As early as 1891, African Americans demonstrated a particular desire to purchase land and build homes as an extension of their citizenship. Undeterred by the failures of legislative land redistribution following the Civil War that initially proposed offering the formerly enslaved 40 acres of land and a mule, participants of the Negro Conference, hosted by Tuskegee University touted homeownership, along with education, as primary goals of race progress.
In the Report of the Fifth Tuskegee Negro Conference (1896), conference attendees discussed at great lengths the necessity of obtaining land despite a mortgage system they said operated very seriously against them, as “a little more freedom.”
“It is not that the whites will not sell the negro land. It may be said that throughout the South there is a general disposition to allow the negro to accomplish whatever he can in this direction; however, four-fifths of the negro farmers still allow the most binding mortgages to be made upon their unplanted crops, and that frequently in the fall all a man has raised is swept away to pay the mortgage. He has neither money nor provision to subsist upon during the winter,” the report concluded.
Similarly, by 1906, W.E.B. Du Bois celebrated the freedom of land and homeownership in strengthening Black economics, that supported higher education, promoted Black-owned businesses, and fostered social cooperation both within the race and among fellow Americans.
“The freed hands started forward by a third way that of land ownership. Most of those who got any start became share-tenants and a fourth of these succeeded in buying land. Those who bought land approximated economic independence, forming the closed plantation economy of the olden times but with colored owner, colored laborers, and colored tenants. In an increasing number of cases the colored store came in to help them and we have a complete system of what I have called the group economy,” DuBois said in a speech, “The Economic Future of the Negro.”
The theoretical practice of associating land and homeownership with access to capital, and thereby establishing American citizenship, transformed the nation, making it a critical component of The American Dream. As William Collins and Robert Margo, researchers at the Cambridge-led National Bureau of Economic Research found, the importance of the mortgage in American homeownership grew enormously between 1900 and 1990 and ran concurrent with challenges to Jim Crow lending and urban redlining.
Redlining, a discriminatory pattern of disinvestment and obstructive lending practices that impede home ownership among Blacks and other people of color, has played out against racial, political and socioeconomic constructs in Washington D.C. for generations. Documented in the 2017 exhibit, “Undesign the Redline,” at Pepco Edison Place Gallery and facilitated by Enterprise Community Partners, a finance and development nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, redlining worked to destabilize many of the gains made through Black and minority homeownership.
Redlining grew out of the policies developed by Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration to reduce foreclosures during the Depression. Federal housing agencies determined whether areas were deemed unfit for investment by banks, insurance companies, and other financial services companies. The areas were physically demarcated with red shading and were based on the area’s racial composition rather than income levels. By blotting these neighborhoods from economic security — often denying loans to homeowners and businesses — the neighborhoods quickly declined and could then be further charted for economic exclusion.
In speaking with fair housing advocates, including David Bowers, vice president and mid-Atlantic market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, the central theme of redlining, appears to have created a financial albatross from which few potential Black homeowners escape.
“Redlining is not accidental. People fought and planned to keep Blacks, women, and others, out. It was intentional to and designed to legally deny you access. It was intentional, and Enterprise wants to inform people, anger people, and move people,” Bowers said.
Still, despite many of the same challenges faced by potential homeowners at the turn of the century — including affordable units, disparate mortgage rules, and redlining — homeownership is not only attainable, but continues to offer the same financial security and wealth-building potential. The Washington Informer supports African-American homeownership and offers this supplement as a helpful guide to attaining “a bit more freedom.”
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