Using Primary Sources to Teach About Segregation
Our Q&A with Richard Rothstein explores the ways in which federal, state and local governments for years encoded segregation into law and practice—and how those tactics have enduring consequences in the present day. For educators covering civil rights and race in the classroom, it’s essential context. And it represents an opportunity to help students connect the past to the present in a very real way using primary sources.
- What primary sources are available in teaching about segregation?
- How can I use primary sources and comparative texts to teach about segregation?
- Why are primary sources a particularly useful tool for teaching about civil rights issues?
- Why is it important to let students make direct connections between actions taken by all levels of government and consequences, such as segregation or wealth and resource inequities?
Working with primary sources to teach segregation begins with understanding why we do it. Especially when talking about the history of racism in the United States, the use of primary sources is an effective tool. It teaches students to look at evidence across time, and replaces assumptions (such as reasons we may think neighborhoods remain segregated) with facts (such as city ordinances, zoning laws, FHA rules). It empowers students to make connections rather than drawing conclusions for them, allowing them to be more invested, trustful and thoughtful about the topic.
The essential practices we recommend in Civil Rights Done Right: A Tool for Teaching the Movement can frame any lesson on the history of racism and segregation in the United States. We ask educators to:
- Capture the unseen, which includes having students use original sources to offer new perspective.
- Resist telling a simple story, which includes shifting students’ thinking away from individual motivations toward systems and institutions.
- And connect to the present.
Consider these resources that can help you accomplish all three of these practices when creating a lesson about segregation.
Guidance for using primary documents to talk about segregation:
This unit of lessons—created by the University of California-Berkeley History-Social Science Project—“traces segregation in the United States across the twentieth century” using primary and secondary sources.
When two American Studies teachers combined their classes to discuss school integration, they fostered a depth of learning they never anticipated.
This toolkit will equip you with strategies to engage students in primary source analysis.
In this webinar, education experts lead participants in selecting primary sources while discussing the goals of teaching about the civil rights movement.
In this webinar, education experts have participants analyze a map and explore its context, leading to a discussion on the importance of maps.
This is a collection of “security maps” created by the New Deal agency HOLC, or the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, who “recruited mortgage lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers in nearly 250 cities to create maps that color-coded credit worthiness and risk on neighborhood and metropolitan levels.” These both serve as evidence of the government’s role in perpetuating segregation, as well as the results of prior laws that created racist perceptions of certain neighborhoods.
This San Francisco Chronicle cover story from 1957 illustrates that legal housing discrimination—no matter how famous the would-be tenant was—endured well into the 20th century.
The sign advertising “260 new homes” in San Diego prompts those interested to “Investigate F.H.A. Terms.” Remind students that these terms included the fact that only white families could buy these homes. What does it say about the policy that it was displayed so openly? How might this have made black families feel?
This picture depicts FHA housing in the suburbs of San Diego in 1941, intended for white families.
This photo depicts a complex created by the FHA for people of color in Washington, D.C. around 1920. How does it compare to all-white neighborhoods?
This full text of the Supreme Court case lays out the court’s decision to overturn a Louisville, Kentucky, racial zoning ordinance. The case illustrates the ways in which cities had been legally segregating people for years.
This is an example of a deed from a corporation to a grantee, explicitly stating that people of Asian or African descent could not live there except as domestic “servants.”
These archives of redlining examples in California include encoded policies of racial discrimination by FHA, realtors and appraisers.
This interactive map from the University of Virginia uses census data to visualize the racial makeup of the United States. By zooming in on cities, this map can be used as a comparison to redlining maps of the early 20th century. Have students evaluate their town, or cities across the U.S. Where has integration happened? Where has segregation remained consistent? Why?
Artist Josh Begley overlaid current Google Map images of California cities with redlining maps from the 1930s. The colors are based on these classifications created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation.
