Redlined: Observations on Black Migration in St. Louis
by Jasmine Ford
In James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” he reveals that his father was among the first generation of “free men” to come north after 1919 during the first Great Migration.[i] Baldwin’s father moved to Harlem, where he lived with his wife and raised Baldwin and his eight siblings. Baldwin recounts the poverty that his family experienced: “there were nine of us. I began to wonder what it could have felt like for such a man to have had nine children whom he could barely feed. He used to make little jokes about our poverty, which never, of course, seemed funny to us”. Baldwin was aware that his family lived in a poor community and his father barely had enough to make ends meet. When Baldwin’s father tried to make light of their poor circumstances, none of them found it funny. Baldwin’s description of his home life gave us clues that he and his family lived in a redlined neighborhood after the Great Migration. During the middle of the 20th century, adequate housing conditions or job placements were not a priority of the Federal Housing Administration as it pertained to black families.
Black people migrating from the South were shown no mercy. They were prevented from getting good paying jobs that would help them consistently cover the costs of living, so they had to deal with the conditions of their circumstances the best way they could, even if that meant leaving. Baldwin goes into great detail about the apparent differences that he saw in his neighborhood compared to the white neighborhoods or suburbs in wake of a race riot that broke out in Harlem. “The mob did not cross the ghetto lines,” Baldwin explains. “It would have been easy, for example, to have gone over Morningside Park on the west side or to have crossed the Grand Central railroad tracks at 125th Street on the east side, to wreak havoc in white neighborhoods.” This is a clear visual of how segregated the communities were that Baldwin grew up in. “Ghetto,” as I’ve always known it, is a term used to describe the poor conditions of an isolated neighborhood, and Baldwin uses the term to distinguish his side of the street from that of his white neighbors. It gives an aura of “us versus them,” “our side versus their side,” which relates right back to the principal of redlining, which is separation. Even if there were white run businesses in a predominately black neighborhood, it was typically foreign for a black person to cross over into a white neighborhood for any given reason. Redlining served a specific purpose and despite the heated circumstances of the race riots, black people hesitated to infiltrate predominately white neighborhoods.
In an article titled, “Breaking Through and Breaking Down the Delmar Divide in St. Louis” Oscar Perry Abello defines redlining as “the systematic denial of mortgages and other home-based lines of credit to black neighborhoods starting in the 1930’s.”[ii] During the early years of the 20th century during the Great Migration, black families fled North in wake of the Jim Crow laws of the South. Many of these families settled in an array of cities including but not limited to the West and South sides of Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Flint, Harlem, and Philadelphia, East sides of Cleveland, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Gary, South Bend, Atlanta, and St. Louis, MO. In Abello’s article, he breaks down the concept and construct of redlining, and explains how it affected St. Louis in particular. Abello informs us that during the time of the Great Migration there was a rapid increase in the volume of blacks moving into the already “white-controlled communities.”
The influx led The Federal Housing Administration, which is a government office staffed predominantly by whites, to intentionally derive a system that would deny former enslaved persons the opportunity to take out home loans. This system hindered black people from gaining ownership of their properties like the white families and the opportunity to expand their wealth margin. The Federal Housing Administration then created maps of St. Louis in communities that blacks began to show up in. The maps’ intentions were to zone neighborhoods by a dividing line and a grade. Communities that were issued a D grade were to be considered the least desirable areas to live in even if they were thriving communities, simply because the number of black people who lived in those communities had increased. In St. Louis, this tactic drove many white families and middle and upper class black families to move south of the newly red-zoned areas, in an effort to preserve their affluent communities and network circles.
The remaining families, whom were mostly black and of lower income statuses, remained north of the newly red-zoned area, thus creating the Delmar Divide. Individual homebuyers who wanted to move north of the Delmar Divide would take a look at a redlined map to decide were they would like to live. If the homebuyers saw a home that they would like to purchase and it was located in a redlined area, buyers would instead find housing elsewhere even if that meant paying more. This system not only damaged opportunities for networking among blacks and whites, it also depreciated and continues to depreciate the value of the homes in these neighborhoods. If no one is buying, able to sell or maintain their homes then the value of the neighborhood takes one direction which is down. This in turn creates increased poverty conditions, abandoned homes, increased crime rates and lower employment rates.
I have experienced the effects of redlining first hand. I grew up one block North of the Delmar Divide in St. Louis, MO between 1993 and 2016. I understand clearly the government tactics of redlining and the effects it has on families and communities as a whole. My late grandfather Samuel Scurlock was a Mississippi native, born in 1925 and raised by parents who were slaves in the years before. During the later parts of the first Great Migration my grandfather moved north to St. Louis, where he would marry my grandmother and later raise ten children in his beautiful home on the 5100 block of Enright Ave. My grandfather’s home was a big brick house that hosted seven bedrooms, three levels, and a big basement. I spent the majority of my childhood at my grandfather’s house. My grandfather put his heart and soul into that home, but over the years I noticed a very sad thing happening not only to my grandfather’s house but to our neighborhood.
Between 1998 and 2008 I started to notice the decline of our community. In the beginning the majority of the houses on our block were in good shape and were beautiful. Our neighbors themselves seemed happy and were more like family than strangers. Our sidewalks were lined with big beautiful trees that shaded the cars parked in front of them in the summertime and turned into a beautiful arrangement of colorful crisp bundles in the autumn season. People knew my family for our good name and my grandfather especially, because he was one of the eldest men in the community, who worked hard to provide for his family. However, slowly but surely our neighborhood changed. The city sent city workers into our community and they started to physically change the appearance or our neighborhood. They began by chopping down the trees that lined our sidewalks, then they started to board up the homes that were not being utilized, which were very few at the time. That is the moment that I really started to notice the changes.
