The Promise of Homeownership

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Students at St. Kate’s are engaging with the WTDN in a variety of classes. Here’s how our students are thinking about the issues related to housing inequality and housing segregation. Their work demonstrates “thinking in progress”. 

The Promise of Home Ownership

By Vee Signorelli | Summer 2020  

In the Spring of 1900, the U.S. census was just around the corner. In preparation, members of the Black community around the country were working hard to make sure that all Black people reported any property that they owned to the census takers. In Minnesota, several notices were published in The Appeal, a Black newspaper that was published in the Twin Cities. These notices provided information on how to figure out if you owned your property or not, as well as why the census was important. It was the expectation of The Appeal that the rate of Black home ownership would be quite high, a statistic that might change the mind of racist white individuals.  

One article from April 14, 1900 states that “The statistics of ownership of homes by Afro-American people in 1900 will no doubt be the occasion of surprise to many. The gains made by them […] will thus be made apparent to the whole world.” Later, in May 1900, The Appeal featured a letter from Booker T. Washington. After (before?) imploring people to take the census, he wrote “This means a great deal to us as a people, as we will be very largely judged by the world as a result.” (May 5 1900)

Both of these articles showed excitement and hope about the prospect of showcasing how successful Black people had become. This excitement is coupled with the assumption that once white people saw how successful Black people were, they would become less racist. This kind of belief has since been termed “respectability politics.” (Interestingly, Booker T. Washington, the writer of the second article, has been roundly criticized for being one of the originators of respectability politics in the U.S.) 

The main critique leveled toward respectability politics and people who are proponents of it is that it simply does not work. No matter how respectable or successful Black people become, racist individuals and systemic racism still persist. What happened in this situation though, might be even worse. In this situation, the success of Black people not only did not eliminate racism, it may have also spurred on the first kind of codified housing segregation—racial covenants.

Racial covenants were lines of text inserted into property deeds stating that the house could never be owned or occupied by a person of color. These covenants were legally binding and did not become illegal until 1968. Although invented in the late 19th century, they did not become widespread until the beginning of the 1910s—incidentally the same year that the census reported the smallest gap between white and Black home ownership rates. 

While there were certainly multiple reasons that Black home ownership did not continue to rise as quickly (for example, the Great Migration resulted in many Black people renting instead of buying houses) and multiple reasons that racial covenants became widespread (real estate agents realized it was a way to increase profits), one thing seems clear. Just as Black people were beginning to build up their wealth and livelihood, white people were inventing new ways to rip those foundations out from under them.