This post also appears on Invisible Indianapolis
In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.
Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.
The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films.
Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community.
William Levitt purchased property in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1951, and by 1958 the firm he had inherited from his father had built 17,311 homes. Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred built their first suburban community on Long Island between 1947 and 1951, eventually constructing 17,447 homes there. Levittown homes had racially restrictive covenants that decreed home owners could not rent or sell to Blacks, so the Long Island Levittown may well have been the largest White segregated community on the face of the planet. Postwar suburban housing was made possible by Federal Housing Authority loan programs and a dense network of local codes and informal practices that explicitly segregated the suburban frontier, including the Levittowns. A 1948 Supreme Court ruling found covenants in places like Levittown illegal, and nearly all other segregation practices also became illegal in the next decade (there is a massive scholarship on Levittowns and race and segregation in the Levitt suburbs—compare Herbert Gans’ 1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, Dianne Harris’ edited volume Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania or David Kushner’s Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb).
Nevertheless, William Levitt resisted court-ordered integration, arguing that Whites would not agree to live in integrated communities. In August 1954 Levitt’s most famous comment on the integration of Levittown communities came to the Saturday Evening Post. Levitt explained that “The negroes in America are trying to do in four hundred years what the Jews have not accomplished in six thousand. As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude not ours. We did not create it, and cannot cure it. As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.” Levitt was perhaps not especially committed to segregation, instead blaming xenophobia on his White tenants. When the Post reporter intoned that integration was inevitable, Levitt responded that “If that should happen, there is nothing I can, or would, do about it.”
Suburbicon adapts the story of William and Daisy Myers, who broke the color barrier in the Philadelphia suburban Levittown. In 1957 a Jewish couple sold their property in the Pennsylvania Levittown to the Myers. Neighbors immediately began a campaign to displace the Myers spearheaded by a group calling itself the Levittown Betterment Committee who organized curbside vigils at the home, displayed Confederate flags, threw stones through the Myers’ windows, painted “KKK” on a neighbor’s house, and burnt a cross in a nearby yard (compare the fascinating 1957 documentary “Crisis in Levittown”).
The Myers’ story was certainly enormously public, but it was in many ways a commonplace experience repeated in numerous other American communities. Indianapolis, Indiana had African-American suburbs emerge in the city’s northwestside in the postwar period, but when African Americans moved into White neighborhoods their arrival was greeted with resistance and even violence. For instance, Reginald Alexander Bruce was born in Indianapolis in March, 1925 to Charles and Agnes Bruce. Charles Bruce had come to Indianapolis with his wife Virginia around 1902 from Cedarville, Ohio. Charles married Virginia in 1898, and he married Agnes Smith in April, 1917. Charles and Agnes’ son Reginald was born in the midst of one of the city’s most systematic embraces of xenophobia. In 1926, Indianapolis passed a racial zoning ordinance backed by the White People’s Protective League, and when that was declared unconstitutional neighborhoods like that around Butler University resolved to bar African Americans by other means. Perhaps the most famous impact of 1920s segregation in the Circle City was the creation of a segregated Black high school, and Reginald graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1942.
Reginald Bruce had been in ROTC at Attucks, and in March 1944 he completed nine weeks of primary flight training with the 66th Army Air Force at Moton Field. The Alabama airfield was the base for the African-American pilots who became collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In August 1944 Bruce graduated from flight training as part of a class of 14 men trained to fly twin-engine aircraft (medium bombers). Bruce was sent to Douglas Air Field in Arizona, where he was a Flight Officer on B-25s. Bruce was one of 14 Tuskegee Airmen from Indianapolis (see Tuskegee Airmen Indianapolis Chapter word file), and the local pilots including Reginald Bruce would be part of public discussions of the airmen’s legacy into the 1970s. Arthur Carter, the last of the 14 Indianapolis Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2015.
Reginald married Aurelia Jane Stuart in Marion County in 1945, and in 1947 Reginald and his wife were living with Reginald’s parents on Edgemont Avenue. Reginald was a student, and in 1952 Bruce completed his medical training at Indiana University. The young doctor became the resident physician at the Muscatuck State School in 1953, and after a year at Muscatuck Bruce opened a general practice in Indianapolis in July 1954.
After separating from his wife, Reginald remarried and he and his wife Mary attempted to purchase a new home. Apparently their first effort in about 1958 met with failure when “the couple all but succeeded in purchasing a home in the first block east of Butler University on Blue Ridge Road. That was before any Negro had moved onto Blue Ridge. (The first block is still all-white.) In that case, the deal fell through when the seller learned of the Bruces’ racial composition as the check was going through the bank.” In 1960 they successfully purchased the Grandiose Drive home, and despite the harassment and violence directed at the family they remained there until 1967. Perhaps influenced by his own experience of housing discrimination, in January 1961 Reginald Bruce became the co-Chair of the NAACP Indianapolis chapter’s Housing Committee with the Jewish Community Center’s Irving Levine.
