White Picket Fence: Digging Deeper with Timothy J. Lombardo
The latest edition of the Inquirer's "A More Perfect Union" is a good place to start exploring how racism shaped Philly's suburbs. Historian Timothy J. Lombardo helps us take a deeper dive.
On July 4, 2021, The Philadelphia Inquirer published the preamble to a bold new year-long project “examining the roots of systemic racism in America through institutions founded in Philadelphia.” The project, titled “A More Perfect Union,” is explicitly framed as a response to our nation’s “racial reckoning” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. It aspires to explore “institutions that formed the cornerstones of our democracy and society,” show how they’ve contributed to “ongoing harm against Philadelphians living today,” and thereby reveal their role in the maintenance of racial inequality.
This past week, the Inquirer published the project’s fifth chapter, which was the first focused on housing discrimination. The piece tells the story of Toney Goins’ family history. Goins, a twenty-six year old black man, grew up in the Overbook section of Philadelphia and went to The Haverford School out on the Main Line. After graduating, he went to Julliard, studied acting, and now lives in New York, having earned a role on the TV show Billions. Despite having deep familial ties to the Main Line, he has no plans to return:
Goins could probably afford to move back to the Main Line. He’s only 26; he’s paid TV money.
But he says he will not settle here. He spent his whole life trying to prove that he wasn’t, as he put it, “the common Negro.” He paid attention to the way he spoke, the way he carried himself, how well he did in school.
He learned to infiltrate — then he had to go.
The report, at its heart, is an effort to grapple with Goins’ desire to escape the community of which he was a fifth-generation member. Starting with his great-great-grandparents’ experiences upon moving to the Main Line from North Carolina in 1929, the Inquirer shines a light on how racism shaped the family’s history. And, through the story of this family, it seeks to help us understand how racism has shaped the Main Line and America’s suburbs at large.
When, in 1940, Goins’ great-great grandparents were kicked out of an apartment building — along with all its other black tenants — they had trouble finding a new home because housing developments in the area had racially restrictive covenants banning non-white residents. The authors state that such covenants were part of a “sinister partnership” between private developers and public officials:
The National Association of Real Estate Boards, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce, drafted a model racial covenant in 1927 and encouraged real estate agents to deploy similar ones across the country.
In the decades that followed, real estate developers used these covenants “as a marketing tool to attract white homebuyers.” This practice, along with redlining, formed part of a broader set of tactics used to keep existing white spaces white and to create new all-white spaces for a budding middle class. The authors even note that Main Line developers constructed roads as “a physical barrier between Black neighborhoods and the homes they were building nearby” in order to increase property values.
But here’s where the Inquirer’s analysis falls a bit short of the project’s stated aim to examine the roots of today’s racial inequality. Structures like racially restrictive covenants are as much a surface-level manifestation of racism as they are a root cause of it. The latest edition of “A More Perfect Union” begs the question: yes, covenants were used as a marketing tool to attract white homebuyers, but why was the tool effective? What incentives motivated profit-hungry developers and vote-hungry politicians to invent new structures for the creation and protection of all-white spaces?
For help answering these questions — and, hopefully, exposing more completely the roots of racial inequality in Philadelphia’s urban and suburban spaces — I turned to Timothy J. Lombardo, Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Alabama. Lombardo is a Philly-native and the author of Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics. His book delves deeply into efforts by white ethnic working-class Philadelphians to prevent people of color from moving into their neighborhoods. In the process, it helps to show that tools like racially restrictive covenants were, in large part, a response to an intense, pre-existing, bottom-up demand among white Americans to resist neighborhood integration.
