Naming the conditions that define an area of concentrated poverty and segregation can be sensitive. Local policymakers often use geographic or neighborhood identifiers such as “east-central High Point” or “Southside” as substitutions for race and socioeconomic status. “Disadvantaged,” “challenged” and “areas of greatest need” also perform some of the work in policy discussions.
A more direct word is “ghetto,” a term largely synonymous with urban black poverty since at least the middle of the 20th Century. The word previously described areas of European cities where Jews were forcibly restricted through the 19th Century, and ghettos were later resurrected under Nazi control during World War II as a means to control, and later liquidate, the population during the Holocaust. Unofficial ghettos also sprang up in American cities in the North and Midwest where Jews and other immigrants settled, later to be supplanted by African-American migrants from the South.
Mingo said he considers the word “ghetto” to be derogatory. Equating it to the N-word, he said residents use it with one another to describe where they live, but it carries a sting when uttered by outsiders.
“When you hear the word, what do you think of?” Mingo asked. “Most people, when they hear that, they think black.”
The term as applied to areas of concentrated poverty in High Point isn’t new. The headline of a 1968 article in the High Point Enterprise testifies to both the cyclical concern about poverty and the stubborn persistence of the problem: “Citizens Group is Formed to Fight Slum Conditions — Goal: To Eliminate the Ghetto in the City’s Southwest Quadrant.”
The word “ghetto” is enmeshed in a painful history of racism in High Point. Recalling what it was like to be a member of one of the first black familiesto move into the previously all-white Burns Hill neighborhood, Mingo said he didn’t recall any unpleasant interactions with his white neighbors. Trust between neighbors was high enough that when Mingo’s father took the family to South Carolina on weekends, they would leave their house unlocked. Mingo noted with amazement that his family’s friendly relations with their white neighbors coincided with one of the most racially turbulent periods of High Point’s history.
Yet, gradually at first and then with quickening speed, the neighborhood flipped from all white to virtually all black as white residents took advantage of better housing opportunities. When asked why he thought the white residents moved out, Mingo responded by stating the obvious, with an evident sense of personal hurt: “Because blacks moved in.”
Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, argues that using descriptive terms instead of euphemisms is an important part of being honest about the history of race and poverty in the United States.
“One of the ways in which we forget our history is by sanitizing our language and pretending that these problems don’t exist,” he told Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” in September 2015. “We have always recognized that these were ‘ghettos.’ A ghetto is, as I define it, a neighborhood which is homogenous and from which there are serious barriers to exit. That’s the technical definition of a ghetto.”
Rothstein argues that the federal government, together with state and local governments, created ghettos beginning in the 1930s through policies that discouraged banks from providing home loans in integrated urban areas — a practice known as “redlining” — while subsidizing housing development for suburban communities that were restricted to whites. Rothstein charted the evolution of segregation in the St. Louis metro area — a pattern that he says was replicated across the nation — in an October 2014 article entitled “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles” to explore the underlying social and economic problems that led to upheaval in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown.
Beginning in 1934, Federal Housing Administration underwriting manuals “stated that ‘protection against some adverse influences is obtained by the proper zoning and deed restrictions that prevail in a neighborhood’ and elaborated that ‘the most important among the adverse influential factors are the ingress of undesirable racial or nationality groups,’” Rothstein wrote.
“The FHA not only insured individual mortgages of white homeowners,” Rothstein continued. “Perhaps even more importantly, it effectively financed the construction of entire segregated subdivisions by making advanced commitments to builders who met FHA construction standards for materials used, lot size, setback from the street, and location in a properly zoned neighborhood that prohibited industry or commercial development threatening home values. Aware that the Supreme Court had prohibited explicit racial zoning the FHA took the position that the presence of African Americans in nearby neighborhoods was nonetheless a consideration that could threaten FHA insurability and that racial exclusion in the insured subdivision itself could be accomplished if deeds in the subdivision included mutually obligatory clauses prohibiting African Americans from residence.”
High Point and other industrial Piedmont cities developed somewhat differently than did Midwestern and Northern cities that absorbed black migrants fleeing Jim Crow conditions in the South. Incorporated in 1859, High Point’s rapidly developing furniture and textile industries attracted black migrants from the North Carolina countryside and from South Carolina, along with white workers from the Appalachian foothills in the late 19th Century. In the pre-auto age, mill owners typically built housing for their employees so they could walk to work.
