Sugar Hill Reveals Racist Past And Present Of Homeownership : Consider This from NPR Property ownership eludes Black Americans more than any other racial group. NPR's Ailsa Chang and Jonaki Mehta examine why. They tell the story of LA's Sugar Hill neighborhood, a once-vibrant black community that was demolished to make way for the Santa Monica Freeway.

Their story is part of NPR's special series We Hold These Truths.

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How One LA Neighborhood Reveals The Racist Architecture Of American Homeownership

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hey. Real quick before today's episode - we are always trying to make this podcast better and more useful, and we're looking for a bit of feedback from you on how we can do that. So we have a quick anonymous survey set up at npr.org/springsurvey. We want to hear from everyone, if you're a newer listener or even if you've been listening for a while and may have taken one of these surveys before. It only takes a few minutes, and it is a huge help to us. So, again, that is npr.org/springsurvey. Thanks.

Ra Nickerson (ph) grew up in a charming little pocket of central Los Angeles called Sugar Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RA NICKERSON: The street was very wide. We had the old-style lanterns. There were all kinds of, like, craftsman houses - five, six, seven bedrooms.

CHANG: So we're talking about big houses. Ra's brother Van (ph) says they used to walk around selling lemonade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VAN NICKERSON: And we got our wagon, and we'd go up and down the streets selling lemonade.

CHANG: Sugar Hill was named after a wealthy Black section of Harlem. In the 1940s, the LA version was much the same, home to doctors, oil barons, even Hollywood stars like Hattie McDaniel from "Gone With The Wind."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GONE WITH THE WIND")

HATTIE MCDANIEL: (As Mammy) If you don't care what folks says about this family, I does. I has told you and told you they can always tell a lady by the way that she eat in front of folks like a bird.

CHANG: On screen, she may have played a housekeeper or an enslaved person, but in Sugar Hill, she hosted extravagant soirees in a sprawling mansion. People like Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters would show up and perform.

If you drive around LA today, there are a lot of neighborhoods that still look like something out of the golden age of Hollywood. Sugar Hill is not one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

CHANG: On a recent afternoon, I stood with Ra and Van on an overpass, looking down at the Santa Monica Freeway, where their childhood house used to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

R NICKERSON: Where the freeway is now.

JONAKI MEHTA, BYLINE: Right here, this overpass?

V NICKERSON: Right there, where that sign says quarter, next 3 exit (ph) - lift it up, our house is right about there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - that freeway built over Sugar Hill almost 60 years ago was made possible by deep structural forces, forces that have made it harder for Black Americans to own homes and to build wealth through homeownership. Unlike Sugar Hill, those forces still exist today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Monday, May 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Now, this isn't just a story about a Black neighborhood getting demolished to make room for a freeway. This is a story about how Black residents of that neighborhood had to fight to live there in the first place. I reported the story with NPR producer Jonaki Mehta, who's going to help me tell it from here.

MEHTA: The homes in Sugar Hill, like so many that were developed and built in the early half of the last century, they were subject to something called a racially restrictive covenant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR: So when property is sold, it's a rider included in the deed that says, this property can only be sold to other white people. And it would list who would be excluded from sale.

MEHTA: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote a book called "Race For Profit," which was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAYLOR: Sometimes it was Jewish people, different immigrant or ethnic groups. But primarily, it was a tool to exclude sale from African Americans.

CHANG: Racially restrictive covenants became popular after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed another form of housing segregation known as racial zoning, which is just what it sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAYLOR: City government could come up with racially designated blocks within a community and say, white people live here; Black people live there.

CHANG: After that practice was deemed illegal in 1917, the real estate industry shifted to racially restrictive covenants as a way to stop Black people from moving into white neighborhoods.

