City Planning, School Site Selection, and the Rise of Residential Segregation in the Urban South, 1890–1930

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Karen A. Benjamin, St. Xavier University
Although an extensive literature documents the historical process of suburbanization and residential segregation in the early twentieth century, the importance of school site selection in driving that process remains a neglected area of research. Conventional wisdom assumes that neighborhoods developed first and then schools opened to serve them.  Recent court decisions have embraced this assumption by legitimizing the existence of “de facto” segregation that does not warrant intervention, even if it leads to entirely segregated schools.  These decisions ignore the importance of school site selection in shaping metropolitan development, especially in the Jim Crow South, where school boards could force students to travel long distances to attend segregated schools. 

Southern school boards played a key role in creating residential segregation in cities with previously integrated housing patterns.  Black and white southerners still lived in close proximity to one another during the Progressive Era.  Yet by mid-century, when the Supreme Court declared separate schooling unconstitutional, most black and white children lived on opposite sides of town, making anything more than token desegregation impossible without extensive busing.  According to municipal documents, board minutes, and newspapers in Atlanta, Houston, Raleigh, and Little Rock, local elites convinced school boards to locate the newest, most expensive schools in recently platted, all-white suburbs and to place new black schools on the opposite side of town.  Since schools shaped where people lived, these policies helped to pull white residents in integrated areas out to racially restricted suburbs and to concentrate black residents in deteriorating neighborhoods nearest to black schools.  As a result, previously vibrant, integrated spaces became politically isolated and economically depressed ghettos.  Board members selected many of these sites against the ardent protests of both black and white residents, suggesting that neither the process of school site selection nor the outcome of residential segregation reflected democracy.

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