African Americans could work in Richmond’s Ford plant but couldn’t live close by.
How African Americans were blocked from living in most East Bay neighborhoods: an excerpt from the 2017 book “The Color of Law.”
Editor’s Note: With the current housing shortage in the Bay Area, we thought it would be a good idea to look back at how we got here. As the 2017 book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute examines in detail, the history of housing in our region and around the nation was marked by racism and exclusion. African Americans, in particular, were banned from living in most East Bay neighborhoods. And while many of the tools that whites used to exclude African Americans from buying or renting homes are no longer legal, the legacy of segregation remains. Rothstein’s sweeping book examines the history of racist housing practices throughout the United States, but this excerpt focuses on our backyard.
We think of the San Francisco Bay Area as one of the nation’s more liberal and inclusive regions. If the federal, state, and local governments explicitly segregated the population into distinct black and white neighborhoods in the Bay Area, it’s a reasonable assumption that our government also segregated metropolitan regions elsewhere and with at least as much determination—which is why I became particularly interested in the government’s racial policies in San Francisco and its environs in the 20th century.
Across the bay from San Francisco is Richmond, a city with one of the region’s greatest concentrations of African Americans. During World War II, Richmond hosted the most extensive shipbuilding complex in the nation; later it was best known as the site of a large oil refinery. There I met Frank Stevenson in 2013, after reading an oral history that he had recorded for the National Park Service. I called on him at his Richmond home.
One of seven brothers, Stevenson was born in 1924 in Lake Providence, La., a town that Time magazine once called “the poorest place in America.” But he was privileged compared to most other black youths in the South at the time. His father, a pastor, owned the land on which his First Baptist Church sat, so unlike many other Southern black men in the early 20th century, he didn’t have to sharecrop for white farmers. The Stevensons grew cotton and corn for sale and raised hogs and fowl, hunted, and maintained a vegetable garden for their own sustenance.
After finishing seventh grade, Frank Stevenson followed his older brothers and found work in New Orleans, delivering food to workers in the shipyards. Later, he had jobs that were typically reserved for African Americans: carrying cement, laying rails, and loading or unloading freight, including, once World War II began, dangerous ammunition. He then followed his brother Allen to California, eventually settling at the age of 19 in Richmond.
At first, the shipyards and other war industries attempted to operate only with white men, but as the war dragged on, unable to find a sufficient number to meet their military orders, they were forced to hire white women, then black men, and eventually black women as well. From 1940 to 1945, the influx of war workers resulted in Richmond’s population exploding from 24,000 to more than 100,000. Richmond’s black population soared from 270 to 14,000.
With such rapid population growth, housing could not be put up quickly enough. The federal government stepped in with public housing. It was officially and explicitly segregated. Located along railroad tracks and close to the shipbuilding area, federally financed housing for African Americans in Richmond was poorly constructed and intended to be temporary. For white defense workers, government housing was built farther inland, closer to white residential areas, and some of it was sturdily constructed and permanent. Because Richmond had been overwhelmingly white before the war, the federal government’s decision to segregate public housing established segregated living patterns that persist to this day.
The Richmond police as well as the housing authority pressed the city recreation department to forbid integrated activities, so where projects for whites and projects for blacks shared recreational and sports facilities, the authority designated special hours for African American use. The authority maintained separate social programs for whites and blacks—Boy and Girl Scout troops and movie screenings, for example. A policy of segregation was adopted, explained the authority’s director, for the purpose of “keeping social harmony or balance in the whole community.” Another housing authority official insisted that “Negroes from the South would rather be by themselves.”
Twenty projects with 24,000 units (for both races) built in Richmond during this period barely met the need. For white workers, the federal government created a “war guest” program in which it leased spare rooms from Richmond’s white families so workers could move in as tenants. The government also issued low-interest loans for white homeowners to remodel and subdivide their residences.
Consistent with this policy, the federal government recruited one of the nation’s leading mass production developers, David Bohannon, to create Rollingwood, a new Richmond suburb. Federal officials approved bank loans to finance construction, requiring that none of Rollingwood’s 700 houses be sold to an African American. The government also specified that each Rollingwood property must have an extra bedroom with a separate entrance to accommodate an additional white war worker.
Although African Americans, with fewer private options, were more dependent on public housing than whites, the Richmond Housing Authority’s segregated projects did less to alleviate the housing shortage for African Americans than for white families. Not surprisingly, units for African Americans included many doubled-up families and illegal sublets. By 1947, when Richmond’s black population had increased to 26,000, half still lived in temporary war housing. As the government financed whites to abandon these apartments for permanent homes in suburbs like Rollingwood, vacancies in white projects were made available to African Americans. Gradually, black families became almost the only tenants of Richmond public housing, except for three permanent projects of sturdily constructed units that had been assigned to whites, most of whom didn’t want to leave. By 1950, the city’s ghetto had expanded with more than three-fourths of Richmond’s black population living in war projects.
For black workers like Frank Stevenson who couldn’t squeeze into the limited number of public housing units, there were no “war guest” or other supplemental government programs. Stevenson, like many African Americans in Richmond who did not get into the segregated public projects, lived in North Richmond, an unincorporated area for which the city provided no services. He boarded with an elderly woman with whom he traded maintenance for rent.
Other black war workers in North Richmond, not as fortunate as Stevenson, remained in cardboard shacks, barns, tents, or even open fields. Black workers who earned steady wages at war industries could save to buy small plots in unincorporated North Richmond, but because the federal government refused to insure bank loans made to African Americans for housing, standard construction was unaffordable. Some built their own dwellings with orange crates or scrap lumber scoured from the shipyards. By the early 1950s, some 4,000 African Americans in North Richmond were still living in these makeshift homes.