MEHTA: Ra Nickerson told us she actually remembers her dad explaining all this to her when she was younger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

R NICKERSON: Well, my father would talk about covenants. As a child, I worked with him in his real estate business, and covenants were alive and thriving, you know? He would show me documents, and he would show how the covenants were worded - no Blacks, no Jews, just blatant hate. And it was everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEHTA: In 1940, 80% of properties in LA had racially restrictive covenants attached to them, and those covenants were a key part of Sugar Hill's history. See, Sugar Hill wasn't always a Black neighborhood. It became one when white homeowners began to willfully violate racial covenants, in part because some Black buyers were willing to pay more than white buyers because they had less property available to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHANG: The first known Black person to buy a home in Sugar Hill was Norman O. Houston. He knew very well at the time that he was defying a covenant attached to the house he bought in 1938. Here's Ivan Houston (ph), his grandson.

IVAN HOUSTON: He recognized things that were unfair. And he felt he was as equal as anybody, and nothing should hold him back. So he kept pushing as far as he could push, but legally.

MEHTA: But as more African Americans moved into Sugar Hill, one white homeowners association didn't like what was happening, so they sued their Black neighbors for violating these racially restrictive covenants. Hattie McDaniel, Norman Houston and dozens of other Black families fought back with their own Black homeowners association.

CHANG: Ivan Houston still has this old notebook that belonged to the association.

HOUSTON: OK. Let's see.

CHANG: The pages are all browned with age. The handwriting is in this tidy cursive.

HOUSTON: That's the book of the minutes that, you know, Granddad was the president of the group. It has all the minutes of the restrictive covenants, the redlining and the meetings to start changing the restrictions.

CHANG: Those meetings to change these restrictions - they went on for years. But then, on December 5, 1945, the parties entered a courtroom. Legal historian Amina Hassan says that day, you could see wealthy Black Angelenos dressed to the nines.

AMINA HASSAN: Hattie McDaniel and hundreds of sympathizers appeared in court in all their finery. This is what a reporter said. The stylish atmosphere in the court was such as to make one wonder if the judge would pour tea during the afternoon recess.

CHANG: This crowd had shown up not only to see the Hollywood stars, but also to take in the legendary NAACP lawyer Loren Miller, who argued their case.

HASSAN: His presentation was electrifying. And the people were waiting for a good show, and I believe they got a good show.

MEHTA: Miller argued that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional because they violated the 14th Amendment, which mandates equal protection under the law. And remarkably, that argument worked. Hassan says this victory was about more than simply winning the right to stay in Sugar Hill. It was about giving Black people in Los Angeles access to a better life.

HASSAN: Housing was the crux of it all. It opened those avenues for them to move beyond the one part of Los Angeles designated for Black people. They could have their children in better schools, and they could find jobs in the area. Housing opened the door.

CHANG: Eventually, the Sugar Hill case in California paved the way for a 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, which would ultimately deem racially restrictive covenants unenforceable nationwide. At the time, that victory felt momentous. To Ra Nickerson, it meant maybe the system could be used to help Black people live where they chose.

R NICKERSON: You don't make waves, but you quietly use the legal system, you quietly talk with your brethren, and you systematically, step by step - but you kept your focus. You knew that it was necessary for Black people to live where they wanted to live.

MEHTA: But it didn't take long for Ra and her brother Van to learn the two of them wouldn't actually be able to live where they wanted to live. A few years after Shelley v. Kraemer, rumors began to spread that the government intended to demolish Sugar Hill to make room for a freeway as part of a federal push in the 1950s to modernize America's roadways.

CHANG: Black residents in Sugar Hill banded together again. They headed to the state capitol and lobbied against the freeway project. But this time around, they lost their fight to stay in Sugar Hill. The California Highway Commission unanimously approved a new freeway that would split Sugar Hill in two and plow right through Ra and Van Nickerson's childhood home.

V NICKERSON: I watched the tractor bulldoze these homes down. And I was still young. We used to go and play in the lot where the freeway was being built. I remember the sand. I remember standing in the sand. I remember when it rained, there were puddles. And we played in the sand puddles across the street where they were building the freeway.

