In the late 19th and early 20th century, local governments across the country made explicit attempts to isolate white and black residents in their communities. One of the first cities to do so was Baltimore, MD. In 1910 the city adopted an ordinance which prohibited African Americans from buying homes in neighborhoods with a majority of white residents (and vice versa). The lawyer who drafted this ordinance was named Milton Dashiel, and he explained the intention behind this ordinance:
Ordinarily, the negro loves to gather to himself, for he is very gregarious and sociable in his nature. But those who have risen somewhat above their fellows appear to have an intense desire to leave them behind, to disown them, as it were, and get as close to the company of white people as circumstances will permit them.
The purpose of this segregation ordinance, he said, was to prevent this from happening (Rothstein, 44).
Many cities and local governments across the country adopted similar zoning practices. However, in 1917 the Supreme Court overturned a racial zoning ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky. The case was Buchanan v. Warley, and it was the result of one African American’s attempt to purchase a home that was in a majority white neighborhood. The Court ruled that the racialized zoning practices which prevented this purchase from taking place was unconstitutional. Their decision was based on the Fourteenth Amendment, the purpose of which was to include equal rights for all citizens under the law. Yet the Court was explicit that they did not believe racialized zoning practices violated the rights of African Americans, so much as these practices violated the rights of property owners to sell to whomever they pleased (Rothstein, 45).
Following this ruling, communities and government authorities had to become more creative in enforcing their racialized practices. In other words, racist practices did not go away following the Buchanan ruling, they simply evolved. For example, the government of Richmond, Virginia forbid anyone from moving to a neighborhood where they were ineligible to marry a majority of the citizens in that neighborhood. Since the state of Virginia forbid interracial marriage, Richmond’s new zoning law effectively kept neighborhoods segregated even though this purpose was not explicitly written in the zoning ordinance.
Another city which found clever ways around the Buchanan decision was St. Louis and its suburb of Ferguson in Missouri. Many will remember Ferguson as the place of the tragic death of Michael Brown in 2014 and the many protests which followed. This tragedy brought to national attention the realities of racial tension and divides which are present in communities across the country. But how did Ferguson become so segregated, and how did the tension along racial divides elevate to the heights that it did?