Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia
The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car. Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.
In 1946 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places. Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance). His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936. The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township by June, 1946 that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans. There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape. Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience.
The Greers’ path to the suburbs defied federal law and local practice that made housing racism the law of the land. The postwar suburban dream was patrolled by realtors who refused to show most homes to African Americans, and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans explicitly rejected funding for any racially mixed neighborhoods. In 1943, for instance, the National Association of Real Estate Boards counseled its members to avoid “members of any race or nationality . . . whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood,” and such adverse influences “might be a madame with a string of callgirls, a bootlegger, a gangster, or a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites” (reference from Cyd McKenna’s 2008 Thesis). Such policy and practice created vast swaths of suburbia that were as exclusively White as the hackneyed stereotype: in 1960, the most extreme example was the Levittown tract on Long Island, whose 82,000 residents included not one African American, making it the single largest exclusively White community in America.
The Greers’ home sat in an almost completely uninhabited area until development began in the mid-1950s, when a series of subdivisions were placed around the Greers’ home. Greer himself sold lots on his property in a series of homes he dubbed Greer-Dell Estates (1955), and the Augusta Way subdivision (1955) was followed by Grand View Estates (1962) and Northshire Estates (1966). A December 1955 advertisement heralded 88 available lots in the Augusta Way subdivision, and African American realtor C.J. Hughes acknowledged that the community was a response to suburban segregation, telling the Indianapolis Recorder that “`This subdivision meets the demands of many particular people and families with middle incomes and higher who want good modern homes in locations commensurate with their investments.’” Hughes’ clumsy reference to “particular people” suggested that he imagined the subdivision as upwardly mobile households; in many ways, though, to be “suburban” was to invoke a set of values, experiences, and ambitions, an idea more than a material or demographic entity, much as the “middle class” likewise referred to an idealized frame of mind more than a concrete social and financial standing. Clearly many of the residents in the Grandview subdivisions were working-class families as well as professionals and white collar households.
As in many other Black suburbs, the property was attractive largely because it was affordable and spatially separated from White neighborhoods. Perhaps the most significant initial liability of the location was the absence of full city utility services. Most of the neighborhood’s first homes were built with septic tanks and wells, but by 1963 the neighboring Grand View Estates proudly heralded it had city water and sewer connections. However, the attractions were not different than those for nearly any prospective suburbanite: good schools (in this case, Grandview Elementary was right on 64th Street); a close social circle of neighbors; home payments were in many cases less expensive than rent; and the Grandview neighborhoods provided some modest but important power over the material details of domestic space ranging from gardens to household furnishings. The Grandview neighborhoods were not the sole Black suburbs in Indianapolis. Tobey Realty Company, for instance, developed or sold homes in a series of neighboring communities including Crestwood on Caroline Street in 1961, Douglass Park in 1962, and Kingsley Terrace a few blocks away on Brouse and 25th Streets in 1965.
The Greers’ home was quite a departure from the stereotypical Levittown tract house. A sign at the gate of the Greers’ home identified the 3500 square foot, five-bedroom residence as “Shangrila,” a home “designed by Mrs. Greer to utilize all the phases of nature and to display her extensive collection of beautiful antiques.” Like Della Greer, Frank and Georgia Stewart “drew and executed their own plans in building their home” at 6525 Grandview Drive, and the Stewarts’ home also featured antiques, including “an antique love seat carved from Chinese teakwood that is over 600 years old.” The Stewarts’ house featured rather conspicuous decorative goods that depart from the caricature of modestly furnished suburban homes symbolically maintaining the status quo. The Indianapolis Recorder indicated that “Mrs. Stewart has an affinity for wallpaper and every room is uniquely papered. . . . The hall leading to the bedrooms is papered in a `Gold Fleck’ design. The master bedroom is done with a `Madame Butterfly’ and the paper in the second bedroom is called `Golden Pheasant.’ Visitors will note the kitchen wallpaper shows the calorie counts of many foods.”
The remainder of the homes in the neighboring subdivisions were relatively standardized, but few suburban boosters or residents perceived these similarities as homogeneity, let alone conformism. In October 1957, for instance, African American realtor W.T. Ray heralded a home in Augusta Way that was nearing completion for Earl and Vanessie Seymour. The Seymours’ ranch home featured “fireplaces in living room and basement recreation room, 3 bedrooms, all electric kitchen with custom built cabinets of South Carolina Birch, baked Pink finish, [and] an attractive family room off of the kitchen adds a cheerful note of informality to this comfortable home. Imperial Black Marble sills, remote control lighting and the best in plumbing fixtures typify the high quality workmanship and materials that go into homes in this Northside subdivision.” The Seymours participated in numerous neighborhood social events and were members of community social groups, a common pattern in many other American suburbs. Bennett Berger’s 1961 analysis of the “myth of suburbia” acknowledged that many observers called this a “new kind of hyperactive social life” in which social homogeneity, material proximity, and the absence of an older generation of established community leaders contributed to intensified suburban socializing. The Seymours, for instance, were members of the Federation of Associated Clubs, an organization that lobbied for civil rights and upheld middle-class behavioral codes. Della Greer was a long-term member and secretary of the Delphinium Garden Club, whose mission she described was “to develop genuine appreciation for the healing power of nature’s bounty and beauty in a perplexed world.” Frank and Georgia Stewart hosted meetings of the National Idlewild Lot Owners Association, a segregated Black resort in Michigan. The Seymours shared their home with neighbors and visitors for a wide range of socializing and home tours like one in July 1959, when, “through the courtesy of Mrs. Earl Seymore [sic],a small party of local people and visitors visited several of the new homes in the addition near 64th and Grandview.”