Over a five year span a lot of our neighbors started to move out of our community due to the fact that they could not afford to maintain their homes anymore. Some of our neighbors sold their homes to the city in order to move to places that they could afford. When the homes were sold to the city, there was no rush by the city to sell those homes at all. Those empty homes remained boarded up for years, for as long as I can remember, which further decreased the value of our neighborhood. Crime rates started to rise as young men would drink and gamble in front of the vacant homes during the day. My grandfather became much more protective of all of his children and grandchildren and did not care for us venturing too far beyond the sidewalk that lay in front of his home.
Things became tense and frustrating over time, especially for my grandfather. He started to struggle with being able to keep up with the maintenance of his home. Due to his older age he was limited on the amount and type of work that he could do to bring sufficient income in to keep his home in tip top shape. He could afford the property taxes and electric and water, but not much else. I remember there being a fire on the second level of my grandfather’s home when I was six or seven years old that severly damaged that specific side of the house. Smoke from the flames and water from the firefighters’ hoses destroyed the interior of the home so much so that we were never able to fix the damage. This led to the value and appearance of his home declining, at a rapid rate. He was also unable to secure loans through financial institutions that could help him refurbish the home and our family struggled to come together with enough money to help him do so.
In 2008 my grandfather was 83 years old and was no longer able to take care of his home in the conditions that it was in and it became unsafe for him to even live there. The neighborhood looked broken and sad, and the few homes that did remain intact throughout all of these years looked completely out of place. More and more homes were boarded up by the city as people began to relocate and those residents who did stay were a lucky few to have received financial assistance from family members, inheritance and from working really hard. My grandfather held on to his piece of land by a thin thread and in 2019 when my grandfather passed away he left our family home to my mother, who also struggled to find financial assistance from a home loan agency to renovate the poor conditions of our childhood home. My mother had maintained her job for over 18 years and was still not eligible to receive financial assistance that would cover the costs of renovating my grandfather’s home. This still makes no sense to me. My mother was put in a position to either watch my grandfather’s home fall completely apart or sell it.
In 2020, my mom decided to sell my grandfather’s home, which was valued under $10,000.00. My grandfather’s mansion style home was worth little to nothing. The conditions of the home and the cost that it would take to fix foundational issues were far greater than what anyone was willing to pay for it. The area it resided in and the fact that no one was buying or selling in that community for a long time added to the fact that it held no monetary value. It did not matter that my mom, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings grew up in this home. It did not matter that my grandmother took her last breath in this home, it just was not valuable enough to fix, according to the lenders who denied us help. We lost our family heirloom and a legacy that we will only have sketched in our memories. We lost the ability to generate wealth in our family and have a piece of land that held sentimental value. Our neighborhood was taken over by the city of St. Louis and not much was done to help keep our neighborhood safe, clean and beautiful, and the residents financially secure and prosperous.
Although redlining became illegal, its lingering effects became damaging to our community and our family. Maybe the law makers and city developers saw the future expansion of the southern more affluent part of the Delmar Divide and knew that they would have to reclaim the area that was once a thriving white community in order to expand north. Who knows? Regardless, I believe that the effects of redlining definitely succeeded in crippling our community and snatching the wealth that our family could have inherited. The ripple effects of redlining allowed city officials to deface the appearance of our community. It allowed the city of St. Louis to board houses up that were vacant in my neighborhood and move at the speed of molasses to sell those homes on the market. And even though they may not have been doing this intentionally and could have been focused solely on the numbers, banks and financial agencies still continued to deny black families home loan assistance so that they can fix their homes. This in part is what led to families losing their homes, potential wealth, inheritance and the communities that they once called home, including me.
My stance is in solidarity with James Baldwin. It is going to take a village, not just legislators or government officials, or non-profit organizations, but it is going to be crucial that the residents and businesses in and beyond these communities work together to help bring these once redlined communities out of the poverty-stricken and segregated states that they are still in. The system is a counterproductive system because if we think about it the amount of employment rates could improve, revenue produced for our cities could increase, the wealth gap could close, our communities could get more funding to get more amenities which could reduce crime rates and would help beautify our neighborhoods, all as a direct benefit from cleaning up the damage that redlining has done to our communities.
In order to see economic growth, property appreciation and wealth progression for black families, financial institutions, city officials, legislators, federal agencies and residents in and around these communities— black, white and brown—are going to have to work together to devise a plan that reverses the broken multi-generational government plan that has segregated our communities for far too long. It is a new day. There will need to be more networking opportunities and connections being made, exchanges of resources and knowledge being made with individuals who are not afraid and want to help change these once thriving communities into something even better than what they used to be. I have witnessed the crippling effects that redlining has on these communities and residents, but times are changing and these cities have to work together and harder to erase these lines if they ever want to see true progress. Integration, partnerships, sharing of knowledge, expansion of wealth margins, much needed revenue, networking of resources, sharing of ideas, and so much more can come to fruition if we work twice as hard to fix a racist system that was created to keep people down, out and separated. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I too want to see the day when we “are not judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.”
[i] Baldwin, James. “Notes of a Native Son.” Notes of a Native Son. 1955. Beacon Press, 2012.
[ii] Abello, Oscar Perry. “Breaking through and Breaking down the Delmar Divide in St.
Louis” Next City. August 19, 2019. <https://nextcity.org/features/breaking-through-and-breaking-down-the-delmar-divide-in-st.-louis>