Racial Zoning and the U.S. Government

Reconstruction ended in 1877 when U.S. troops stopped protecting freedmen in the South based on a deal made between southern Democrats and Republicans. Residential integration declined after 1880 and stagnated around the mid-twentieth century. Slaveowners transformed slaves into sharecroppers while simultaneously preventing Black people from access to voting through state-sanctioned violence and Jim Crow.

Jim Crow spread throughout the United States, slowing the pace of racial integration by expelling Black people from white communities. Towns adopted policies that prevent Black people from residing or being in certain towns after dark, which police and mobs reinforced.

Black people were expelled from homes in small towns and urban areas, starting at the local level. Cities adopted zoning rules starting with Baltimore in 1910. The city prohibited the purchase of homes outside of same-race majority areas and prosecuted at least twenty evictions. The city eventually applied it to entirely same race blocks since integration had already occurred in many areas. This occurred in Atlanta and many other cities too.

How the Federal Government Endorsed Zoning

The enforcement of racial zones happened at the federal level as well. Woodrow Wilson played a significant role in limiting the rights of Black people in D.C. after his 1912 election. He advocated for segregation based on a belief in Black inferiority. Wilson refused to admit Black people during his tenure as Princeton’s university president. Wilson expelled many Black federal workers during his tenure, creating segregation in government offices during his tenure. He tasked the implementation to his cabinet secretaries including Frederick Delano Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the navy and future president of the United States.

President Warren G. Harding instructed his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to form an advisory committee on zoning in 1921. He then tasked the committee with the job of creating a model zoning law. They also distributed a print manual to instruct city planners. Hoover placed several segregationists on the committee. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the architect of Central Park in New York and Piedmont Park in Atlanta. Olmsted Jr. also held presidencies in influential architectural organizations like the American City Planning Institute. Irving B. Hieff had an executive position at the National Association of Real Estate Boards. Finally, Alfred Bettman played a leadership role at the National Conference on City Planning and would later go on to be appointed by Frederick Roosevelt to the Land Use Planning Committee in 1933.

Southern Cities and the Legacy of Racial Zoning

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the practice in the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley case, overturning the racial zoning ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky. The court cited it as a violation of freedom of contract from government interference as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Still southern and border cities ignored the ruling. Prominent city planner Robert Whitten endorsed the practice in a 1922 professional journal article:

Whitten then went ahead and designed a zoning ordinance for Atlanta, advising city officials that “home neighborhoods had to be protected from any further damage to values resulting from inappropriate uses, including the encroachment of the colored.” The zone plan drafted by Whitten and unpublished by the Atlanta City Planning Commission in 1922 explained that “race zoning is essential in the interest of the public peace, order and security and will promote the welfare and prosperity of both the white and colored race.” The zoning law divided the city into an “R-I white district” and “R-2 colored district” with additional neighborhoods undetermined (Rothstein 2017).

Atlanta argued to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1924 that Robert Whitten’s plan did not amount to racial zoning, but Georgia rejects the argument. However, the Atlanta School Board used the map to determine where they would close schools. The practice displaced both Black and White students and created racially segregated zones. Other cities followed suit including Indianapolis, Richmond, Birmingham, West Palm Beach, Kansas City, and Norfolk. Zoning experts like Ernst Freund, a professor at Columbia Law, would advocate for segregation as the ideal social order.

How White Residents Displace People of Color

Residents within communities influenced zoning by advocating that apartments would get zoned outside of single-family neighborhoods. They would create petitions against new developments that excluded racially explicit language. One such tactic included the use of industrial toxic waste zoning to locate industrial businesses near neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. This had the effect of protecting white neighborhoods from deterioration while also making it difficult for people with low income to live in predominantly white areas.

Unless otherwise stated, insights reported here come from Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law

An earlier version of this piece named Frederick Olmsted Jr. rather than Sr. Thanks to Denise Davis for catching it!