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Race and Housing in the Postwar City: - page 9 / 23

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Firebombs and Dynamite: Neighborhood Race Wars

Breaking the color line on housing was accompanied by great personal risk for African Americans. During the earlier "Great Migration" from the South to the urban North - the migration that took place between 1915 to 1930 - competition for housing and sub­ sequent racial conflicts touched off violent race riots in East St. Louis and Houston in 1917, in Philadelphia in 1918, in Chicago and Washington, D.C. in 1919, and in Tulsa in 1921. In Miami, Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City, Memphis, and dozens of other cities, white mobs used intimidation, terror, and violence to maintain the color line in housing. Scholars have traced such practices as racial zoning and restrictive covenants to this period when blacks first migrated in large numbers to the cities. As blacks initiated a second great migra­ tion after 1940, and as housing pressures intensified, the pattern of discrimination, intimidation and violence surged once again.18

The racial violence of the 1960s - the urban riots and ghetto insurrections of the Great Society era - is well known and much stud­ ied. Surprisingly little is known about the urban racial violence of the period between 1945 and 1960, when the victims were mostly black people seeking better housing and the violent perpetrators were most­ ly white people trying to prevent African Americans from moving into their neighborhoods. Yet these racial incidents were ubiquitous at the time, even if they were not very well reported in the metropolitan press or by national news magazines. As historian Herbert Shapiro suggested in his book, White Violence and Black Response (1988), it appears that "all during this period news coverage of the racial vio­ lence was substantially suppressed." Similarly, referring to Chicago's racial confrontations, Arnold Hirsch noted in Making the Second Ghetto (1983), "The press silence of the late 1940s relegated Chicago's housing riots to a carefully hidden niche in a largely forgotten past." By con­ trast, the left-liberal press, such as the National Guardian and the Daily Worker, and the African American weekly newspapers did a much bet­ ter job of reporting this surge of second ghetto housing violence. Just barely hidden from general public awareness, an era of "chronic urban guerrilla warfare" was emerging. Indeed, the black migrations and the

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