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From: Daarel Burnette II
Subject: Race on Campus: When colleges used eminent domain, money, and Jim Crow laws to destroy Black communities
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How Christopher Newport University widened the local gap in wealth
What role did higher education play in creating today’s wealth gap between white and Black families?
A big one, according to an illuminating investigation published by ProPublica, the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, and The Chronicle.
In 2019 the typical Black family had $23,000 in wealth (“wealth” is defined as what a family owns minus what it owes), according to a 2020 Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study. A typical white family owned $184,000 in wealth. According to many economists, that gap was mostly created in the 30-year span after World War II, when the federal government under the New Deal disbursed a series of programs through the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration to help Americans go to college and buy homes.
Those benefits were broadly denied to Black Americans, resulting in an undereducated Black middle class and segregated and underresourced neighborhoods, which prevented Black families from building and passing down wealth.
Until the 1960s, a wide swath of public and private colleges denied enrollment to Black students, capping the ability of otherwise-qualified Black taxpayers from entering the middle class. But what’s less known is the role college administrators played in preventing Black families from building stable communities, one vividly illustrated in this investigation, written by Brandi Kellam and Louis Hansen of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism, about what happened to the Shoe Lane neighborhood of Newport News, Va.
From the story:
A federal program that provided financial incentives for college expansions was responsible for displacing nearly 20,000 families in the United States between 1959 and 1966, according to the University of Richmond professor Robert Nelson, who has compiled an online database on the topic. While working-class white residents were also dislodged, roughly 40 percent were Black families, about four times the Black proportion of the U.S. population at the time. Local and state programs expelled thousands more Black families, like the Shoe Lane homeowners, for higher-education projects.
Eminent-domain seizures for the colleges exacerbated the racial gap in homeownership and the widespread loss of Black-owned properties, resulting in “the loss of wealth by African American communities and individual African Americans,” Nelson said. Even those residents who found better housing “still lament the fact that their community and their neighborhood was destroyed.”
College seizures were part of a broader policy of urban renewal, famously dubbed “Negro removal” by the author James Baldwin. Touted for improving ramshackle neighborhoods, urban renewal also ravaged thriving communities. Eminent domain was, and remains, its favored tool.
The story details how Christopher Newport University set about using eminent-domain laws, a growing pot of public money, and Black residents’ inability to vote to destroy the Newport News neighborhood, established in 1956 by Black families. In many instances, residents were compensated for their homes at rates below market value.
It’s not ancient history.
The purchasing of businesses and homes continued all the way up through the early 2000s.
In 2001, President Paul Trible of CNU told the Daily Press, the local newspaper, “Time favors Christopher Newport University. This university is going to be around for hundreds of years. We’re going to get that land eventually.”
In 2003 it purchased a Black Baptist church in order to widen a local road.
And while the article focuses on Christopher Newport, it points out several other colleges that have used similar incentives and strategies to bulldoze Black communities.
From the article:
In the 1960s, some of the nation’s most prominent colleges swept into Black neighborhoods. The University of Pennsylvania forced almost 600 families out of a predominantly African American neighborhood, known as Black Bottom, to make room for a science center, touching off protests and student sit-ins. The University of Georgia leveled Linnentown, a Black community of 50 families, for dorms and parking. The University of Oklahoma took an area of more than 650 Black families in Oklahoma City for a medical center. In Virginia, cities seized Black properties to expand public campuses in Norfolk and Charlottesville, as well as Newport News.
“Small colleges, large colleges, small cities, large cities — it was widespread just in the same way that urban renewal, more broadly, is widespread,” said LaDale Winling, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, and author of Building the Ivory Tower.
The debate today over what colleges owe the Black neighborhoods they reside in is an acute one. It touches on the students the institutions serve, the faculty members they hire, the research they commission, and the working conditions they deploy. Grappling with, recognizing, and rectifying past harm, as Christopher Newport is now attempting to do, are some of the most complicated aspects of this debate. But, as this story shows, they matter.
What I’m reading
- “The question of who belongs in” public school “and who gets to benefit from it has been fraught since the Civil War. During the Reconstruction era of the late 1800s, communities of Black Americans formed schools that served adults alongside children, helping educate newly freed enslaved people and laying the foundation for the first statewide public-school systems in the South,” Mark Lieberman writes in an essay in Education Week. “But many of those school buildings burned amid racist political backlash against the increasing political agency of Black Americans.”
- “In some ways, Up Home is a book not of this moment,” writes Martha Southgate in a New York Times review of the former Brown University and Prairie View A&M president Ruth Simmons’s memoir. “The word ‘trauma’ never appears; the words ‘grateful’ and ‘gratitude’ appear often. Simmons acknowledges vicious structural inequities — how could she not? Yet she spends little to no time on exegesis of the larger forces responsible for the arduous circumstances of her early life.”
- “An abundance of resources does many things,” President Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College, in Texas, says in a thread on the social-media platform X, in response to the University of Colorado coach Deion Sanders’s latest victory. “One of those things is that it allows the luxury of specialization. The lack of said resources promotes the development of diverse talents and creativity. It’s one reason why #HBCU vets excel when they leave our community.”
- “She was a role model for countless neighbors and mentored hundreds of students and other young people beginning in the late 1950s,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Gary Miles writes in a poignant obituary of Beatrice Bethel Johnson, the first Black librarian in the School District of Philadelphia and a longtime devotee of her alma mater, Hampton University.
Brain DrainA new survey of thousands of faculty members in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina finds that political incursions have dissatisfied the professoriate and chilled hiring.
Race-Conscious AdmissionsThursday’s announcement came hours after Students for Fair Admissions dismissed a lawsuit against the university that challenged its race-conscious policies.