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These Comic Books Bring The Story Of Segregation In St. Louis To Life

In a Harvard design course, students traveled to Missouri to depict the city’s long history of racist housing policies. Next up: using what they learned to inform potential solutions.

When a black couple bought an empty lot in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur in the 1950s–planning to build their dream home–their new white neighbors raised funds to try to buy them out. When the couple declined, city staff came up with a new plan to get rid of them: they condemned the property and turned it into a park. After a three-year court case, the couple lost.

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The story is one of several told in a new series of comics about the history of segregation in St. Louis, created as part of a studio class at Harvard Graduate School of Design. In the class, Affirmatively Further: Fair Housing After Ferguson, students traveled to the St. Louis area, studying intentional segregation before exploring potential solutions. The comics summarized that initial research.

“Comics are kind of a common denominator,” says Daniel D’Oca, the Harvard professor who led the studio. “I think in design schools we sometimes do a lot to make our intentions obscure, and use all kinds of big words that your average person on the street might not understand. I try to get my students to do the opposite–to make work that’s complex and rich, but at the same time understandable and accessible.”

Some of the comics talk about the history of redlining, the government-led program that evaluated neighborhoods based on race and ethnicity, giving the lowest scores to neighborhoods with black families–in some cases, even if black people walked through a neighborhood on their way somewhere else, that impacted scores. People in “redlined” areas struggled to get mortgages.

Another comic explains how some realtors realized they could exploit segregation to make money. After paying black kids to play in a neighborhood and black mothers to walk through with a baby stroller, they offered to buy homes from white families who feared the neighborhood was becoming black. Then they turned around and resold the houses, at a significantly higher cost, to black families.

When a white town called Olivette wanted to expand near Elmwood Park–a black community settled by former slaves after the Civil War–they “annexed” part of Elmwood Park, issued tax bills, and when families didn’t pay, auctioned off their homes and rebuilt.

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The stories, each of which contains real-life villains, are a perfect fit for comic books. The books will be printed and distributed in a limited run through a partnership with Forward Through Ferguson, an organization trying to implement changes recommended by the Ferguson Commission.

Two students are also developing some of the material into a textbook for eighth graders, after discovering that most kids go through school without ever learning the history of local segregation–and the effects former policies continue to have on their lives.

“The history of how St. Louis was segregated in the first place feels very alive and present there,” says D’Oca. “A lot of the legacy of the 20th-century policies that created segregation are, unfortunately, alive and well.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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