19471940s: Drawing the Line
In 1947, the Levitt brothers built their first Levittown community in New York, providing opportunities for affordable home purchases for servicemen returning from World War II. The GI Bill issued by the federal government provided incentives and opportunities for returning veterans to purchase new homes for their families by extending long-term, low-interest mortgage rates and reducing or cancelling down payment requirements. The bill was extended to all veterans regardless of race; however, Levittown refused to house Black veterans and their families. Families wishing to move into the Levittown community were required to sign leases that proclaimed no home would “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Racially restrictive covenants in Levittown, and in other suburbs and neighborhoods, upheld segregation outside of the South and widened the economic gap between white and Black citizens.
Racially restrictive covenants were defended and upheld in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, based on the argument that such covenants did not violate the Constitution because the discrimination was a private action and not conducted by government officials. The Supreme Court later reversed this decision and declared that state and federal courts that enforced private, racially restrictive covenants served as state actors and therefore such covenants were unconstitutional. Despite the court’s reversal, residents, developers, and realtors continued to use discriminating contractual terms.
In addition to restrictive covenants, the Federal Housing Administration implemented the practice of redlining: decreasing mortgage valuations based on the presence of or proximity to African American residents, thus further cementing residential segregation and decreasing the value of Black-owned properties. It took an executive order from President John F. Kennedy, another Supreme Court decision, Congressional legislation, and the passage of the Fair Housing Act to ultimately end the discriminatory practices, well after the damage was done. The economic and political implications still linger today.