An oral history completed by the UNCG Community Outreach Partnership Center in 2004 suggests a checkerboard of racial coexistence in the area that now makes up the High Point ghetto, which is now predominantly African American, with Latino immigrants gradually replacing pockets of elderly white residents.
Thurmond Marley, a black resident of the Macedonia neighborhood, recalled that as a child he had to walk through the all-white Southside neighborhood to reach the Fairview School in the 1940s and ’50s.
“We used to have to be together because race relations wasn’t that good,” he said. “And if we got caught in the Southside coming back, we had to fight because these boundaries were off limits to black folks.”
The Macedonia community was bounded on the north by Clara Cox Homes, an all-white public housing community. Daniel Brooks Homes was built for black residents to the north of the present-day ghetto. The public housing community now lies in the path of High Point University’s southward expansion.
“The neighbors to our left and right were blacks, but the neighbors across the street from us in the front of us were white and two streets back behind us were whites and about two streets to our left were whites,” Yvonne Short, a former Macedonia resident recalled. “We were surrounded by white people. We were just like in a square. The blacks were like in a square because we were surrounded by the white neighborhood.”
As early as 1931, suburban developers catered to white High Point residents who wanted to move out of the urban core. While the Oak Hill Forest subdivision predated federal policies that explicitly favored all-white housing developments, a newspaper advertisement spelled out the appeal for exclusivity, along with affordability, that gave shape to the residential segregation emerging across the country.
Headlined “The cleanest and the fairest,” the advertisement urged prospective homeowners to “come and see for yourself why Oak Hill Forest is today the outstanding residential park in High Point — for the family who love and appreciate fine old shade trees, expert landscape architecture, restrictions, city conveniences, schools and stores near but not too near, but for various reasons do not care to spend $1,000, $1,500 or $3,000 for a home site.”
Rothstein writes that federal housing policies throughout most of the 20th Century made housing more expensive for black people in the ghetto and prevented them from building wealth.
“With FHA mortgages mostly unavailable, families bought homes with mortgages having very short repayments periods, or with contracts that permitted no accumulation of equity,” Rothstein wrote. “Late installment payments could trigger repossession. To make the higher rent or contract payments, black families took in boarders, or subdivided and sublet their homes or apartments, exacerbating the overcrowding. With higher housing costs, African Americans with good jobs were less able to save than were whites with similar incomes — reduced savings made leaving the ghetto for better surroundings more difficult.”
Historic barriers for black families pursuing homeownership played out in High Point, where Cam Cridlebaugh Sr. started a savings and loan to serve the needs of African Americans who would have otherwise been shut out of the market. Atlantic Realty & Property Management was founded in 1922 as a savings and loan, but began providing property management services during the Depression. Eventually, the savings and loan business was sold off and was later acquired by BB&T.
“My grandfather used to give home loans to minority families that could not get loans through other means,” said Cam Cridlebaugh III, who is white.
White people started moving out of Clara Cox Homes in the mid-1960s, said Yvonne Short, adding that many black people also left in starting in the early ’70s. By the ’80s, residents complained that the public housing community had become infested with drugs.
“Well, these folks moved out and moved further because the courts had really spoke about integration and made it a reality within these communities and a lot of these folks didn’t like that and they left,” Thurmond Marley added. “Left the project and the surrounding area.”
Rothstein argues that the federal government bears responsibility for the white flight that gathered force in the 1960s because of decades of policies that undermined black homeownership.
“Whites observed the black ghetto and concluded that slum conditions were characteristic of black families, not a result of housing discrimination,” Rothstein wrote. “This conclusion reinforced whites’ resistance to racial integration, lest black residents bring slum conditions to white communities. Thus… government policy bears some responsibility for creating conditions that supported the racial stereotypes fueling such flight.”
In an interview with Triad City Beat, Rothstein added that another reason whites left the ghetto is simply because they could.
“The whites left because the federal government was creating white-only suburbs for them to leave to,” he said. “Whites, when they moved to these white-only subdivisions, their monthly mortgage payments were less than the rent they were paying in public housing projects.”
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