By Dylan Doherty
“An Equal Opportunity Lie,” a new exhibit highlighting the intertwining influences of race and housing in the history of Flint, opened at the Sloan Museum on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 15 and runs until May 28.
The title is a quote from Floyd McCree, Flint’s first black mayor, who resigned in 1967 after the Flint City Commission voted down an embattled proposed fair housing ordinance. As the exhibit documents, after a tumultuous year the ordinance did finally pass, put to the voters in a referendum that won by only 30 votes — and establishing Flint as a pioneer in the country, the first to pass a fair housing ordinance. The overall patterns of 20th century housing construction and availability in Flint revealed in the exhibit, however, demonstrate that racial segregation and housing discrimination are not always explicit, but often cloaked in innuendo and paper-thin economic justifications — and extend beyond the decrees of government.
The exhibit starts with four photos of the early life of residential construction in the wake of the founding of General Motors in 1908. Even at these early stages, race influenced construction. GM built temporary housing for workers as early as 1919, and these were racially segregated. Two photos of the buildings for white workers are spartan but built with uniform materials and clearly planned. The other buildings, however, feature mismatched paneling and a row of electrical lines running through the middle of the settlement.
As the exhibit documents, this continued when GM founded the Modern Housing Corporation to build permanent domiciles for its workers, including Mott Park, Civic Park, and Chevrolet Park. These new developments were racially segregated directly and indirectly. Many included restrictive covenants which did not allow the homes to be sold to African-Americans. Even if such covenants were not in place, however, since African-Americans only had the lowest paying jobs at GM, they wouldn’t have been able to afford the new homes anyway.
Advertisements for the new housing divisions on display made clear that African-Americans weren’t welcomed. An advertisement for the Thorton Dale Addition informed their white clientele that the divisions were “sensibly restricted” and reserved only for a “certain class of people,” a well-understood code for white people. A billboard promoting the Woodcroft addition said it offered “restricted home sites.” A Brookside addition advertisements tells potential homeowner that they offer “adequate restrictions to protect your investment,” tying racial segregation to mere economic considerations to mask their racist origins.
One missing element in the exhibit is that some of the advertisements don’t feature any racist language, either explicit or in the form of innuendo. One striking example is “The Weight of Evidence,” a 1918 advertising brochure for the Woodcroft Estates. Even though the tag states that this brochure was “more direct” at indicating the homes would be whites only, the pages opened didn’t mention anything about race, direct or otherwise. There wasn’t even the innuendo of the Estates being “suitably restricted” or only for a “certain class of people” like advertisement for the Thorton Dale Addition. If there were direct claims of racial exclusion in this advertisement, it would have been better to make those pages viewable by the public.
There were also documents which, while interesting, did not contribute to the theme of racial housing segregation. For example, on display were tax documents from the purchase of Chalmers Scotts home from the Modern Housing Corporation. These would be more at home in a broader exhibit about the large and direct role GM played in housing construction in Flint, but these documents don’t teach us anything about racial segregation.
A placard describing Frederick Babcock, who wrote the Federal Housing Authority’s Underwriting Manual, shows that this “economic justification for racial exclusion” wasn’t just a local level phenomenon. Decisions at the federal level codified mortgage loans to African-Americans as high risk. On display is an FHA map of Flint, the famous red lines demarcating areas of the city where African-Americans lived as high risk.
This part of the exhibit fell short by not making clearer how these Federal policies were implemented by Flint institutions. The display noted that “local lenders and brokers” helped the FHA create the map, but doesn’t say who these local lenders and brokers were. Only later in the exhibit is it mentioned that realtor Robert F. Gerholz assisted in the creation of the security map, but there is no explicit indication of his connection to Flint. [As is well-known locally, Gerholz started Gerholz Realty in Flint in 1922. In 1950 he was president of the National Association of Realtors, and in 1966 he was president of the national Chamber of Commerce. A firm in his name still exists, with offices on Bristol Road–Ed.] Further, the placard for Babcock says that his writings were used by “highly influential institutions.” It mentions the federal and national institutions guided by Babcock’s writing, but none from Flint or the state of Michigan. Doing so would have better illustrated the close connection between federal policy and local practice.
The most disturbing and powerful display was a map of the the Flint City Cemetery, which showed that segregation was deemed necessary even in death. Placing this map after placards and maps which described the offered economic justification for racial segregation drove home the point that racial segregation wasn’t simply an economic decision but deemed an existential necessity.