Because I believe that such structures were a profit-driven response to a fierce grassroots racism, it seems plausible to me that ordinary white Americans would’ve found ways to keep their communities white whether or not their attitudes were reinforced by elite developers and government officials. Lombardo’s book recounts several incidents in which working-class whites did precisely that, taking matters into their own hands when top-down structural tools failed to prevent — or even actively encouraged (!) — integration. As such, the cover art for “White Picket Fence” — faceless white men in suits with bony fingers raised forebodingly, signaling a barrier to black home ownership comprised by a nefarious elite — seems somewhat out of touch with the history of housing discrimination in Philadelphia.
I expressed this line of thinking to Lombardo in an email, and he graciously responded in depth, in some places affirming my thoughts and in others offering important correctives. Below is our exchange, with light edits and a handful of excerpts from his book added for context. The excerpts include jarring depictions of terror tactics used by angry racist mobs, so they make for difficult reading. But, as Errin Haines writes in the preamble to “A More Perfect Union” (emphasis mine):
The original [Declaration of Independence] was a rejection of oppression and a collection of truths amid omission, and our present-day efforts should attempt to correct the record in the true spirit of journalism. We do not honor our heritage by continuing to willfully ignore the unpleasant aspects of our story.
Yesterday, I read the latest edition of the Inquirer's series on the roots of systemic racism in America, "A More Perfect Union." The piece, called "White Picket Fence," is a deep dive into one family's struggle with, in part, housing discrimination on the Main Line. The article discusses racially restrictive covenants as a tool for enticing white homeowners to new housing developments and as a barrier to access for would-be black homeowners.
I'm reaching out to you because, while I thought the Inquirer's piece was well-done, I suppose I found its analysis a bit shallow given the project's stated aims. And I think I feel this way partly because I'm in the middle of your book. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, it seems to me that most (or at least many) people keeping up with "A More Perfect Union" would already be quite familiar with the existence of racially restrictive covenants, redlining, etc. But one thing I've found particularly illuminating about your book is the insight it provides as to why those covenants were such an effective marketing tool.
Several anecdotes that you describe have stood out to me — the experiences of Wiley and Bertha Clark (pp. 28-29)1, the Fernandez and Harris families (pp. 44-45)2, and Lillian Wright (pp. 81-90)3. In each of these instances, you describe white ethnic blue-collar Philadelphians using intimidation/terror tactics to coerce people of color into avoiding or leaving their neighborhoods. Some of these cases involved days-long riots, clashes with the police, property destruction, etc. —blatant displays of what I'd call grassroots racism / white supremacy.
To me, what these examples show is the ferocity of white ethnic appetite for things like racially restrictive covenants. There was a pre-existing, bottom-up demand for white-only spaces, and developers codified that demand in the form of covenants. But — and here's what I'm hung up on — it seems entirely possible to me that, absent the covenants, things would've played out more or less the same. Covenants or no covenants, the residents of Kensington in 1966 were determined to drive the Wright family from their neighborhood, and they succeeded. After hearing about such horror stories, it seems inevitable to me that other black families would've been discouraged from even thinking about trying to follow in the Wright's footsteps.
So, from your scholarship, I conclude that a lot of working class whites were hell-bent on keeping their communities all-white, regardless of whether their impulses were encouraged or discouraged from the top-down. And, in fact, your book tells the tragic story of a Philadelphia liberal elite who earnestly tried to discourage such displays of racism, with groups like the CHR [Commission on Human Relations] actively working to facilitate integration. The efforts failed because of intractable grassroots attitudes among working class whites — attitudes that included racism but were not reducible to it. And all this makes me think that the cover art for "White Picket Fences" — a bunch of white men in suits, signaling nefarious elites — is pretty ill-suited for a series on the roots of systemic racism in Philadelphia.
Having just read the Inquirer piece, I think you're generally correct in saying that the coverage of redlining and restrictive covenants is fairly well worn territory at this point. Absent in the article is any real mention of white actors on the Main Line, which I suspect would reveal a deep desire for the maintenance of restrictive covenants. How that desire manifested itself may be different than what I write about in working-class Kensington and South Philly, but I have no doubt it was there. That's not to say that the middle-class suburbs didn't react violently to integration. If you've never looked into it before, you should look at the attempted integration of Levittown in 1955 (which I only briefly mention in my book) and Folcroft in 1963. The ferocity in both makes Kensington almost look tame in comparison.
