One day last summer, I took my Washington University students to see an abandoned brick duplex on Wells Avenue on St. Louis’s near-north side. Built in 1907, the two-story building looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Its walls were crumbling. Daylight streamed through a caved-in section of the roof. Not a shard of glass remained in the rotting window frames. A large piece of plywood covered the front doorway, announcing the address – 5117 – in red spray paint.
“What do you think happened here?” I asked my students.
I knew part of the answer. The house once belonged to my great-grandparents, Margaret and Leo J. Reid, who moved there in 1922 with their five-year-old son, Leo Jr., my grandpa. It was a nice area for a young family back then, populated by lower-middle and working-class people: a baker, an electrician, several chauffeurs and hairdressers.
Two of St. Louis’s most prestigious schools were within walking distance – Christian Brothers College, a Catholic all-boys high school, and its all-girls companion, the Academy of the Visitation – their castle-like architecture and sprawling manicured grounds suggesting a civilized life of the mind far removed from the city’s gritty industrial core. At the time, the neighborhood was exclusively white. Leo Sr., my great-grandfather, lived in the house for 31 years, until 1953.
My students considered the question. The house looked like it had not been occupied in years, at least since the 1990s. There were half a dozen similarly dilapidated houses on the block, along with a few overgrown vacant lots and, incongruously, a meticulously landscaped Pentecostal church a few doors away. This was a case of white flight, they said with certainty, since we were standing in what was now an entirely African-American neighborhood.
Indeed, property records show that the last person to live in this house was Claudia Sholar, a black woman who had been born in Greenville, Mississippi, and migrated to St. Louis with her family when she was young. Claudia and her sister moved into the Wells Avenue house in 1966. Cleopatra lived on the first floor while Claudia took the first floor apartment.
The two sisters arrived amid an influx of nearly seven thousand African Americans who moved into the neighborhood after 1948, according to census records. Most of them were escaping from a bursting-at-the-seams section of the city near downtown that was officially designated as the “Negro Housing Area.” The Wells Avenue neighborhood completely transitioned from all white to nearly all black in a little more than a decade.
So, what caused the Sholar family and thousands of others to migrate from one part of town to the other? To find the answer, my students and I took a bus twenty blocks northeast, to another duplex at 4600 Labadie Avenue. This house was occupied, with new front porch railings, flowers in the windows and a small, neatly trimmed front yard that featured a block of pink granite with a copper plaque. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of a 1948 court battle, Shelley v. Kraemer, a “famous equal protection case.”
Like Claudia and her family, Ethel and J.D. Shelley moved to St. Louis from the South, then lived in the cramped “Negro Housing District” for a few years while they saved to buy a home. The Shelleys bought this house on Labadie in 1945, but had barely finished hauling their furniture up the front steps when they received an eviction notice from the city. It wasn’t just that they were unwelcome in the neighborhood, it turned out the Labadie property deed contained a “covenant,” which “restricted the use of the property ... against the occupancy as owners or tenants … by people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.”
Common in the early twentieth century, covenants usually enforced innocuous community rules, such as: houses had to be set back 58 feet from the street, or coal-fire stoves were not allowed. Over time, neighborhood associations and real estate developers increasingly used covenants to keep neighborhoods all white, supposedly to protect property values. So the Shelleys may have bought the house, but according to the covenants attached to deeds on neighboring houses, they couldn’t live in it.
The Shelleys filed a lawsuit with the help of the NAACP, took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and in 1948, they won the right to live in the neighborhood. The decision had a dramatic effect back on Wells Avenue. After the federal courts invalidated race-restrictive covenants, black families began moving in. Over the next decade nearly eight thousand white people left the area, including my great-grandfather Leo Sr.
Leo Sr. moved to Texas to live with his daughter after my great-grandmother died. He turned over the care of the duplex to his 31-year-old son, Leo Jr. who had left the neighborhood years before to serve as a naval officer during World War II. Now married with four young children, Leo Jr. could have moved his family into the duplex. Instead, he used the G.I. Bill to buy a parcel of land in a new suburban development, where he planned to build his own house.
But he didn’t sell the Wells Avenue property, most likely because he couldn’t find a buyer. As soon as the neighborhood became racially mixed, local real estate developers would have redlined the area, literally outlined the area in red on a map, and labeled it unsafe for investment due to an “infiltration of a lower grade population.” These so-called “security maps,” were created locally, but formalized federally, under Roosevelt’s New Deal via the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation.
If Leo wanted to sell, he’d have had to find someone to pay all cash, because the banks wouldn’t lend in redlined areas. The banks’ decisions were based upon a simple calculation – it was better to lend money in the suburbs where the federal government guaranteed a full reimbursement if the buyers defaulted. Why take the risk of lending where there is no guarantee? As a result, it was almost impossible for black people – or white people, for that matter – to obtain mortgages in a redlined area. That left Leo Jr. with only two options: he could either abandon the house, or rent it out. He chose the latter.