Two more sets of maps follow: a series of maps showing the growth of primarily black residential areas and a map of proposed highways running through Flint. The residential maps, from Pierce F. Lewis’s Ph.D. dissertation Geography in the Politics of Flint, shows the distribution of high rent neighborhoods from 1940 as well as primarily black residential areas between 1934 and 1956. Notably the areas of black concentration do not align with the high rent areas. The map of proposed freeways was less clear in its comment on racial segregation. Using Lewis’s 1956 map as a guide, it appears that these proposed highways were right next to black residential neighborhoods. This would have been more easily shown if one map was overlaid on the other.
This point in the exhibit marks a turning point from de jure segregation backed by federal policy to de facto segregation backed by the practice of realtors. New homes were built at an increasing rate after World War II, starting at 243 in 1945 and reaching 2,015 in 1950. But a placard indicates that this construction was notably absent from the two main black neighborhoods, St. John Street and Floral Park. Further, the St. John Street neighborhood, located right next to the Buick Foundry, was beset by a “high incidence of respiratory problems, cancers, and other health problems.” In both of these cases, maps would have better illustrated the problems and provided sources for this information.
As lack of new housing in the St. John Street and Floral Park neighborhoods led to overcrowding in increasingly decrepit residences, the Fair Housing movement gathered steam in Flint. This was depicted by images of Floyd McCree, Flint’s first African-American mayor and staunch proponent of “open occupancy legislation.” After unrest in Detroit sparked similar unrest in Flint, activists in Flint pushed for the Flint City Commission to vote on a fair housing ordinance. On Aug. 14, 1967, the Flint City Commission voted against the ordinance, and McCree resigned, stating “I’m not going to sit up here any longer and live an equal opportunity lie,” giving the exhibit its title.
The activists who pushed for this legistlation are unnamed in the exhibit, and this is one instance of the most disappointing aspect of the exhibit as a whole: The Flint institutions and individuals involved in the Fair Housing movement go largely unnamed and undescribed in an exhibit dedicated to them, the “people (who) attempted to break down this system of racial inequality.”
Besides Floyd McCree, the exhibit does mention Woody Etherly Sr. and the Flint NAACP youth group who organized a ten- day “sleep-in” on the lawn of City Hall. Photos display Etherly Sr. and the sleep-in activists, and a photo of the largest civil demonstration in Flint’s history on Aug. 20, 1967. This later photo of over 4,000 protestors is made even more stirring by the mention of commissioners who had voted against the fair housing ordinance looking down at the protestors accompanied by a police officer with a rifle. However, the photos did not show that. Having a photograph of the protestors but not the commissioners gave the impression of the commissioners in the periphery of the events rather than playing center stage.
There is some confusion here regarding the 1967 rally. A photo of the rally features a placard which states it was “the largest civil rights demonstration in history.” The larger placard clarifies that it was the largest civil rights rally in Flint’s history.
The protests had more than a symbolic effect, and although McCree resigned, he declared he would not “dodge an equal opportunity fight.” The Commission voted again in October, 1967 and passed the fair housing ordinance 5-4. In response, the Committee to Repeal Forced Housing (as fair housing was called by its opponents) collected enough signatures to force a referendum. A total of 40,316 votes were cast, and after a recount the fair housing ordinance passed by only 30 votes on Feb. 20, 1968. Two photographs show the joy of voters as the ordinance’s passage was announced, the first fair housing ordinance in the nation to be passed by referendum.
The exhibit ends with both the triumph against de jure housing segregation in Flint and the realization that de facto housing segregation was still rife. The exhibit could have benefitted from more displays on the effects this de facto segregation had, including the demolition of the St. John Street and Floral Park neighborhoods as the I-475 freeway was built in the late 70s.
While the exhibit succeeded overall at capturing the city’s practices of racial segregation, it gave proportionately more display space to exhibits tangential to that segregation. It seems to this viewer it could have offered more space to the Fair Housing movement and the aftermath of the Feb. 20, 1968 referendum to pass the Flint Fair Housing Act. That part of the city’s history, after all, put Flint on the map as a community stubbornly and against many odds, even into the 21st century, wrestling its way toward justice.
EVM staff writer Dylan Doherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.