Racial Restriction and Housing Discrimination in the Chicagoland Area


Like Cook County’s cultural core, Chicago, the wider county's history has been defined by longstanding struggles for territory among its diverse citizens. Nested around the flat, prairie shores southwest of Lake Michigan, Chicago and Cook County attracted and continues to attract people of all racial/ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, and economic backgrounds from around the country and the world. Beginning in the first decades of the twentieth century, African Americans, as well as some European and Asian immigrants fleeing racial oppression in the South, migrated to Chicago neighborhoods in search of steaming factory jobs in a growing industrial economy. The backdrop of this remarkable northward exodus, now stylized as "The Great Migration," represents a direct link between an earlier defining period in American history—the Civil War and the Reconstruction era—and contemporary phenomena of racial/ethnic segregation in Cook County.


Reconstruction and The Great Migration

The end of the Civil War in 1865 heralded the Civil War Constitutional Amendments (i.e., the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) to secure the equal rights of newly emancipated African Americans by banning slavery, defining citizenship by birth and naturalization, and defending voting rights against racial discrimination. These constitutional amendments ushered an era of momentous progress, not only for African Americans to express hitherto unthinkable political power, occupying majority seats in the South Carolina state legislature, and gaining significant positions in state politics across the South, but also for America's fledgling experimentation with democracy.

During the Reconstruction era, African Americans witnessed gains in political liberties and participated in social, economic, and intellectual life in the Southern States. Over 2,000 African Americans, who only a few years prior existed precariously under slavery, held elected political offices across the states and in the U.S. Senate. However, seething under this remarkable democratic progress and eventually bursting into violent reactions was the rage of European Americans who saw their tightly controlled institutions of slavery and its free-labor economy collapse into an emerging new world of racial equality. The rise of Blacks in politics and economic activities triggered a new wave of racial oppression with a severe backlash against African Americans’ civil rights. In this new Jim Crow era, most African Americans migrated north in search of political freedoms and economic opportunities.

As over half-a-million African Americans migrated from the rural South to the urban North in search of more equitable political and legal rights, Chicagoland's already ethnically fragmented neighborhoods experienced a new wave of racial/ethnic tensions. The arrival of new immigrants stoked intense rivalries for territories and scarce resources, such that by the 1920s, the Chicagoland area had become a patchwork of at least seventy-five communities loosely corresponding to isolated social and cultural demographics. What emerged was a diverse but divided city with imbricated neighborhoods occupied by largely homogeneous racial/ethnic groups: Germans on the North Side, the Irish on the South and Northwest Sides, Bohemians and Poles on the Near Southwest and Near Northwest Sides, Jewish people on the West Side and parts of Hyde Park, and African Americans on the South Side Black Belt.

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The racial/ethnic segmentation notwithstanding, gradual assimilation ensured the integration of European immigrants within the first half of the 20th century. European Americans, including new immigrants, grew more integrated into a mainstream American society. But African Americans witnessed social exclusion and were forced to live in isolation. In their 1945 book, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton (both sociologists trained at University of Chicago) observed that during the first few decades of the 20th century, "the Negro are becoming increasingly more concentrated" in specific geographic areas.


Property Rights and the Legal Case for Integration

Why did African Americans remain consigned to specific places? What mechanisms ensured racial isolation at a time when the Chicagoland area was witnessing greater integration? Answers to this question point to landmark cases against a rapidly changing social order that have come to define America’s checkered racial history.

In the aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Supreme Court decision that sanctioned segregation, states across the country used racial zoning ordinances to restrict African Americans to specific communities and to prohibit them from living in European American communities. Such local segregation ordinances grew in popularity across the country as African Americans migrated north in the early decade of the twentieth century.

Coincidentally, local chapters of the NAACP were also being established during this period. Racial zoning was challenged in 1917 when William Warley, a civil rights activist and president of the Louisville, Kentucky, local chapter of the NAACP, agreed to purchase a house lot from a friendly White real estate agent, Charles H. Buchanan. Warley paid Buchanan $100 less of the $250 value, arguing that the lot was rendered less valuable because state zoning laws prohibited him from occupying the lot as a residence. Buchanan sued. In the ensuing Buchanan v. Warley (1917) case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of personal rights and property rights, thereby striking down state racial zoning.

Moorfield Storey, who represented Warley before the Supreme Court, argued that segregationist ordinances had adverse consequences for Blacks, but not for Whites because they deprived African Americans of legal rights. Storey, first president of the NAACP and New England abolitionist, contended that a law that forbids African Americans from rising does not forbid European Americans from falling and that it is every landowner’s common law right to occupy, sell, or transfer his house to anyone he pleases. The Supreme Court agreed, arguing that “Louisville’s racial zoning ordinance violated the 14th Amendment’s due protection clause and marked an infringement of contractual freedom because it interfered with private property sales between whites and blacks” (see "The Fair Housing Center").

Because this ruling merely upheld property rights, instead of affirming equal protection of personal rights under the law, it opened the legal landscape for the development of racial restrictive covenants among private citizens. Soon, small communities were using racial restrictive covenants to accomplish the legally defunct segregationist goals of racial zoning ordinances. A 1947 map of Chicago captures the use of racial restrictive covenants and zones of nonresidential areas to hem in African American residential districts on the south side of Chicago, cutting off corridors of expansion and deepening racial/ethnic isolation. Many African Americans eventually moved into these communities previously encumbered with racial restrictions, as these covenants became illegal.

It was not until 1948 in the Shelley v. Kraemer case that state enforcement of racial restrictive covenants was declared unconstitutional. In Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Courte declared that racially-based restrictive covenants are not by themselves unconstitutional, and private parties may voluntarily adhere to them. However, state enforcement of such racial restrictive covenants is discriminatory and therefore, unconstitutional, because it violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Racial restrictive covenants were finally ruled illegal in Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was passed by Congress four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, racial restrictive covenants can still be found in the language of deeds today. Although no longer legal, the segregated residential patterns created by racial restrictive covenants and other housing discrimination strategies, such as redlining, panic peddling and blockbusting, persist today.