The United States recently marked the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The newfound attention, including from the president, to the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” reminds us that thriving, dynamic black communities existed in America long before the War on Poverty or the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But Greenwood was not the only African-American neighborhood that would be leveled: consider the DeSoto-Carr section of St. Louis, parts of Chicago’s Bronzeville, Cedar-Central in Cleveland—and Black Bottom in Detroit.
These neighborhoods, however, did not fall to racist mobs. They were the victims instead of progressive reforms: above all, urban renewal, as authorized by the National Housing Act of 1949, which provided funds to clear neighborhoods and replace them with public housing towers. The law made available “federal advances, loans, and grants to localities to assist slum clearance and urban redevelopment,” leading to the construction of 850,000 new public housing apartments. In Detroit’s Black Bottom, once home to 140,000 black residents, the process became known as “Negro removal”—as evoked by “Why I Sing the Blues” by Aretha Franklin, whose father, C. L. Franklin, ran the New Bethel Baptist Church, one of the Black Bottom buildings demolished.
Like the Greenwood Massacre, Black Bottom and its history have received fresh interest. In 2015, a young African-American community organizer, PG Watkins, established the Black Bottom Archives. Watkins is at work recording the oral histories of those who once lived in the neighborhood. A onetime social studies teacher at a charter school, Jamon Jordan, who heads the Detroit chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, has set up a successful business, the Black Scroll Network, which gives guided tours of the few remaining buildings. His clients include former Black Bottom residents as well as college students. He tells them a well-researched story of loss—of homes, businesses, churches, and mutual-aid groups.
Black Bottom—named by the area’s early French residents for its dark farm soil—“was not destroyed by the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” says Jordan. “It was destroyed because the federal and city governments colluded to wipe it out without almost any compensation.” As happened in many other black neighborhoods, urban renewal and public housing helped wipe out a hub of black-owned businesses and self-help institutions, a community that fostered homeownership and wealth accumulation—goods that contemporary American blacks have struggled to achieve.
If the 1949 Housing Act led directly to the death of Black Bottom and its adjoining neighborhoods, the previous decades of reform—when progressives developed federal tools to demolish what they termed slums and replace them with modernist, top-down plans—laid the groundwork. Neighborhood residents didn’t lead these crusades. Indeed, as sociologists Peter Rossi and Robert Dentler have written, the public-policy modernists faced local opposition. “The community was viewed by Negroes as an almost ideal residential location and far from blighted or deteriorated,” they observe of a Chicago neighborhood similar to Black Bottom. “For Negroes from every class level . . . the importance ascribed by whites to renewal seemed only a flimsy excuse . . . [R]enewal plans were seen as directed specifically against Negroes.”
The origins of the idea of slum clearance date to journalist Jacob Riis, who photographed New York’s Lower East Side in How the Other Half Lives. Conspicuously, his work never included residents’ thoughts about their own neighborhood. Riis’s biographer, Tom Buk-Swienty, labeled him as among the “writers who wrote about the slums focused primarily on suffering and squalor.” As Buk-Swienty noted, however, “there was more to the slums than abject poverty. Hundreds of thousands of families lived relatively normal lives. They worked, although usually under deplorable conditions, paid rent, fed their children and had hopes and dreams for the future. For a large number of immigrants . . . life in the tenements was an improvement on their old lives, offering a more dignified existence.” In an insight that would remain elusive to later Riis-inspired housing reformers, Buk-Swienty maintained that “poverty was not a life sentence, as many writers, including Riis, at times, seemed to want readers to believe.”
The most direct link to the destruction of Black Bottom involves the progressive movement and its latter-day federal incarnations: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Upset by slum conditions that they knew only at a distance, two well-educated members of the upper middle class—Columbia University faculty member Edith Elmer Wood and Cornell architecture student Catherine Bauer—supplied the intellectual framework for these programs.
