Together these letters from our collection reveal how large historical events of the 1940s helped forge a foundation for the battle over housing segregation and progress of the civil rights movement that followed. They also invite us to think about the components of our own housing crisis of affordability amidst the greater subtleties of inclusion and exclusion in today’s housing market.
Bebe Hyslop’s letter connecting the exclusion of African-Americans from Stuyvesant Town and fascism reminds us that America was deep in World War II by 1943. But more than that, Hyslop casts the racial ideology of Hitler’s Germany as inherently un-American, antithetical to the idea of “democracy.” Hyslop’s is just one of many letters reflecting the ideals of the Double V Campaign, launched by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942 insisting that victory over fascism abroad and inequality at home must be part of the same struggle, a struggle for “Democracy, At Home, Abroad.” In New York, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the city’s only African-American councilman and pastor of Harlem’s influential Abyssinian Baptist Church, mobilized the Double V campaign as a pointed criticism of La Guardia, tying it specifically to the Mayor’s support for a segregated Stuyvesant Town.
Mrs. Robert Martin Krapp reminded Mayor La Guardia that Black men “are dying in the defense of you and me and our city.” Military service has long been a powerful claim on equal citizenship and equal rights. During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass had written, "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship." The Double V Campaign reflected the frustration and optimism that the service and heroism of African Americans in World War II might deliver that promise of equal citizenship born of the Civil War, but never delivered.
Miss Balson’s letter urges the Mayor to “set an example in the defeat of Jim Crowism.” The Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities began with the rise of Jim Crow, as Southern municipalities and states began implementing the system of legally enforced racial segregation in the 1890s, matched with a frightening rise in lynchings. The Great Migration accelerated in waves during World War I and World War II as African Americans sought new opportunities for independence and equality in the burgeoning industrial economy of the urban north. In 1900, New York had only 60,000 African Americans. By 1950, the community was nearly 750,000. By the 1920s, Harlem was the heart of black New York. There were, after all, few other places African Americans could get apartments.
“Negroes and whites don’t mix,” explained the President of Metropolitan Life as he defended the policy of excluding African Americans from Stuyvesant Town in 1943. “If we brought them into this development, it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all the surrounding property.” It was an ugly argument honed during the Great Migration as fearful white residents and real estate interests shoehorned a burgeoning black population into limited places like Harlem. Mrs. Morgan’s letter demanding La Guardia vote “No” to Stuyvesant Town segregation makes a point of reminding the Mayor how crowded Harlem was by the 1940s.
Stuyvesant Town, these letters reveal, was a missed opportunity to change the racial basis of housing geography and affordability, and helps us better understand the Harlem Riots of 1943. Although the Metropolitan Life Company was a private developer, because of tax breaks and the use of eminent domain the project came under the new Redevelopment Companies Law of 1942. Thus, for the first time, government might have a say in housing discrimination by requiring the developer to accept all kinds of tenants.
By 1943, however, the city as a whole faced deteriorating housing and a crushing housing shortage, even if it was perhaps most acute among African Americans. Years of the Great Depression followed by the war exacerbated disinvestment in an already less than adequate housing stock. And La Guardia’s communique to his City Planning Commissioner in 1943 (among the documents included here) reveals the mayor’s prioritization of the completion of the new Stuyvesant Town housing units over equal access, suggesting the race question was an issue for Washington, not New York.
Housing was a key component of La Guardia’s agenda. But as the Harlem Riots of 1943 proved, the mayor had failed in the case of Stuyvesant Town to understand just how fundamental housing was in connecting the complexities of life and politics in the city. The day after the riots, the Daily News singled out La Guardia’s Stuyvesant Town decision as a factor that had, “helped aggravate the explosive situation in Harlem.” La Guardia learned from the experience, and signed a local law the following year forbidding tax exemptions for any publicly-aided housing project practicing segregation, but Stuyvesant Town, with its city contract already in hand, remained exempt.
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