MEHTA: The government seized the Nickersons' home through eminent domain. Now, while the U.S. Constitution requires, quote, "just compensation" for any property acquired through eminent domain, Ra Nickerson says her family was cheated.

R NICKERSON: I remember my father telling me about eminent domain and how there was no option to stop this. The valuation for the - our home was quite low. It was not market value that we were compensated for. And so it was quite an upheaval.

CHANG: An upheaval that Ra's father said would never have happened if Sugar Hill were a white neighborhood.

R NICKERSON: He was very, very angry. He felt the city government resented Black people living there, and this is their way of demolishing a very viable community to support racism.

CHANG: At the time, highway planners used the language of science to justify building freeways through communities of color. That's what Eric Avila says. He's a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

ERIC AVILA: They presented a kind of dizzying array of charts and graphs to insist that this was the most economically efficient route for this particular freeway. They denied any questions of race. They denied any questions of bias.

CHANG: What they did instead, Avila says, was say that they were targeting so-called blighted communities.

AVILA: I don't think we know the extent to which Sugar Hill was designated a blighted area because, you know, it was affluent. But in the discourse of urban planning in the mid-20th century in the United States, blight was often synonymous with people of color and with African Americans in particular.

CHANG: Around the same time the freeway construction through Sugar Hill began, the California Division of Highways proposed another freeway that would cut through Beverly Hills. But when that wealthy white community protested, officials canceled construction.

MEHTA: Almost 70 years later, the Nickersons still feel the loss of their childhood home.

R NICKERSON: It was just sad. I really felt very secure in the community. That's all I knew, you know? So it was - I was quite rattled by it all.

MEHTA: She and her brother say after the freeway forced them to leave their childhood home, they never quite experienced the same safety and comfort that Sugar Hill provided.

V NICKERSON: And we moved over onto Bronson Avenue. And I immediately got into some problems. Most of that neighborhood was white. And a white boy called me a [expletive] in front of my house. And pardon my vernacular, but I kicked his ass. You know, that was the beginning of the real world for us.

CHANG: The Santa Monica Freeway connected new suburbs to the city, but it erased much of the Black community of Sugar Hill. When freeways carve through communities, property values decline, which means less money for schools in the area, not to mention in the decades before and after Sugar Hill vanished, redlining and other racist policies at the Federal Housing Administration prohibited Black Americans from buying homes in many of the nation's newly expanded suburbs. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended that kind of discrimination in theory, but in practice it's never been enforced very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAYLOR: Well, this is part of the problem. I mean, you can't have 35, 36 years of legal discrimination and then declare it over and expect that the legacy, the history and the impact of those policies and practices just wither away overnight.

CHANG: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who you heard from earlier, told us that all these policies, compounded over generations have held Black homeowners back in this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAYLOR: For example, paying higher interest rates, paying more fees because of the cumulative impacts of these policies and practices over these several decades, reconstituted their neighborhoods as risky, reconstituted them themselves as credit risks. And with risks come the legal pretext for treating Black consumers differently. So you can be included, but you have to pay an additional price to do so.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS PASSING)

MEHTA: Before we parted ways that day, Van and Ra Nickerson closed their eyes, and they listened to Sugar Hill one more time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

V NICKERSON: I hear the rumbling of the automobile. You can almost feel it sitting here, shaking the ground. That was nonexistent when we were kids. It was quiet.

R NICKERSON: Very quiet. You can't hear the birds anymore.

CHANG: As we walked away from the freeway overpass, Ra Nickerson headed to the corner to catch the next bus to Inglewood, where she lives now, and Van got into his car to begin his journey back home to a town more than an hour away. His drive would begin on the Santa Monica Freeway and take him right through the middle of what was once known as Sugar Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: That story you just heard is one of many that we reported on this month about the barriers that have held back Black homeownership in America. Find more stories from that series at the link in our episode notes.

And just a reminder, if you have a few minutes to give us some feedback on the podcast, we would love to hear from you. You can share your thoughts at npr.org/springsurvey. That link is in our episode notes, too.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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