All of that is to say that I think you're correct saying that there was an appetite for segregation and things like restrictive covenants. Yet I'm hesitant to say the resistance to integration that I discuss in Kensington, South Philly, or anywhere else would have happened the same absent the restrictive covenants. For starters, as a historian I think contingency is an essential aspect of understanding the past. We can guess what might have happened without restrictive covenants, but we'll never know for sure. Restrictive covenants and redlining were big parts of creating metropolitan segregation outside of the South, so the people I write about were acting within pre-existing structures of white privilege and protection. In a lot of ways, I think you could argue that the ferocity of their response to integration was in large part a result of the covenants and other structures that had created their all-white existence.
I also think it's important to remember that while violence and ferocity was an important part of white resistance to housing integration, they weren't the only reactions. At another point in the book I show how one of the biggest responses to integration campaigns that I found was confusion. A lot of white people in the 1950s and 1960s simply did not understand (or claimed not to understand) why a Black person would want to move into an all-white neighborhood. While a lot of writers might dismiss that sense of confusion, I think it reveals something important. To a lot of these people — many of whom claimed they were not racist — segregation was normal. And, in the North, where segregation was not legally mandated and redlining was not common knowledge — it wasn't fully public until decades later — the legal and policy structures that created and maintained segregation were often invisible. So, to these people, segregation was just the way things worked or was supposed to be. I would argue that the reason they reacted in the ways they did — with violence, confusion, or some manner of both — was because often unseen forces had established and maintained their idea of segregated normality.
To put that another way, when looking at systemic racism I don't think we can separate the structural forces from the social forces. Because things like restrictive covenants were popular among whites, it is true that the structure grew from a demand and that continued demand for those structures helped keep them in place. Nevertheless, once in place, those structures indelibly shaped the history that followed.
Final reflections. I responded to Lombardo’s email as follows:
Your points about historical contingency and the impossibility of separating structural from social forces are well taken. And I admire your willingness to take seriously the confusion expressed by anti-integration whites. Seems to me that what we wind up with here is the following narrative arc: (1) whites wanted white-only spaces because of both racial animosity and comfort with the segregated status quo, (2) developers/government officials used structural tools like covenants to keep white spaces white, (3) those structures reinforced/intensified pre-existing racial animosity and attachment to the status quo, leading to (4) continued demand for racist structures / other tactics to protect white spaces.
Of course that's still an oversimplification, and it begs for further inquiry into the roots of the pre-existing racial animosity / segregated status quo.
I think this exchange — with the excerpts included as footnotes below — builds meaningfully on the foundation laid by the Inquirer in “White Picket Fence.” We end up with a more nuanced understanding of why our urban and suburban spaces remain largely segregated despite efforts at integration. And I take away the lesson that, even when our elected leaders earnestly try to shape society in accordance with a benevolent vision — as Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Relations did in the 1960s — such efforts are constrained by public’s prevailing attitudes. That said, as Lombardo points out, those attitudes are influenced to a certain extent by the actions of elected leaders.
For those who share the Inquirer’s goal of “address[ing] our past and confront[ing] our present in order to form a more perfect union,” chalking up racial inequality to a faceless nefarious elite isn’t going to cut it. We’d do well to see all actors — past and present, even those we witness saying or doing the unthinkable — as complexly motivated three-dimensional characters. We can’t focus on structural forces to the exclusion of social, or vice versa. And when focused on the structural, we ought to keep in mind that human structures are products of multifaceted human minds. Nuanced analysis is a prerequisite to progress, and essential to such analysis is the inclusion of all important factors — even those that frustrate, sadden, disgust, and terrify.