My grandfather and his tenant, Claudia, had a number of things in common. They were about the same age, and though Claudia’s ex-husband Odell had passed away in 1950, he too, had served in the second-world war, so both men were eligible for the GI bill, at least in theory
My grandfather used his GI bill to build a two-story brick colonial perched on an expansive, grassy lot at 760 Glenvista Place in Glendale, a suburb of St. Louis. Even with his G.I. Bill benefits, however, Odell wouldn’t have been able to buy a house in Glendale, because the neighborhood association had restrictive covenants barring black ownership. As a condition of buying the house, Leo had signed one, just like all his neighbors. The covenant was attached to the deed; part of the fine print. “No lot in this subdivision shall be used or occupied by anyone who is not of the Caucasian race (except where they may be employed as servants or domestics on said lot or residence thereon.)”
Claudia couldn’t buy the home on Wells Avenue either, so the Sholar sisters were forced to rent, sending their money across the county line every month – to Leo in Glendale, where he poured it into his suburban home. Between 1966 and 1997, he built an in-ground pool in the backyard and several additions that were eventually absorbed into the expanding house: a back porch became a dining and living room; an attached garage was converted into bedrooms for the youngest of the family’s eventual eleven children. He built a playhouse, which later became a doghouse for Chipper, the family’s German Shepherd.
To hear his tenants tell it, my grandfather was apparently a great landlord. Every time Claudia called him about the boiler or tuckpointing or the plumbing in the old Wells Avenue place, he would drive to the city, make the repairs himself or hire someone to do it – and drive home again to the suburbs. Claudia and her sister were fond of him. He always came when they called, and he brought chocolates on Valentine’s Day. But eventually, the maintenance grew difficult. He was getting on in years and couldn’t make the repairs himself. The cost of keeping the place properly maintained outstripped the rental income. Maybe he could have sold it, but finding a buyer would have been near impossible because of the compounding effects of redlining. So he gave the Sholars the house, explaining that they’d basically paid for it in rent over the years. Claudia lived in the house until 2005, when she moved into the Homer G. Phillips Apartments, an elegant senior living community in the Ville neighborhood of St. Louis.
When Claudia died in 2009, she left the Wells Avenue duplex to her daughter Brenda. The old house cost Brenda money from the minute it dropped into her life. The city assessed property taxes and issued tickets when the grass grew too high or when the snow wasn’t shoveled. The half-abandoned block would not attract renters – at least not those who could pay enough rent to offset maintenance expenses. Whereas Leo had inherited an asset, a rental property that generated income for him, Brenda inherited a burden. She couldn’t sell it; she couldn’t rent it, so just as Leo gave the duplex to her mother, ten years earlier, Brenda turned it over to the city’s land bank (an entity that takes properties no one else wants).
My students and I stood on the sidewalk last summer, puzzling over the crumbling home on Wells Avenue. White flight, the students said at first. But did my white grandfather really flee? He did, of course, but not out of fear or hatred as the term “white flight” suggests. The story we uncovered was not a story of emotion, but rather, a story about money, and the rational, logical choices he made under circumstances that were beyond his immediate control. This is not to excuse him, or any of us, but to consider that, at every single turn, these sensible decisions resulted in more wealth for Leo’s white family and less wealth for Claudia’s black neighborhood.
If we multiply the story of Leo and Claudia by say, sixty houses per block, and maybe forty blocks per square mile, a bigger picture emerges. After local real estate dealers redlined urban neighborhoods, the federal government standardized the local practices and, in an instant, the value of city properties changed. They could no longer be sold, only rented. And one by one, after Shelley v. Kraemer, thousands and thousands of homes became miniature financial instruments. The homes transferred money – in the form of rent payments – from black, working-class neighborhoods to white homeowners in the St. Louis suburbs.
As a result, today we live in deeply divided metropolitan areas; white suburban neighborhoods are not only segregated, but they are wealthier, better maintained, the schools are better, and the homes are worth more. Through the Wells Avenue property, we can see the decisions these two families made, the context in which they made those decisions, and the long term results. White people like my grandfather acted under powerful federal incentives, and without meaning to, cannibalized the city of St. Louis, extracting what wealth they could, sadly leaving people of color to manage in the urban aftermath.
Assessed at $10,000, the Wells Avenue house is basically worth nothing. It’s a ward of the state. The Glendale property — where my grandfather raised his children — recently sold for $379,000, nearly forty times the assessed value of the duplex in front of us.
Had Leo J. Reid Jr. seen the eventual outcome of these individual decisions, might he have acted differently? Probably not. We’ll never know for sure. What my students and I began to see that summer is this: Racism is not just about individual decisions or hateful feelings. Racism is about financial incentives that are built into policy, and thus, invisible. What remain visible are only the effects.
Aimee VonBokel is Lynette S. Autrey Rice Seminar Visiting Professor at the Rice Humanities Research Center.