The Bruces’ experience of housing discrimination did not end with their experiences on Blue Ridge Road and Grandiose Drive. In January 1966 the Bruces put their Grandiose Drive home up for sale in anticipation of a move into another northern Indianapolis suburb. The builders of a northeastside home on Brendonridge Court, John E. and James P. Dugan, were offered the sale price for the home by the Bruce’s real estate agent, and the Dugans accepted $1000 as a down payment. However, the following day the Dugans informed the Bruces’ agent that the home had been sold, apparently when they realized Reginald Bruce was African American (his wife was White). Mary and Reginald Bruce filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission against John E. Dugan, and in March, 1966 a Marion County Judge granted an injunction against the Dugans preventing them from selling the home until a court hearing. John Dugan filed a counter-complaint seeking $20,000 in damages. The Bruces dropped the charges in June, 1966, and a month later the Grandiose Drive home was on the market heralding the home’s fallout shelter, intercom system, and paneled family room. In 1967 the Bruces had moved to a home on North Illinois Street.
After 19 years in private practice, Reginald Bruce began a radiology residency in August 1973. After divorcing Mary Bruce, Reginald remarried Carolyn Marie Corrington in 1976. Bruce moved to Mattoon, Illinois by the late 1980s, then to the St. Louis suburb of Alton, Illinois, and he finally moved from there to Lake Havasu City Arizona in 1995, where he died in 1997.
The Jewish Community Center did not have a single African-American member when Bruce spoke about his effort to secure housing in 1961. When an audience member spoke out against integration, Joseph Tobak rose and said that “’You say, I like Negroes, but.’ I heard the same thing in Poland 40 years ago—‘We like Jews, but.’ Then came Hitler and his mass murders.” Tobak had indeed left Poland in 1921, eventually opening a liquor store in 1938 on the predominately African-American Northwestern Street, and Tobak’s store did not close until he retired in 1970. We do not know how Reginald Bruce felt about his lifelong experience attempting to secure a measure of equality, but in the wake of that 1961 meeting the JCC did indeed begin to integrate, and much of the northwestside would become home to more African Americans. Perhaps the acknowledgement of Reginald Bruce and William and Daisy Myers stories can start discussions about the depth of such racism and its impact on the contemporary housing landscape.
David B. Bittan
1958 Ordeal in Levittown. Look 19 August.
Charles E. Frances
2008 The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men who Changed a Nation. Branden Books, Boston.
1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Columbia University Press, New York.
Dianne Harris, editor
2010 Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
2009 Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. Walker and Company, New York.
1957 Integration Troubles Beset Northern Town. 2 September 43(10): 43-44, 46.
1954 Growing Pains of a Brand-New City. Saturday Evening Post 227 (6): 26-27, 71-72. (subscription access)
James J. Wyatt
2012 Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982. PhD Dissertation, Temple University.
House for sale, circa 1955 image from Getty Images
Officer Down Levittown 1957 image from Getty Images
Levittown New York 1947 Drive Carefully sign image from Getty Images
Reginald Bruce Crispus Attucks yearbook 1942 image from Crispus Attucks Museum
William Levitt reads ticker tape 1963 image from Getty Images
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. Read the rest of this entry
In the wake of World War II, suburbs sprang up on the outskirts of American cities, prefabricated and interchangeable homes that reflect postwar social, disciplinary, and material homogeneity. Boosted by Federal Housing Admininstration and veteran’s loans, banks provided loans for 10 million new homes between 1946 and 1953, and Americans set off for the suburbs to settle scores of standardized structures on urban outskirts.
When we imagine such suburbs, we invariably envision solidly middle-class families in the midst of homogeneous neighborhoods, a picture that rarely includes people of color. Access to America’s suburban utopia was denied to most African Americans: realtors, bankers, and urban planners crafted an ideologically distorted, racially restricted American Dream in the suburbs while they championed urban renewal projects that gutted the Black city. The Black experience of postwar suburbanization is a complicated presence on the contemporary landscape: the heritage of urban renewal is reflected in failed projects and abandoned cityscapes that many city governments now want to raze anew. However, an especially interesting dimension of that story is reflected in the Flanner House Homes neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, a history that is now in danger of being forgotten if not displaced.