This interactive map and timeline tracks the history of segregation in Louisville, Kentucky, and allows one to compare historically redlined districts with current demographics, property values, poverty rates and vacant properties.
Connecting past to present:
This accessible video explains the state-sanctioned segregation of the suburbs and how its impact endures today.
This radio story in two acts features the voices of New York City residents, and explores the ways in which the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has—and hasn’t—been enforced. Based on a series of reports by Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Carol Anderson explains how Brown v. Board of Education fueled decades of resistance to school integration.
This piece from The Century Foundation tracks the history of exclusionary zoning practices and how that translates into inequity today.
Once you have a chance to comb through some of these resources, reflect back on the essential questions.
Bonus activity: Consider this passage from our conversation with Rothstein that does not appear in the magazine, and answer the following questions:
- What suburbs does Rothstein cite as examples of white-only developments? Can you think of others close to you? Research opportunity: How have those towns’ demographics changed over time?
- How might this passage inform the ways in which you can connect past policies with current inequities? What dots does Rothstein connect that you could connect in your classroom?
- How could you use some of the resources in this toolkit to teach your students about this history of housing discrimination and segregation
The other major policy that the federal government followed, which was probably the most powerful one, was a policy of the Federal Housing Administration to suburbanize the entire white population into single family homes in all-white suburbs. The most famous of these is Levittown, and you've heard of that…
There was a development south of San Francisco that was just about as large as Levittown. There were hundreds and hundreds of these across the country. Every metropolitan area had them… Los Angeles became the symbol of suburbanization in 1950s, places like Lakewood or Panorama City or Westchester just west of the city. All of these were FHA projects. The only way they could get this capital, the builders, is by going through the Federal Housing Administration and making a commitment to the Federal Housing Administration that they would never sell a home to an African American.
The Federal Housing Administration even required [William] Levitt and these other builders to place a clause in the deed of every home prohibiting resale to African Americans or rental to African Americans.
So on this basis, all-white suburbs were created. Whites who previously, as I say, public housing was not for poor people at that time. It was for working class, middle class families, after World War II for returning war veterans. White working-class families could move out of public housing or rental apartments in urban areas into single family homes in federally required all-white suburbs. African Americans were prohibited from doing so.
This was not the action of rogue bureaucrats at the federal government. This was an explicit policy written out in the manual issued by the Federal Housing Administration that prohibited appraisers from approving developments that might be integrated, and even prohibited the construction of developments for whites that was close to African-American neighborhoods because it would run the risk of infiltration...
Let me say the subsidy was so great that white families, white working class families, returning war veterans after World War II could move out of public housing and into single family homes in all white suburbs with an FHA or VA mortgage and pay less on their monthly housing costs than they were paying for a rented public housing.
African Americans were prohibited from doing this. Well, those houses in Levittown or any of these other developments half the time sold for about $100,000 in today's inflation adjusted dollars. Any working class family can afford to buy a home for $100,000, especially with a FHA or VA mortgage. A VA mortgage requires no down payment. So if white working class families bought them, black working class families could easily afford to do so as well, but were prohibited from doing so.
Today, those homes sell for 200 ... 300 ... 400 ... 500 thousand dollars. The white [people] who were subsidized by the federal government to move into these all white suburbs gained over the next few generations the 200 ... 300 ... 400 thousand dollars in wealth. White families who were required by federal policies, for the most part, they continued renting apartments in urban areas, whether in public housing or in the private sector, gained none of that wealth.
The result is … African-American incomes on average [earn] about 60 percent of white incomes and African-American wealth is about 10 percent the white wealth. That enormous disparity between a 60 percent income ratio and a 10 percent wealth ratio is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that was practiced in the mid 20th century and it's never been remedied.
That wealth gap is the cause of much of the racial inequality that we have in this country today. African-Americans cannot afford to buy homes today in working class suburbs that were once affordable to them. Those suburbs have now appreciated in value. So these policies became permanent. They have a permanent effect.