The shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri–and the protests and political unrest that followed–opened up a national conversation about race, class, and police brutality. But something key is missing from that conversation, as a recent New York Public Library exhibition suggests. Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson looks back on the history of black migration from the cities to the suburbs and the overlooked effect it has had on racial tensions and inequality in America.
“When we think about black migration, usually the story we tell is about urbanization,” says Isissa Komada-John, the exhibitions manager for the New York Public Library’s Shomburg Center and one of the curators of the show. “We think about African Americans’ exodus from the South and moving to Northern cities, and it stops there. Terms like ‘urban’ and ‘inner city’ are sort of code language for black, and while that is an important part of black experience, most now live in suburbs.”
According to the exhibition site, the 2010 Census data shows that the decline in black populations in most major American cities directly correlates with an increase in black suburbanization. In the years between 2000 and 2010, for example, almost 90% of people who left the city of Chicago were black. Meanwhile, the city of Atlanta lost 30,000 black residents during that time, but the black population in the greater metro area increased by 40%.
But the suburbs have changed since America’s first suburb in Levittown, NY was built just after WWII. The suburbs were once an escape from the overcrowded, overpriced city–a place where you could have a house, a yard, and a white picket fence. Depending on your socio-economic status, that promise might still hold true, but for many the suburbs can be a place of isolation. As Komada-John points out, many lower class residents can’t afford a car for commuting, and in typical suburban areas, walking isn’t really an option. In communities lacking resources, there’s pressure on the police force to collect fines, which leads to a larger police presence. “The way we see suburbs as a space of bliss outside the city—we see for a lot of these communities that isn’t the case. It actually causes isolation and trouble,” says Komada-John.
All of which of is set against a backdrop of a long history of segregation. Up until 1948, for instance, it was legal to restrict the race of homebuyers in home deeds. Even more shocking: it was legal until 1968 for banks to restrict loans based on race. African Americans who moved to the suburbs decades ago weren’t offered the same refuge from city life as white residents, and in many cases they were met with hate and violence.
In St. Louis county, African Americans weren’t allowed to live in most suburban towns until the late 1940s, and even then white residents used exclusionary zoning practices–like prohibiting apartment buildings–to keep the suburbs segregated. When African Americans started leaving the city of St. Louis in the ’70s, they were attracted to the older suburbs, like Ferguson, that allowed apartments because they were built before those zoning laws were in place. When they moved in the whites fled; now the suburb is 30% white and 70% black, yet most of the city officials, including the mayor and the police chief, are white.
Now, with the suburban exodus trend in reverse, people with means to are moving back to cities, many suburban communities that were predominantly white are now predominantly black, but still living in the shadow of decades of violence and exploitation. “Understanding the political and economic forces behind creating suburbia–that that level of discrimination has a legacy and comes from somewhere–it helps us understand what’s happening now,” says Komada-John.
Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson ran from October 1 to January 2, 2015 at the NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.