The suburban experience is routinely painted in homogeneous material and social terms for good reason. Perhaps no suburb better depicts that homogeneity than the original Levittown, the Long Island New York community where the Levitt Brothers built 17,447 homes by 1951. The FHA encouraged suburban planners to restrict the sale of suburban homes to Whites, calling Black residents “adverse influences,” and the Levitts embraced that advice. Bill Levitt rationalized the firm’s racial covenants restricting sales to Whites only with the argument that “As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities.” In 1960, Levittown’s 82,000 residents included not one African American, making it the single largest universally White community in America.
Levittown was an extreme example that concealed the one-million African Americans who became suburbanites in the 1940s and 1950s. For instance, African Americans had settled north of Detroit in the 1920s on vacant farmland in the Eight Mile-Wyoming area and built modest houses; such “self-built suburbs” constructed by their owners accounted for one-third of all pre-war homes, crafted over time from recycled materials or pre-cut Sears houses and without much planning by local governments. Yet as suburban developments sprang up on city outskirts apprehensive White suburbanites formed municipalities and established anti-Black residency covenants that restricted home sales to Whites (a pattern already tested in Indianapolis itself in the 1920s; compare such covenants in Kansas City and in Seattle).
The Flanner House Homes project was one distinctive response to the racist boundaries on post-war suburbs. Flanner House was founded in 1898 as a “settlement house” agency to assist Black residents arriving in 19th-century migrations and subsequently in the Great Migration. The city’s African-American population increased by almost 500% between 1860 and 1870, and in 1900 nearly 10% of the city’s population was African American. Boosted by Southern migration, that population more than doubled in the first two decades of the 20th century, increasing from 15,931 in 1900 to 34,678 in 1920.
In 1936 Tuskegee-trained Cleo Blackburn was hired as the Flanner House director, advocating a strong “self-help” mantra that would remain the Flanner House philosophy through the Depression, post-war decline, and the Civil Rights movement. In 1944 Blackburn directed the construction of a community cannery, health center, nursery, and gardens at its 16th Street headquarters. In 1945 Survey Graphic reported on the new center, indicating that Flanner House “has built a new settlement on the edge of what former U. S. Housing Administrator Nathan Straus called the worst Negro slum in America. It has been instrumental in constructing a new health center nearby. It is operating perhaps the largest community gardening and canning project by and for Negroes in the United States.”
A 1946 study of the neighborhood directed by Blackburn examined 454 Black households on the city’s near-Westside and agreed that the neighborhood was “one of the most unsightly, unsanitary, and deteriorated sectors in the entire city of Indianapolis,” and the homes “needed major repairs and few of them had adequate plumbing facilities.” Blackburn indicated that “the majority had given up hope for any possible improvement,” and he advised that it “is urgently recommended, that the clearance, planning, and redevelopment of this area under the Redevelopment Act of 1945 affords the only hope of correcting the conditions existing in the area. … Immediate steps should be taken by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to declare the area blighted and to acquire, clear, and redevelop it.”
Created in 1944, the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission was willing to raze the whole of the Black near-Westside, though it had relatively little plan for what to do with the uprooted residents. While most American cities accepted federal funding and built public housing for the scores of families displaced by urban renewal, Indianapolis persistently rebuffed federal funding for such construction under the guise of supporting local contractors. While the African-American near-Westside languished, 9000 new homes were built between 1940 and 1942 to support wartime workforces in Speedway and Warren Township, and 52,000 new homes were built in the city in the 1950’s, but nearly all were in neighborhoods inaccessible to African Americans.
Blackburn proposed tearing down a swath of homes and building “sweat equity” housing in which male head of households constructed their homes and the homes of their neighbors (women could not participate in home construction). The Redevelopment Commission purchased a 178-acre tract north of Crispus Attucks High School in November 1946, referred to as Project A, and after displacing the residents (none of whom were guaranteed acceptance into Flanner House Homes) they turned it over to Blackburn and Flanner House. Construction began in 1950 by a series of men whose families had been exhaustively reviewed by Flanner House, leaving Flanner House solidly peopled by middle-class African Americans.
Flanner House Homes was distinctive for its focus on African Americans in a moment when White urbanites were migrating to the outskirts of the city, but it was simultaneously novel spatially in its simulation of suburban space and its placement within the city. While similar homes were being built on Indianapolis’ rural outskirts, the Flanner House Homes sat just north of the city’s central “Mile Square.” Like many of the suburban homes they borrowed from stylistically, the houses are roughly 975-square foot spaces with standardized footprints and one of four basic street facings. There was nothing that especially distinguished the Flanner House Homes from any house in the White suburbs, and that may well have been Blackburn’s intention. These African-American homes were utterly typical suburban forms that reproduced the very middle-class values that were simultaneously staking a claim to the city’s suburbs. The city’s lone predominately Black suburb was the Grandview community, which was established on the city’s northwest side in the late-1950s. The stylish suburban ranchers and relatively standardized homes were derisively referred to in the local press as the “Golden Ghetto.”
