by Jordan Green // photos by Caleb Smallwood
The first public housing communities in Winston-Salem went up virtually overnight in the first half of the 1950s.
Happy Hill Gardens, a community built for black residents near Salem College, was the first in 1951, followed the next year with the all-white Piedmont Park near Smith Reynolds Airport, as documented in a 1955 Winston-Salem Journal article. Kimberly Park on the north side opened next in 1953, with Cleveland Avenue Homes in East Winston close on its heels. By 1955, the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem had 1,085 units in its inventory.
The program was judged an unqualified success, with the newspaper enthusiastically providing a platform for local officials to trumpet their progress. The same article reported, “The neatly-landscaped public areas of all the projects, and the well-kept lawns and gardens that are found at most of the homes indicate the pride which the families have in their communities.”
In the program’s first five years only four tenants were evicted for poor housekeeping — “a remarkable record” in the estimation of Executive Director Mason Swearingen, because, as the article noted, “many of the families came from poorly-kept, rundown living quarters.”
Residents enthusiastically joined garden clubs to keep their premises attractive.
“When one family sees another fixing up a yard or doing something to the house,” John Hauser, manager of Happy Hills Gardens and Cleveland Avenue Homes, told the Journal, “they get busy too.”
Slum housing in Winston-Salem was a scandal in the 1930s and 1940s. An archival news photo shows a street crammed with ramshackle row houses on a muddy, rutted lane in the area then known as Monkey Bottom, with the 21-story Reynolds Building soaring in the distance — a testament to the awkward contrast between the modern corporate might of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the squalid poverty in its backyard. Though landlords, who had previously fought new housing codes, argued that the initiative was unnecessary because of the codes, public housing was a reaction to the shocking housing conditions that prevailed in poor areas of the city through the 1940s.
The Winston-Salem Journal went to the trouble of tracking the fate of one particular neighborhood on the north side over a period of 10 years. In 1938, while the city’s board of aldermen were still denying the existence of substandard housing and turning away federal funding, the newspaper reported that the entire neighborhood “got its drinking water from one outside spigot. A few scant inches away, a community toilet was stopped up and overflowing. Children played nonchalantly in the mess. Ramshackle houses were plastered with red ‘condemned’ notices.”
Revisiting the neighborhood in 1948, the newspaper found conditions much the same. One water faucet and two outside toilets were serving 13 houses occupied by 54 people. Both toilets were stopped up.
The story describes the neighborhood in hard-boiled poetry, brimming with implicit social protest: “King Street isn’t on the itinerary for visiting dignitaries. It’s down near the leaf house, off Oak Street, beyond the hobo jungle where tramps refresh themselves on rubbing alcohol and similar potions.
“You probably don’t know it exists,” the article continued. “Unless, perhaps your cook lives there. Or the Negro girl who nurses your children.”
Doris Kimbrough, the 91-year-old president of the resident council at Healy Towers, easily recalls the before in the story of public housing in Winston-Salem.
A single parent of nine children, Kimbrough had separated from her husband, who relocated to New York and eventually left her widowed. Happy Hill Gardens in the 1950s represented a fantastic opportunity.
“It was beautiful, and we planted flowers,” Kimbrough recalled. “It was a great place for people. Before that I lived in a little, three-room house with water outside. So when I moved to Happy Hill I kind of felt like I had moved to Buena Vista with all the things available to us.”
The parents looked out for each other’s children. There was a YMCA that provided entertainment for young people on Friday. Many of the families couldn’t afford their own television sets, so the children gathered at the Y to watch free movies on Sunday evenings. Kimbrough and her neighbors organized themselves into the Y Gardeners Club. Since the red dirt in the housing community was barren, Kimbrough got her children to haul black soil up from Salem Creek to nourish the flowers.
Kimbrough and other parents got involved with the PTA for Anderson High School. They held fundraisers to pay for band uniforms for students whose families couldn’t afford the full cost.
Even in those early days, a stigma attached itself to what was colloquially known as “the projects,” but Kimbrough told her children there were people who lived in rundown houses who would be glad to live in Happy Hill. She was mindful to counteract the negative image that the term “the projects” conjured, and make sure it didn’t constrict her children’s sense of possibility.
“That concept has to be cleared up by the mother and father,” Kimbrough said. “You should always let that child know that does not determine who you are just because you live in the projects. One of my sons worked in Johnson Controls in the laboratory. You got to be smart for that. My other son who got a masters in education from Harvard, he’s the only black person they’ve got a bust of in the school where he taught.”
The pride and cohesion that marked public housing under the first generation seemed to fray with the next cohort. Or, at least that’s the way Kimbrough saw it.
“The young people who came after us, they were just young folks,” Kimbrough said. “It was a place to live. I don’t think they took it as serious as us.”