Excerpt (emphasis mine): “Schermer’s effect on this city began shortly after his arrival, as the CHR [Commission on Human Relations] began investigating charges of discrimination in municipal employment. The agency scored an early success in 1955, when Wiley and Bertha Clark sought to become the first African Americans to move into a proud, blue-collar, largely Irish and Italian section of upper North Philadelphia. They were not looking to become a test case for residential integration. To the contrary, the Clarks only sought a home they could afford where their four children could play safely. Working as a car wash attendant and domestic servant, respectively, the Clarks borrowed three hundred dollars from a loan company and put down a payment on a small home near the intersection of Judson and Cambria Streets. The loan meant that they would have to sacrifice to pay their mortgage, so Wiley Clark personally undertook the repairs the home needed from eight months of lying vacant. As he began working on the house each evening after work he aroused the suspicion of his new neighbors. Rather than tell hostile neighbors that he had purchased the home, Wiley told them that he was getting it ready for its new owner. An angry mob greeted the Clarks when they first moved into the house in August 1955. The next day Wiley returned from work to find his windows broken. While he went to contact the police, Bertha came home from work, saw the windows, and decided to wait outside for her husband. By the time Wiley returned with a police officer, Bertha had been surrounded by a screaming and spitting mob.
George Schermer received word of the trouble around ten thirty at night and quickly put the CHR’s interracial mission into action. Schermer and one of the CHR’s African American community-relations experts met with the Clarks while two white Catholic CHR workers held a meeting with members of the predominantly Catholic community. White residents complained about Wiley Clark’s alleged lie about owning the home and the house’s appearance. Convinced that the Clark’s would not take the same pride in their home as they did, the blue-collar residents of the Judson-Cambria area feared a drop in their property values. The CHR hoped to find a solution that would appease everyone, but the Clarks were ready to leave after their hostile welcome. Schermer feared that allowing the Clarks to leave in the face of white resistance would set a dangerous precedent. If the Clarks left, other white neighborhoods might use the same tactics to force newcomers out of their neighborhoods. The CHR had to convince the Clarks to stay and alleviate the concerns of their new neighbors. Schermer asked civil rights leaders to help orchestrate the creation of two community organizations, the Citizens Committee for Wiley Clark and the North Penn Civic Improvement Association (NPCIA). The CHR oversaw meetings between the two organizations that reached an accord. Civil rights organizations agreed to teach the Clarks about how to be model homeowners in exchange for North Penn residents agreeing not to engage in panic selling. The Clarks finally moved their children into their new home in November 1955 and the CHR boasted that it had ‘stopped a race riot’ …
…the residents of North Penn never fully accepted the Clarks. Moreover, the settlement of the situation forced the Clarks to tacitly admit that their hard work and pride in homeownership was less equal than their working-class, white ethnic neighbors.”
Excerpt (emphasis mine): “Kensington and South Philadelphia were often the first choice for non-whites attempting to escape areas of spatially concentrated poverty. Since so many white ethnics had relocated to the Northeast, there was an increasing stock of housing available. Those that remained became even more defensive. The belief, reinforced by the real estate industry, that nonwhite neighbors would create either a dangerous or an economically unsound environment tapped directly into blue-collar vulnerability. They warned that integration would lead to white flight from the neighborhood, thereby causing surrounding property values to fall. Despite a Commission on Human Relations education campaign to dispel such rumors, the belief that black residency lowered property values became a paramount fear. For economically vulnerable blue-collar whites, the threat of lowered property values was real, despite its basis in fear, misinformation, and racism. Few blue-collar whites disputed the notion that nonwhite neighbors would lower property values. They were too protective of the class status that homeownership bestowed.