The persistent stereotypes of the Grandview neighborhoods as uniformly affluent or “middle class” were simplistic. The Seymours, for instance, were not stereotypical Black bourgeois: neither was descended from well-connected families; he had a working-class job in a creosote firm and then International Harvester; and neither had advanced beyond fifth grade. Bennett Berger may have been describing households like the Seymours and a general system of suburban values when he suggested that for “those interlopers who arrive in the suburbs bearing the unmistakable marks of a more deprived upbringing, suburbia is said to serve as a kind of `second melting pot’ in which those who are on the way up learn to take on the appropriate folkways of the milieu to which they aspire.”
Nevertheless, the Grandview suburbs were often caricatured as an insular Black bourgeois. In 1966, Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew W. Ramsey (like Della Greer, a former Attucks teacher) complained that “many of the Negroes who have struck it rich so to speak in the post war economy decided to escape the ghetto by building split level and ranch type homes out in the suburbs. Now hundreds of Negroes live in Washington Township outside in showplace homes and gress [sic] covered acreage. As they have moved in the whites nearby have moved out to be replaced by Negroes and so we have gained another ghetto but this time it is a golden ghetto.” Ramsey lamented that the main thoroughfare “leading out to this new sepia heaven is beginning `to go colored’ so that one may pass from the inner city main ghetto out to the golden without passing too many white homes.”
Ramsey’s polemics were perhaps less about suburbia than they were about segregation, but Ramsey risked implying that suburban expansion was superficial class pretentiousness, and like many observers he failed to examine why residents were attracted to the suburbs. Many of those reasons along Grandview were common to nearly any suburb: commitments to family, social links between neighbors, open space, and a community spirit were invoked in a broad range of suburbs. Observers have been persistently puzzled by the masses’ attraction to suburbia as the suburbs have become a rhetorical representation of disabling group-think, social malaise, and material boredom. Few commentators seem able to appreciate why so many Americans were attracted to the suburban experience; even fewer may be able to dispense with the stereotype of a universally White middle-class suburb, because such caricatures allow them to reject all the meaningfulness of suburban experience.
William H. Whyte’s 1956 The Organization Man was one of the most trenchant if idiosyncratic Cold War attacks on suburban homogeneity. Whyte was wary that a collectivist mindset favoring group consensus and organizational life flourished in post-war suburbia. Whyte argued that the “organization man” was beholden to conformism and that “suburbia is the ultimate expression of the interchangeability so sought by organization.” In Whyte’s suburbia, materiality was “inconspicuous consumption” governed by a largely unspoken yet ever-evolving consensus about what material things were “essential.” Nevertheless, Whyte believed that individualists could negotiate the conformist experience, suggesting that “the man who drives a Buick Special and lives in a ranch-type house just like hundreds of other ranch-type houses can assert himself as effectively and courageously against his particular society as the bohemian against his particular society. He usually does not, it is true, but if he does, the surface uniformities can serve quite well as protective coloration.”
There are fascinating implications to the suggestion that the suburbanite’s individuality was almost wholly internal, incubated beneath “surface uniformities.” The African American suburban experience certainly included anti-racist protest, but African American material life also took the form of inchoate personal imagination residing beneath the surface of seemingly suffocating homogeneity. The suburbs were not a stage for performances of identity that wielded refrigerators, sofa sets, and televisions as props; rather, ranch house living rooms expressed desires for citizenship, confirmed human dignity, and optimistically interpreted the American Dream. In the suburbs, African Americans rejected the notion that Black people were markers of difference and instead embraced material homogeneity and suburban conformity to imagine their essential human dignity.
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1935 Demi-Jon Liquor Store advertisement. Indianapolis Recorder 14 December:8.
1946 Couple Entertains Cincinnati Speaker. Indianapolis Recorder 15 June:3.
1955 Hughes Realty Company advertisement. Indianapolis Recorder 17 December:9.
1956a Hughes Realty Co. Opens New, Modern Home Sites. Indianapolis Recorder 21 January:8.
1956b Name W.T. Ray Agent for New Home Sites. Indianapolis Recorder 11 February:2.
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1957 W.T. Ray Realty advertisement. Indianapolis Recorder 12 October:3.
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1962 More than $400,00 in Sales Listed at Grandview Estates. Indianapolis Recorder 20 October:6.
1963a Grand View Estates Advertisement. Indianapolis Recorder 12 January:16.
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Images from the Indianapolis Recorder are from IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship Indianapolis Recorder Collection.