For Wood, the physical condition of poor neighborhoods—some of which, including Black Bottom, still included homes with outdoor privies—was the only relevant concern. The idea that communities of private, low-cost, low-income housing—with their local businesses and property owners and dense networks of social and religious institutions—could be way stations to upward mobility and could see their prospects improve as U.S. prosperity improved never occurred to her. In a 1934 paper, “A Century of the Housing Problem,” and in other writings, Wood led the charge against slums and the private housing industry itself. Her work would shape New Deal housing policy. “The housing problem is an inevitable feature of our modern industrial civilization and does not tend to solve itself,” she wrote. “Supply and demand do not reach it, because the cost of new housing and the distribution of income are such that approximately two thirds of the population cannot present an effective demand for new housing. And while some of the older housing is acceptable enough, a great deal is shockingly inadequate. . . . There are housing conditions across the United States which cannot be tolerated in civilized communities.”
If Wood provided the theory, Catherine Bauer offered the blueprints. In the late 1920s, she was living a Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, before turning her sights toward housing reform. Bauer was enthralled with modernist architecture, and the idea that it should replace existing low-rent housing. She envisioned a modernist workers’ housing utopia. Photography and architecture dominated her profoundly influential 1934 book, Modern Housing. But her written message was even more ambitious—and radical—than Wood’s. “The need to remove housing from private hands was the principal message of Modern Housing,” writes architectural historian Barbara Penner, in the foreword to a 2020 edition of the book. Frank Lloyd Wright, who liked Bauer personally, called her “Communist Catherine.” As Bauer wrote in the depths of the Depression, when housing construction of all kinds was at a standstill, there “is no getting around the fact that modern housing and much of the framework of contemporary Western society are mutually antipathetic. The premises underlying the most successful and forward-pointing housing developments are not the premises of capitalism, of inviolate private property, of entrenched nationalism, of class distinction.” Not only the physical conditions but also the very idea of a poor neighborhood such as Black Bottom were anathema to Bauer, who believed that private construction would fail to provide decent housing for most people. Modern Housing promoted Le Corbusier–style social housing as a more advanced approach.
Roosevelt took office a year before Modern Housing was published, soon breaking ground on the first public housing in the United States. That included the Brewster Homes, which replaced a small portion of Black Bottom. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had pushed for blacks to be included in public housing, spoke at the Brewster Homes groundbreaking in September 1935. When the project opened in 1938, it became America’s first public housing project built for African-Americans.
But Black Bottom’s fate was not yet sealed. At the same time that Wood and Bauer were laying the groundwork for public housing, the neighborhood was being transformed. Black Bottom was long an immigrant neighborhood—successively German, Irish, Italian, and Jewish. But even in the pre–Civil War era, it was a beachhead for a small number of blacks, such as William Lambert, the Trenton, New Jersey-born son of a freed slave who arrived in Detroit as a steamship cabin boy and went on to build a successful tailoring and dry-cleaning business on the neighborhood’s St. Antoine Street. He was an active leader in the Underground Railroad, shepherding fugitives across the nearby Canadian border to Windsor, Ontario, and corresponding with leading abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison. His Saint Matthew’s Episcopal church remained a community institution until Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, an adjoining neighborhood, were cleared.
The neighborhood’s heyday as a black community began in earnest in the years after World War I, when Henry Ford’s famous offer of a $5-a-day factory wage drew Southerners, including blacks, to Detroit. That appeal grew in 1941, when President Roosevelt lifted a ban against blacks working in defense industries, including the converted auto plants. Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, on the city’s East Side, adjoined its downtown, bounded by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, Vernor Highway, and the Grand Trunk Railroad tracks. Both neighborhoods grew increasingly populated.
Race, and racism, doubtless played a role in Black Bottom’s development—and its eventual demolition. The era of Black Bottom’s growth, notes Jamon Jordan, coincided with a period in which private deed restrictions still commonly barred the sale or rental of homes to blacks. The Supreme Court would not declare these unconstitutional until 1948. Meantime, the federal government’s move into the private housing market brought with it not only long-term government-insured mortgages but also the denial of such insurance for loans made in areas where the Federal Housing Administration concluded that blacks were likely to move. By assuming that whites would then flee, the agency deemed such areas high-risk—and drew red lines around them on maps. Thus it was that the Roosevelt administration, not private banks, began the now-infamous practice of “redlining.” As Richard Rothstein explains in The Color of Money, this policy made ownership far more difficult to attain for potential black home buyers. Government involvement in the private housing market, which served to institutionalize racism, meant that blacks in Detroit had to squeeze into Black Bottom.