There is nothing especially diasporan about the Flanner House home forms, a direct reflection of the African-American commitment to American middle-class values in particular and the American home ownership dream in particular. The homes might be cast as a reflection of Blackburn’s Tuskegee training, which was profoundly shaped by Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist philosophy, and Blackburn did indeed chart a circumspect and non-confrontational course in local race relations. However, this risks reducing all African-American heritage merely to essentialized diasporan forms and ignores the allure of suburban home ownership and agency in African-American experience.
Flanner House Homes was in some ways a tragic testament to the persistence of racism in Indianapolis. By 1964 the project had built just over 300 homes, and while the city persistently pointed to Flanner House Homes as a success story, it did not remotely address housing problems in Indianapolis and its racial segregation did nothing to address the racism that prevented people of color from moving into other Indianapolis neighborhoods. Realtors refused to show homes to Black households; banks were unwilling to extend loans to African Americans able to pay; and the near-absence of restricted income public housing provided African American few choices for housing. To make matters worse, the imminent arrival of Interstate-65 construction in 1965 would remove 4700 homes, of which roughly half were African American (and in view of Flanner House Homes). Richard Pierce’s compelling study Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970 concludes that when Indianapolis began to enforce laws against housing segregation in the late 1960’s, “Whites no longer needed racial covenants and neighborhood associations to block African American movement into white neighborhoods. The economic gap between whites and African Americans had grown sufficiently that economic realities provided the most effective barrier.”
Flanner Homes was named a National Register Historic District in 2003, but in 2013 Indiana Landmarks named Flanner House Homes and the neighboring Philip’s Temple one of Indiana’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. In 2012 the neighborhood first found itself under fire from the Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns Philip’s Temple but hopes to tear down the 1924 church to build a parking lot for Crispus Attucks High School.
The Flanner House homes were recently under fire from the retailer Meijer, who hoped to acquire and demolish 35 of the 181 Flanner House Homes just north of the neighborhood. Meijer removed their bid this week, and the neighborhoods’ resistance and Indiana Landmarks’ advocacy was critical. Nevertheless, the targeting of the neighborhood reflects that the homes’ apparently prosaic form masks their significance as a reflection of color line privileges.
For more details:
Listen to Amos Brown’s interview with residents and local preservations on Afternoons with Amos
Videos of original Flanner House residents and Flanner House can be found at the Flanner House youtube channel
Cleo W. Blackburn
1946 A Study of 454 Negro Households in the Redevelopment Area, Indianapolis, Indiana. Unpublished manuscript.
Carolyn M. Brady
1996 Indianapolis at the Time of the Great Migration, 1900-1920. Black History News and Notes 65.
Flanner House Study Committee
1939 The Indianapolis Study. Unpublished manuscript.
David M. P. Freund
2007 Colored Property : State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Kevin Fox Gotham
2000 Urban Space, Restrictive Covenants, and the Origins of Racial Residential Segregation in a US City, 1900-1950. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24(3):616-633.
2009 Once the American Dream: Inner-Ring Suburbs of the Metropolitan United States. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
2006 Seeing the Invisible: Reexamining Race and Vernacular Architecture. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 13(2):96-105. (subscription access)
2003 Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. Knopf, New York.
Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission
1954 Annual Report of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission for 1954. Unpublished manuscript.
Kenneth T. Jackson
1985 Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press, New York.
2000 The Origins and Diffusion of Racial Restrictive Covenants. Political Science Quarterly 115(4):541-568.
M. Ruth Little
1997 The Other Side of the Tracks: The Middle-Class Neighborhoods that Jim Crow Built in Early-Twentieth-Century North Carolina. In Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture VII, eds. Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry, pp, 268-280. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Timothy Maher and Ain Haas
1987 Suburbanizing the City. Sociological Focus 20(4):281-294. (subscription access)
2005 Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Charles S. Preston
1946 Local Slum Clearance Plans Advanced by “New Resolution.” Indianapolis Recorder 9 November:1, 3.
Roger William Riis and Webb Waldron
1945 Fortunate City. Survey Graphic XXXTV(8)
Flanner house Construction, yard construction, street scene, and women and children in living room images courtesy Flanner House (Indianapolis, Ind.) Records, 1936-1992, IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives
Levittown aerial view image image courtesy MarkGregory007