During the war, the government also collaborated with private groups to segregate Richmond. The United Services Organization (USO) maintained separate black and white clubs in Richmond for military personnel and also operated separate black and white Travelers Aid services for newly arrived war workers. On one occasion in 1943, the USO proposed a service center for African Americans on property that was available in a white neighborhood. The local newspaper, the Richmond Independent, protested; a petition drive in opposition to the plan ensued, and the city council prevented the plan from going forward. Although the USO was and is a private organization, it was organized by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who held the title of honorary chairman), benefited from the use of government buildings for some of its clubs, coordinated its services with the War Department, and had a congressional charter. Along with the city council’s action, this tight federal government nexus rendered the USO’s practice of segregation in Richmond (and elsewhere) an aspect of de jure segregation.
To ensure that no African Americans migrated to Richmond unless they were essential to the war effort, the city’s police stopped black men on the street and arrested and jailed them if they couldn’t prove they were employed. So after joining his older brother Allen in Richmond, Frank Stevenson quickly located a job at a Ford Motor assembly plant that had been taken over by the government for the manufacture of military jeeps and the refurbishing of damaged tanks.
In the 1930s, the Ford plant had a sign in front, “No Mexican or Black Workers Wanted,” but when Frank Stevenson arrived in 1944, his services were badly needed. Three years earlier, the United Auto Workers (UAW) had forced Henry Ford to the bargaining table, and at the war’s end, a union contract prevented Ford Motor from firing African Americans to make way for returning white veterans or for white workers who had been laid off from military production in places like the shipyards. So in 1945, when the army gave up control of the plant and the Ford Motor Company began to make cars again, black workers who had been hired during the war were able to stay on with secure industrial jobs.
Ford had established the plant in 1931 after Richmond offered the company tax incentives to lure its Northern California assembly operations. The city had a deepwater port—that’s why it became a shipbuilding center during the war—and Ford found the site attractive because it was accessible both to ocean freighters and to railroads. The company could inexpensively transport parts from Detroit to Richmond for assembly into cars and light trucks and then ship the completed vehicles from Richmond to dealers in Northern California and Hawaii. The Richmond plant was two stories tall, with conveyor belts moving parts and subassemblies from one floor to the other.
When they were first hired during the war, black workers were assigned only to the lowest and most strenuous job classifications, but the union fought to open more skilled assignments to African Americans. Frank Stevenson seems to have been among the most ambitious and talented, and within a decade of being employed, he was sufficiently skilled to fill in when workers at different workstations were at lunch. “I was smart enough,” said Stevenson, who died a few years after our interview, “to go to the other jobs on my break and say, ‘Let me see what you do.’ That’s why they made me a utility man.”
In the 1950s, as the postwar consumer boom created growing demand for automobiles, Ford’s Richmond plant had no room to expand. Highways made undeveloped rural areas accessible, and land was cheap, allowing Ford the opportunity to spread out and eliminate the inefficiencies of multistory buildings. So in 1953, the company announced it would close its Richmond plant and re-establish operations in a larger facility 50 miles south, in Milpitas, a suburb of San Jose, rural at the time. Ford purchased a 160-acre site from the Western Pacific Railroad, which had bought 1,700 acres in hopes of attracting industrial facilities for a rail hub.
Union leaders met with Ford executives and negotiated an agreement permitting all 1,400 Richmond plant workers, including the approximately 250 African Americans, to transfer to the new facility. Once Ford’s plans became known, Milpitas residents incorporated the town and passed an emergency ordinance permitting the newly installed city council to ban apartment construction and allow only single-family homes. Developers then set to work, creating subdivisions of inexpensive single-family houses for workers not only at Ford but at the other plants that Western Pacific had drawn to the area.
The builders went to the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) for approval of their subdivision plans, and then used these approvals to get banks to issue low-interest loans to finance construction. If the houses conformed to its specifications, the federal government then guaranteed mortgages to qualified buyers without a further property appraisal. Although banks would generally make mortgage loans to affluent buyers without government involvement, they usually shied away from making loans to working-class families unless the mortgages were insured. With reduced risk, banks offered lower interest rates, making ownership more affordable to working-class families. For veterans, government approval also usually meant that no down payment was required.
As in Rollingwood 10 years earlier, one of the federal government’s specifications for mortgages insured in Milpitas was an openly stated prohibition on sales to African Americans. Because Milpitas had no apartments, and houses in the area were off-limits to black workers—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like those of whites on the assembly line—African Americans at Ford had to choose between giving up their good industrial jobs, moving to apartments in a segregated neighborhood of San Jose, or enduring lengthy commutes between North Richmond and Milpitas.
Frank Stevenson bought a van, recruited eight others to share the costs, and made the drive daily for the next 20 years until he retired. The trip took more than an hour each way.
Of Stevenson and his eight carpoolers, only one was ever able to move farther south, closer to the plant, and he was not able to do so until the late 1960s. He found a home in Hayward, a city about halfway between Richmond and Milpitas that had also previously been closed to African Americans.
As the civilian housing shortage eased after the war and more government-subsidized suburbs like Rollingwood were built for white working-class families, Richmond itself became a predominantly black city. As the black population of North Richmond swelled, African Americans began to break into the south Richmond housing market. Soon, south Richmond as well became part of Richmond’s ghetto. In 1970, after his daughters finished high school, Frank Stevenson was finally able to buy his first home in the southern, previously whites-only section of the city.