Nonetheless, business and civic life thrived in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. The Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s African-American newspaper, says that black Detroiters had “created their own utopia in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where hundreds of businesses, churches, nightclubs, clubs, hotels, barbershops, and beauty salons were owned by African-Americans.” Residents included Motown records founder Berry Gordy Jr. and “Detroit Red”—later known as Malcolm X. Along such lost streets as St. Antoine, Hastings, and Adams Avenue, estimates Jordan, stood no fewer than 350 black-owned businesses. They included the Jesse Faithful and L’il Soul Food restaurants, the Busy Bee Cafe, the Wolverine Barbershop, tailor and shoe-repair shops, the Chronicle, the black-owned Hardin drugstore, and the Paradise Bowl, a 20-alley bowling facility part-owned by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who had lived in Black Bottom after his family moved north from Alabama and kept an office in the neighborhood.
Black Bottom was home to entertainment spots, including the Forest Club, owned by one of the city’s wealthiest African-Americans, Sunnie Wilson. Major blues singers, big bands, and jazz artists—Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie—regularly performed in the bars and clubs of Paradise Valley’s entertainment district. They might have stayed in Black Bottom’s Gotham Hotel, considered the best black hotel in the country, or in the Mark Twain Hotel, owned by Wilson. Both were listed in the now-famous Green Book guide to places where blacks could safely stay when travelling.
Jordan also points to the presence of mutual-aid associations. The Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies helped elderly widows. The Detroit Housewives League, sister organization of the Booker T. Washington Business Association, organized boycotts of white businesses that would not hire blacks and urged Black Bottom residents to patronize black-owned stores. The Urban League’s Detroit branch—which relatively affluent blacks established to help newcomers from the rural South adjust to city life—had its office in Black Bottom. And, of course, houses of worship were abundant: Catholic and Lutheran churches from when the immigrant neighborhood had been Irish, Italian, Polish, and German; and black churches, most famously New Bethel Baptist, headed by the Mississippi-born reverend C. L. Franklin, whose daughter Aretha was already on her way to stardom when the church had to relocate.
Finally, there were black property owners of single- and multifamily homes. Notwithstanding the conventional view that outside landlords owned “slum” housing, black Detroit boasted plenty of homeowners. Census data from 1950 show that in predominantly black Detroit neighborhoods, 28.1 percent of residences were owner-occupied. Many of those homes also had rental apartments, so they were sources of wealth accumulation. Many tenants, in turn, rented out rooms to boarders, both to pay their rent and to accumulate savings of their own. Such property owning was a route to upward mobility, in contrast with the public housing that would replace the neighborhood—in which private ownership is, by definition, impossible.
A proximate cause for the decision of Detroit’s civic leaders to clear Black Bottom came in 1943, when a fierce race riot wracked the city. A year earlier, the advent of one of the earliest public housing projects, built in response to the needs of defense workers new to Detroit, had stoked tensions. Named for the black abolitionist Sojourner Truth, the project was located in the mostly white, blue-collar Seven Mile-Fenelon neighborhood, adjacent to an existing black neighborhood, Conant Gardens. In 1942, after the first black families moved in, a wave of violence followed. These black residents were defense workers, and Jordan explains the reaction, aside from its racist motivations, as a post-Depression hangover: whites wanted to be sure that, upon their return from war, they would still have jobs. The fact that blacks were both being permitted to work in wartime factories and live in government-supported housing fueled fear and anger.
Then, in June 1943, groups of whites and blacks fought each other on Belle Isle, and from there, sparked by rumors of other racial incidents, the violence spread into Detroit proper. White mobs attacked, looted, and burned residences and businesses in Black Bottom. “This was a true race riot,” observes Jordan. “Whites were fighting only with blacks, and blacks were fighting only with whites.” According to the Detroit Historical Society, nine whites and 25 blacks died in the 1943 riot, including 17 blacks killed by police.
