration of inharmonious racial groups” led to plummeting property values. Along with blockbusting, redlining insured that only the newly-arriving African-American migrants would be able to settle in those areas.The implementation of these federal policies aggravated residential racial segregation and urban decay. FHA policies stripped the inner city of middle-class inhabitants while also funneling blacks into racially segregated neighborhoods due to limited housing opportunities. Even when blacks managed to attain property, it was substandard in quality, overcrowded, and had lower assessed property values.
Whereas the Underwriting Manual institutionalized racism and segregation within the housing industry, the FHA maps were used to geographically segregate blacks from whites. While housing discrimination institutionalized racial segregation within Boston, the development of major highways magnified the effects of segregation by providing an escape route for whites out of the city and into the suburbs, away from minorities. The highway that drove suburbanization in the Greater Boston area was Route 128, an outer beltway around the city. The construction of Route 128 (between 1960 and 1965) coincided with a migration of blacks into Boston, as well as the redevelopment of Boston’s economic center. But redevelopment neglected to account for the increased black population by increasing the supply of housing, so, as blacks moved into the city, “whites moved out as housing renewal for the urban work force was accomplished by relocation to the suburbs”.
Route 128 resulted in explosive industrial growth in many of the suburbs: land in the new Route 128 corridor was cheap, easily accessible by car, and located close to industry offices. Major companies, including Microsoft, Raytheon, and Fisher Scientific operated offices along the Route 128 corridor. However, the industrial successes of Route 128 failed to permeate into inner-city Boston areas, and ultimately only benefited suburban areas. Predictably, these suburbs were almost entirely white, devoid of almost all black participation, even as Boston’s black population was rapidly increasing. New housing developments in the Route 128 suburbs were restricted by racially prohibitive covenants and federal guidelines, and towns began to use zoning laws to push out low-income residents. As a result, by 1970, all of the suburban towns were 98% white. Thus Route 128 became somewhat of a border between Greater Boston and the more far-flung suburbs; just as highways facilitated the movement of people out, they also spatially divided Boston from it surroundings suburbs racially.
A report by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 1975 paints the picture of devastation that the Route 128 highway had on Boston. First, “construction of the high-speed circumferential highway, which opened the gateway to suburban land, permitted problems of space to be solved by relocation rather than a reconstruction of the city”. Boston’s failure to increase the housing supply to account for the influx of black residents from the Second Great Migration served to concentrate black residents within Boston, and the construction of the highway allowed whites to flee out of the city. Wealth followed the white residents, who were replaced by poorer, black migrants. The report goes on: “Route 128’s history represents a social failure approaching disaster in terms of its impact on the poor and minority groups… [the suburbs] are beautiful, although their beautiful was paid for, in part, by the ugliness of others. Their gains, from the larger perspective, were the region’s loss”. In essence, the “new housing, jobs, schools, and amenities of suburban life which followed the completion of Route 128 were for whites only”.
While Route 128 was a circumferential highway around Boston, the construction of highways through Boston also devastated the city. The construction of the Center Artery and Southeast Expressway of Interstate 93 through Boston required the city to create space for the new highway. From 1950 to 1953, as the state began to condemn properties, entire neighborhoods and blocks in Chinatown, Waterfront, and North End were demolished, and along with it, businesses and homes. Most of them were minority-owned businesses, providing crucial jobs to local communities. At the same time, the Southeast Expressway of I-93 was constructed. When both opened in 1959, they cut straight through the city in a north-south direction.
The enduring legacy of the Southeast Expressway is to serve as the border between predominantly white South Boston, and predominantly black Dorchester and Roxbury. Despite being intended to spur urban revival, highway projects through Boston only encouraged people to abandon the main city, speeding up the process of suburbanization. The justification for the construction of highways through cities derived from a theory by public officials and urban planners that new urban expressways had the potential to revive the deteriorating urban core. Post-WWII, many public officials saw urban expressways to clear decrepit urban areas. Urban slums were seen as tumors, and if highways could be routed through areas of blight, they could be “reclaimed” for productive uses. Accordingly, a 1944 report by the federal government recommended that highways penetrate American cities, and called for inner and outer beltways encircling cities. In 1965, this theory of urban revival was enacted into law through the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which offered state highway departments 90-percent federal funding for their major highway projects.
Justified as “essential to the national interest”, the act expanded the interstate system to 41,000 miles, and $25 billion was authorized to construct the network. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill into law, his vision was for “an America where a mighty network of highways spreads across our country.
”The passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 resulted in drastic changes to the fabric of urban America. City officials could now use federal funds to eradicate areas of blight – provided they did it through the construction of highways. This restriction proved to be incredibly consequential to the development of the inner city. City officials constructed urban highways along the path of least resistance – meaning poor, often black or immigrant areas.
In most cities, the interstate system’s highways ripped through residential areas, utterly destroying low-income, black neighborhoods. By 1969, “federal highway construction was demolishing over 62,000 housing units annually – possibly as many as 200,000 people each year”. Still, this stunning figure fails to account for the impact of displaced black residents on surrounding neighborhoods. White flight was a direct result of these newly-homeless black residents forced into for relocation housing. Even if black residents sought to flee to the suburbs, they couldn’t due to racially restrictive housing policies.
In many cities, these restrictions left African-Americans crowded into small neighborhoods. The forced relocation of black residents triggered a reorganization of urban neighborhoods. Coupled with limited inner-city housing, a rising black population resulted in dislocated blacks being pressed further into urban slums. All these factors led to a racial restructuring of the city, in which black residents were pressed deeper into the city while white residents dispersed outwards to the suburbs. Thus, the expressway construction of the 1950s and 1960s “ultimately helped produce the much larger, more spatially isolated, and more intensely segregated” black neighborhoods of today’s American cities.
Rather than resuscitating central cities, the new highways systems speeded suburbanization and deepened postwar urban racial segregation.In the years following WWII, Boston officials desperate to reinvigorate a deeply stagnant economy became enticed by the possibilities offered by the Highway Act. City officials could now undertake a series of new highway projects with “10 cent dollars” from the Highway Act in an effort to attract business and capital. Thus, on March 5, 1962, construction began on perhaps the most destructive of Boston’s highways: the Boston Extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike (part of Interstate 90). The Boston Extension ran east-west through the city of Boston, and allowed the Mass Pike to extend straight into the heart of Boston. Homes in Newton, Chinatown, Brighton, and the South End were demolished. Six lanes of the Mass Pike tore apart Newton Corner, and “entirely eliminated” the historically black neighborhood in the Hicks Street area of West Newton.
In 1963, the Pike’s construction reached Chinatown, separating the neighborhood into two. More homes and businesses were destroyed in downtown Boston, where expressways and access ramps were built to accommodate the increased traffic.What migration, housing, and highways left Boston was a city deeply divided into two. Some might even classify Boston as two distinct cities, as a city of haves and have-nots. While for one city it “was the best of times”, for another city it “was the worst of times”. Even as Boston transformed itself into a modern city of innovation and wealth, poverty was left concentrated in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester. As whites fled to the suburbs, blacks were left behind in inner-city slums. Urban highways, despite initial visions of a vibrant city, left entire neighborhoods in ruins and failed to bring about that vision, leading to disastrous consequences for America’s urban black population.
Politically, they reduced the power of the black electorate by leaving them susceptible to gerrymandering. To say that this was the result of self-segregation is to ignore a racial injustice. But by acknowledging the history, one can learn a valuable lesson for the future.