"You may have expected a more uplifting story," John Kirk cautions at the beginning of his discussion on how urban renewal changed the landscape of Little Rock.
That's because many of us in the audience at a recent Quapaw Quarter Association-sponsored Preservation Conversations likely arrived there thinking central Arkansas has made great progress in unifying populations and improving living conditions for residents since the concept of urban renewal was enthusiastically embraced by our betters in the mid-1950s.
Turns out that James Surowiecki's theory about the wisdom of crowds--or at least audiences--fails us this time around.
"What happened in Little Rock over the 20th century is that segregation became more entrenched," explains Kirk, the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "One regime of segregation replaced another. It looks different, and is more embedded into the geographical landscape of the city."
To illustrate, he displays a map showing a segregated city today.
"Our highway system marks a demarcation between white and non-white population," he explains. "Little Rock is racially divided by geography."
It didn't always look like this in the early 20th century, says Kirk, who was born and educated in the United Kingdom.
"Downtown [Little Rock] in the beginning of the 20th century showed striking differences from today, with mixed residences in all corners--neighborhoods that were integrated."
According to Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, "Little Rock's housing patterns did not always look the way they do today. From its earliest days, the city developed a reputation for having a more progressive racial climate than surrounding areas. ... even during slavery, racially mixed housing patterns in the city were established. In Little Rock, unlike in many other cities, there were no laws to prohibit blacks and whites living in the same area."
Then, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws (a practice of segregating black people in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which first surfaced in the 1830s) gained strength in the 1890s. These laws "installed a racial hierarchy to exercise control by mandating racial segregation in all public facilities--schools, public places, transportation, restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants. Whites imposed disenfranchisement," Kirk says.
Although Jim Crow laws declined (declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, they widely remained in practical effect until overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), geographical separation replaced them, Kirk says.
"In 1941, an Urban League study confirmed the city had no 'black belts'," he says. Yet by 1949, there came a redefining of cities thanks to urban renewal. Little Rock was eager and successful in incorporating this.
More from Encyclopedia of Arkansas: "The passage of the federal Housing Act of 1949 ... designed to modernize cities in the post-World War II era, was used by Little Rock to begin a racial redistricting of the city. It initially held out the promise of better conditions for Little Rock's black population by eradicating poor housing and replacing it with new public housing units. But white city planners had other ideas. Their focus was less on improving the conditions of the black community and more on using funds to perpetuate and even extend segregation in the city."
By 1959, the concept of urban renewal (as practiced to the hilt by Robert Moses in 1950s New York City by displacing residents with the destruction of neighborhoods, replacing torn-down housing with housing projects, and building 13 expressways; see Edward Norton's film Motherless Brooklyn for a fictional portrayal of Moses, renamed Moses Randolph and played by Alec Baldwin) demolition of residences (slums) was in full swing in Little Rock.
"It was happening in other cities as well," Kirk says. "Sometimes nice homes located next to what were considered slums were destroyed. Slum clearance was effective in removing African American housing from downtown. That's what's at the heart of the story."
Where did they go? "Public housing in the south and east of the city," Kirk says. Whites were encouraged to move north and west. "This was a gold mine for real estate."
The first public housing projects built under the redevelopment plans, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, were the 400 units of Joseph A. Booker Homes in the far southeastern city limits. "Other housing projects followed a similar pattern. By 1990, the major public housing projects of the 1950s had 99 percent black occupancy. Predominantly white areas had only 5 percent of the city's public housing units, and there were none at all in the far west."
Opportunities for African Americans to purchase housing in the north and west neighborhoods were limited because of redlining, which meant they couldn't get a mortgage, Kirk says, and newcomers to the city were shown limited areas.
Schools in the mid-1950s reflected these housing trends by placing white students at Central High and black students at Dunbar. The year 1957 "was the start of building new schools, a new system, with Horace Mann to the east for blacks, Hall in what then was the extreme western edge of the city [now known as midtown] for whites." The west also became home to white private schools.
It was an arbitrary framework of one form of segregation replaced by another, Kirk says. "Like water fountains moving farther apart, this had the same fundamental effect; it was a different way of looking at the civil rights movement--the increasing sophistication of a segregated city."
And here we thought we had come such a long way.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 01/12/2020