“Perhaps home is not a place but an irrevocable condition.”
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Home. When you say it, what images come to mind? Family? Neighborhood? Playing with your friends as a kid? How does the word make you feel? Content? Happy? Melancholy? Such a small word fills your heart with powerful emotions. Not only does it bring forth memories, but the reality of that place has implications throughout your lifetime.
I think about growing up in the Northside section of Richmond, Virginia. It was a beautiful part of the city with Four Square style houses from the early 1900’s, manicured lawns, mature trees, and sidewalks to play hopscotch on. I think of security and peacefulness.
As a kid, I didn’t know my parents had secured a part of the American Dream that wasn’t available to all. My family was among the first wave of African-American families to move into Northside in the early 1950’s. Because my parents were moving into a white neighborhood, they could qualify for a bank loan, from a white bank. That’s right. It wasn’t financial capability that made them able to secure a loan with good terms; it was timing.
I hadn’t heard of redlining until I was in college. As I recall, it was discussed briefly in an urban sociology class. Neither the professor nor I focused much on it. While the term wasn’t coined until the 1960’s, the reality of the federal government refusing to insure loans in undesirable areas—literally drawing a red line around neighborhoods on a map—began in the 1930’s with the Federal Housing Administration. It wasn’t until I heard a presentation by Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, that I understood. The federal government had intentionally suppressed the likelihood that African-Americans could purchase homes by designating all black neighborhoods as undesirable. By doing that, the federal government quietly and powerfully said it wouldn’t insure loans for home purchases in black communities.
Now that didn’t mean that black families couldn’t buy homes. In fact, somehow both sets of my grandparents had purchased homes. It was just more difficult, often with less than desirable loan arrangements.
In my grandparents’ day, I can only see three options: 1) pay cash—a choice that was very unlikely for most black people; 2) purchase from an owner by signing a contract, often with a white owner, for payments to be made over 20-30 years. While the length of the loan was not different from the length of a mortgage today, there was a significant risk and potential for swindling. For example, the contract could state that if one payment was late or if repairs were not made, the agreement was void; causing the buyer to lose all that had been paid; or, 3) secure a loan from a black-owned bank. The last option was viable, particularly in Richmond. My home city had several black-owned banks dating back to the late 1880’s, but their ability to lend and the conditions of the loans were typically somewhat less desirable than those offered by white-owned banks merely because they had fewer resources.
I suspect that my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandparents, secured a loan from St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the one founded by Maggie Walker, the first woman in the United States to charter a bank. She and my grandparents lived in the same neighborhood and knew each other. I can imagine my father listening, with pride, as my grandparents discussed the importance of saving at Miss Maggie’s Bank as it was called.
It was my father who taught me the value of owning property. He told me repeatedly that a homeowner could live in his/her home, rent it out in whole or in part, or use it as collateral for a loan when extra money was needed. He understood that a home was far more than a place to live, a place to create memories. It was an investment.
Only in recent years have I come to know that where you live dictates much about the quality of your life. People in African-American neighborhoods have shorter lifespans than people in white neighborhoods. In the Greater Washington, DC area, where I live, that difference can be as much as eight years. Environmental toxins are more prevalent in communities of color. Educational funding, and the quality of education is driven, largely, by local property taxes based on home values. And, too many recent incidents have shown the difference in policing practices depending on where you live.
Today, as white people move into black communities it is disturbing, but perhaps not surprising that the term “gentrifying” is used. The “gentry”—the upper class—has come to the neighborhood and the community is seen to be on the rise. In my parent’s day, black people moving into a predominately white neighborhood was seen as signaling decline. Not much seems to have changed. The underlying narrative remains: black is bad, white is good.
And still, for all of us, home is where the heart is.