Fear of falling property values complemented preexisting hostilities toward racial and ethnic minorities. When the mutually reinforcing politics of race and class met on blue-collar neighborhood streets, white residents often responded to the presence of unwanted newcomers with violence. In 1960, the CHR highlighted six episodes where white resistance to nonwhite neighbors led to minority families vacating their homes. In one instance, the Fernandez family leased a second-floor apartment in Fishtown from the proprietors of a grocery store on the first floor. The family was Portuguese, but because Jose Fernandez was dark skinned his neighbors presumed he was African American or Puerto Rican. After three days of crowds stoning their building, the Fernandezes left in fear. Similarly, when the African American Harris family rented a home in Kensington, whites enlisted the police to dispute the Harris’s rental agreement. Their home had a sheriff’s notice on the front door and, when confronted, the Harrises could not produce documents proving rightful occupancy. Their white neighbors had the police escort them from their home until they could prove they were not trespassing. The Harrises provided the proper documentation, but the community still threatened further action. Against CHR wishes, the Harisses decided that the neighborhood was unsafe for their children and left.”
Excerpt (emphasis mine): “In early October 1966, Lillian Wright began moving into a small row home near the intersection of Coral Street and Cumberland Avenue in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Wright had excitedly signed the lease for the modest home because of its inexpensive rent. She had high hopes that the nearby schools would prove suitable for her three children. But Wright and her family were the first African American residents in that part of Kensington, a large section of the city still overwhelmingly populated by working-class white ethnics. Although her realtor warned Wright about moving into the neighborhood, she thought the affordable rent and close schools were worth leaving her home in North Philadelphia. She received unwelcoming stares from her new neighbors almost immediately after she arrived with a moving van early Sunday morning, October 3. Later that day, a small group gathered at the corner of Coral and Cumberland to watch the Wright family move in. Wright said that she heard a man’s voice shout “N****** are moving into that house.” After unpacking, she decided to take her children and spend the night with a family member.
News of the move-in quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. By nightfall, the small group of onlookers turned into an estimated two hundred noisy and agitated people. Eggs, rocks, and bottles were flung from the crowd and broke the front windows of the small row home. Police arriving on the scene reported young people shouting “Negroes get out” and cheers going up from the crowd every time another projectile crashed into the house. While the police eventually dispersed the crowd, they made only two arrests. The unruly crowd sparked the first of five increasingly hostile nights of rioting over the prospect of integrating the neighborhood…
The situation reached its lowest point [three evenings later] when demonstrators marched outside the Wright’s home for the fourth night in a row. A crowd of about four hundred gathered to watch. The mostly young protesters carried Confederate battle flags and homemade signs mimicking the language used by civil rights activists, including slogans like “We Shall Overcome N******” and “White Power.” They twice burned effigies of African Americans while chanting “burn n****** burn.” The watching crowd booed every time the police made an arrest. When teenagers climbed on top of parked cars and began throwing bottles at police, adults in the crowd took it upon themselves to calm the young protesters. The police allowed one man to use their sound truck to inform the rioters that residents had retained an attorney in an effort to legally force the Wrights out of the neighborhood. Another man grabbed the loudspeaker to address the crowd. “I don’t want n****** in Kensington,” he said. “Neither do you. Everybody wants to get rid of them,” he continued. “N****** get things done by picketing. We can, too, but it’s got to be orderly. Let’s march!” He then led a group of two hundred toward the intersection of Coral and Cumberland, but police would not allow them to pass the Wrights’ home…
Thereafter, the Wright family experienced continued harassment. Rocks and eggs were thrown at their home, their windows were broken, and insults were hurled at them. They lived in fear for most of the winter and rarely let their children leave the house. After six months, the environment became too toxic. Leon Wright said he still believed in his family’s right to live in the neighborhood. He also would stay if he were alone, he added. For his children’s sake, however, he had to look for a new home. In March 1967, the Wright’s moved out of Kensington. The previously all-white neighborhood became all-white again. “The whites who live there have won,” remarked Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Joe McGinnis. It took six months, but they chased the Wrights out of Kensington. “And when it finally subsided,” McGinnis wrote, “it was clear that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love all right, but only if that brother is white.””