The Chicago Plan, Part 1: Resources

As Social Darwinist thinking spread in the early-20th century, a leading Chicago Improvement Association declared that introducing Blacks into a white community devalued property. Black families who dared to move into white communities faced ostracism, vandalism, and house bombings.

LaDale Winling Historian, Virginia Tech University

Early Days of the
National Association of Realtors

What we now know as the National Association of Realtors (NAR) began in 1908 as the National Association of Real Estate Exchanges. Chicago was selected as the headquarters of the emerging trade association largely because the city was fertile ground for development; New York and other eastern cities had largely been built out and the Midwestern Metropolis sat as a symbol of growth and influence for the emerging cities in the midwest and west. According to LaDale Winling, a scholar at Virginia Tech University, one of the chief mandates of the national realtors group was to figure out how to organize race and place, particularly as more and more African Americans fled the brutality of the Jim Crow South and found job opportunities in the North in the mid 1910s. The organization supported the efforts of St Louis and Baltimore to create racial districts through racial zoning and looked for new ways to enforce racial segregation after the Supreme Court blocked the use of such zoning in 1917. So from its early years, national real estate leaders were not only looking to professionalize their ranks, but also searching for ways to legally segregate American cities.

What was Chicago like at the turn of the 20th Century?

It was called the Midwestern Metropolis and the capital of the Inland Empire. Chicago at the turn of the 1900s was an emerging powerhouse of a city, the fastest growing urban metropolis in America. Just 30  years earlier, the Great Chicago Fire had swept through the city destroying more than 17,000 buildings and nearly 75 miles of street. About a third of the city’s nearly 300,000 residents were left homeless. That gave city planners an opportunity to rebuild the city anew, and by the early 20th century, Chicago had become the 2nd biggest city in the country after New York, largely driven by a flood of European immigrants. 

There were very few African Americans in Chicago during this time. Their numbers only totaled 30,000 in 1900 and, as Adam Green says in The Chicago Plan, African Americans generally lived in various parts of the city and integrated themselves throughout the city. For instance, before 1915 only about 50 percent of African Americans lived in what is now known as the Black Belt. By contrast, by the 1940s 90 percent of Blacks lived in Chicago’s Black belt.

The Business of Segregation

The story of the rise of the segregated suburb often begins during the New Deal and the Second World War, when sweeping federal policies hollowed out cities, pushed rapid suburbanization, and created a white homeowner class intent on defending racial barriers.

Before Chicago, Baltimore

While Chicago would become known as the most segregated big city in the country by the mid 20th century, public officials in Baltimore were on the vanguard of designing policies to separate black from white as early as 1910. As the Maryland Law Review pointed out in a seminal journal article, city mayor J. Barry Mahool in 1911 signed an ordinance to preserve “peace” and prevent “conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in Baltimore city.” The law, he said, would create “separate blocks by white and colored people for residences, churches and schools.” Baltimore’s segregation law was the first to be aimed at blacks in the United States, but it was not the last. Various southern cities in Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky enacted similar laws.

But it wasn’t just public officials. As Paige Glotzer argues in her seminal book, How the Suburbs Were Segregated, private interests in Baltimore were also instrumental. The Roland Park Company, at first a British backed real estate development company based in Baltimore, experimented with racial segregation as a way of attracting residents and boost sales as early as the early 20th century.

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Mary Pattillo Sociologist, Northwestern University

The First Great Migration

During World War I the flood of European immigration that had characterized Chicago’s growth ground to a halt. Black southerners filled the need for workers, coming by the tens of thousands starting in 1915. More than 50,000 Blacks arrived in Chicago between 1916 and 1920 more than doubled their size in a matter of several years.

Images of the Great Migration

What Is Social Dawinism?

The theory that individuals and groups of people “evolved” in a similar fashion as plants and animals did through the laws of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. The theory gained favor in Western societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by English philosopher and psychologist Herbert Spencer and was used to justify imperialism, and racism. It spawned many sub-theories, and led to the development of a racial hierarchy chart, which was used by realtors as they justified separating blacks and whites in America’s cities, particularly as African American began migrating from the South.
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Davarian L. Baldwin Historian, Trinity College

Black On The Block

Black on the Black “uses the historic rise, alarming fall, and equally dramatic renewal of Chicago’s North Kenwood–Oakland neighborhood to explore the politics of race and class in contemporary urban America.”

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Chicago’s New Negroes

Baldwin explores an abundant archive of cultural formations where an array of white observers, black cultural producers, critics, activists, reformers, and black migrant consumers converged in what he terms a “marketplace intellectual life”

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