Detroit resolved not to attempt to rebuild and incrementally improve Black Bottom. Blacks, not whites, were viewed as violent instigators, with Black Bottom and Paradise Valley their epicenter. In 1944, real-estate developer Eugene Greenhut proposed the neighborhoods’ demolition. The idea found favor with Detroit mayor Edward Jeffries. “This area,” Jeffries wrote in 1946, should “be acquired by the city and completely cleared of all buildings thereon. . . . The area [should] then be re-planned, with the object in mind of disposing of as much as possible to private enterprise for redevelopment for housing and incidental commercial purposes after providing sufficient space for parks, playgrounds, schools and other public uses.”
It was a vision of modernist planning, but it stalled for lack of funds and might have languished permanently were it not for the National Housing Act of 1949. Washington funds would make possible both the clearance of Black Bottom and the construction of six high-rise public housing towers, known as the Frederick Douglass Apartments, which, combined with an older project, became the Brewster-Douglass Homes. The plan suited the purposes of two seemingly disparate groups: postwar progressives in the Truman administration, convinced that public housing would provide the “safe and sanitary” conditions that too many Americans lacked; and Detroit’s Republican mayor Albert Cobo, elected in 1950, whose racially charged campaign, following the Supreme Court’s 1948 decision to strike down deed restrictions, included promises to maintain white neighborhoods as white. The Michigan Chronicle characterized Cobo’s election as “one of the most vicious campaigns of race-baiting and playing upon the prejudices of all segments of the Detroit population.”
But progressive housing policy did what even a race-baiting mayor might never have achieved. Because Black Bottom was such a concentrated neighborhood, Jordan says, “it was so easy to just wipe it out.” Business owners, for the most part, received no compensation because, he notes, they owned only their stores, not the land. Renters got nothing but a chance to live in public housing.
“Public housing,” observes Jordan, in an understatement, “was problematic.” True, it initially provided better physical accommodations for those relocated. “A significant number of people clamored to be on the list.” But “after years living there, all you would have would be rent receipts.” Referring to the FHA’s redlining, Jordan says, “African-Americans would get the projects, whites would become homeowners. And property ownership is the way to accumulate wealth in America.”
Contemporary black–white wealth disparities confirm that observation. In Detroit and across America, blacks continue to live in public and government-subsidized housing disproportionately to their share of the total population. Of some 5 million units of subsidized housing in the U.S.—including all public housing—African-Americans occupy 39 percent, more than three times their percentage of the U.S. population (12.3 percent). Tenants, on average, occupy subsidized housing for 12 years. These projects offer little springboard for upward mobility. Women head 79 percent of subsidized-housing households, while only 4 percent of such households are headed by two adults with children. One gets priority for public housing based on income; the higher incomes of two-parent families tend not to qualify. If a second breadwinner joins a public housing household, the rent, set at 30 percent of income, rises.
Without public housing, one can imagine a different history unfolding for Black Bottom. As black Detroiters became wealthier and the city’s auto plants boomed, black institutions might have renovated and otherwise improved historically black neighborhoods. Small-business owners might have expanded their firms and built wealth. Had the government not been so heavily involved in the mortgage market, competing banks might have sought out, not shut out, potential black home buyers.
Instead, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were cleared. The Brewster-Douglass high-rises opened. By 2014, the project’s six towers had decayed to the point that they were demolished; Black Bottom, in effect, was cleared again. The nearby original site of Paradise Valley, cleared by 1956, lay fallow for years—a large, empty lot where a thriving neighborhood once stood. Ultimately, Detroit civic leaders, led by United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, pursued the construction of the Lafayette Park apartments, an upper-middle-class complex designed by pioneer modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Housing reformers got their way: clearance, followed by the anti-urbanism of modernist architecture, both in Lafayette Park and in the Brewster-Douglass Homes. A vital piece of black Detroit was swept away.
Top Photo: Detroit, circa 1955: thriving, dynamic black communities existed in America long before the War on Poverty or the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)