Residential segregation

Written By North Carolina History Project

Residential segregation is the phenomenon of individuals of a particular ethnicity inhabiting dwellings in a particular area. Though residential segregation of whites and African-Americans was enforced by law in many major U.S. cities, government enforcement of residential segregation in the United States ended after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer. Residential segregation has nevertheless persisted as a sociological phenomenon in the United States, even after its legal basis has ended. 

In North Carolina, the cities of Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Mooresville enforced residential segregation ordinances during the early twentieth century. The Winston-Salem and Mooresville ordinances were enacted in 1911; Asheville’s law was passed in 1912. Adopted during a time of rising support for residential segregation across much of the United States, these ordinances created black and white residential zones. 

These ordinances were pedestrian compared to the plan for residential segregation formulated by North Carolinian Clarence Hamilton Poe, editor of the Progressive Farmer. Influenced by developments in South Africa, Poe suggested that all rural land in the southern United States be legally designated for either whites or African-Americans. The Poe proposal was debated in the North Carolina General Assembly, where it was defeated. The proposal nonetheless remained popular for another decade both in the Democratic Party of North Carolina and among the state’s rural whites. The North Carolina Farmer’s Union, an organization with 40,000 members, voluntarily adopted the Poe proposal to little effect. 

The white and African-American zones of residentially segregated cities such as Winston-Salem were separate but not equal. Running water and sewer services were often limited or entirely unavailable in African-American districts. In enforcing segregation ordinances, many city governments attempted to ensure that vice districts would be located within African-American zones. Most harmful to African-Americans was residential segregation laws’ de facto prohibition of black ownership of businesses within white districts–no similar prohibition prevented whites from owning businesses in black districts.

These legally enforced inequalities infuriated Booker T. Washington, who had long advocated education, entrepreneurship, and self-help as the most promising means of improving African-Americans’ economic standing. But residential segregation laws limited the possibility of black entrepreneurship in many cities, so at the end of his life, in 1915, Washington wrote an essay (published posthumously in the New Republic) in which he argued that these laws could destroy the program of self-improvement for blacks he had long supported. The essay marked the first and only time Washington publicly inveighed against segregation. Another African-American leader, James B. Dudley, who led a black college in Greensboro, ceased being reticent regarding segregation in 1914.  He argued against segregation and raised concerns about living conditions in black districts. 

As historian George M. Frederickson argues, residential segregation laws triggered a shift in the political orientations of African-Americans by casting doubt on the prospects for progress through self-improvement. The young NAACP successfully challenged a Louisville residential segregation ordinance in court; the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ordinance in Buchanan v. Warley.

Despite this victory, residential segregation in the United States continued. Restrictive covenants – clauses in property deeds restricting the property’s future uses – became a common means of preventing African-Americans from owning property. Such covenants could be used in many ways, such as barring a residence from being used as a place of business. Many whites began using these covenants to prevent the transfer of property to African-Americans.

These covenants proved more difficult to challenge in court than conventional housing ordinances because they were private agreements rather than public policies. Private agreements are not subject to the U.S. Constitution, and early legal challenges to restrictive covenants, which were predicated on the covenants’ unconstitutionality, failed. The breakthrough in litigation against restrictive covenants was the novel argument that such covenants could not be constitutionally enforced by government action. Using this argument, NAACP attorneys successfully challenged restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), in which the Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants used as tools of racial discrimination were unenforceable by government. This ruling rendered nugatory those restrictive covenants that contained racial provisions.

Though the legal means of residential segregation were eliminated with Shelley in 1948, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was intended to end racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals. Residential segregation nonetheless remains an observable phenomenon in the United States. Researchers who study contemporary residential segregation have turned their attention to sociological and economic factors, such as housing costs and individual preferences. The effects of school zoning on residential segregation have been considered as well, but no single dominant cause of residential discrimination has been isolated.