A Million In Captivity: Resources

This episode tells the story of the intentional creation of a vast spatial gap in Black and white experience in the late 1950s and 1960s. Revealing how the original vision of public housing advocates in the New Deal era came up against the determination of mayors, real estate firms and homeowners to prevent an integrated city, “A Million in Captivity” chronicles the ensuing consequences, which produced concentrated poverty in poorly constructed, high-density developments cut off from the wealth-building opportunities and massive government subsidies that underwrote the suburbs.

A Short History of
Public Housing in America

Initially conceived as shelter for middle and working class families, federal public housing started as part of the Housing Act of 1937, which was passed as part of the New Deal. Its stated purpose was to clear slums and to put people back to work during the Depression.

During America’s postwar expansion in the late 1940s and 1950s, the need for housing accelerated, particularly in northern and western cities where millions of Blacks had migrated during the previous 30 years.

From the beginning, segregation was a hallmark of the new federal housing program. As Richard Rothstein writes in “The Color of Law” federal housing officials established a ‘neighborhood composition rule’: federal housing projects should reflect the previous composition of their neighborhoods.” Hence segregated neighborhoods would remain segregated as the projects calcifying already hardened discrimination patterns. Click below for more information.

A Public Housing History
History of Public Housing in Chicago
What went wrong with CHA?

Who Was Elizabeth Wood?

Elizabeth Wood was the founding director of the Chicago Housing Authority. During her tenure she was known as “Chicago’s largest landlord,” and over the years developed a philosophy to integrate residents by race, economic class and family size. In perhaps a forward thinking move, she proposed that social workers help troubled families who might drag down a project.

In addition to integrated sites, Wood was a proponent of small, dispersed projects rather than high-rise concentrations. A building’s height should be limited to the distance that a mother in a window could be heard when calling to a child in a playground below, she said. While she was head of CHA, the agency built residences for nearly 70,000 people.

Wood wanted housing projects to mimic the look and feel of ethnic neighborhoods. She urged planners to include shops, churches, parks and even pubs. Courtyards and indoor gathering places should have an inviting “design for loitering,” she said. She sponsored flower-growing contests to brighten the projects.

LISTEN: Studs Terkel Interviews Wood

City Slum Lord

Now considered a dysfunctional mess, Chicago’s public housing projects once had long waiting lists of would-be residents hoping to leave the slums behind. So what went wrong?

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Who Was Robert Taylor?

The son of the first academically trained African American architect, Robert Taylor was a banker and housing advocate. Similar to Jesse Binga, he was a mortgager for black residents of Chicago’s South Side, and later became the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. When he began building single family homes for Blacks on Chicago’s south side he attracted the attention of Sears and Roebuck’s president Julius Rosenwald, who financially backed Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, which became one of the first subsidized rental apartments for black residents. Hiis obit credited him with helping oversee the development of 7,000 single family homes during his career.

More on The Robert Taylor Homes

While Cabrini-Green was mostly likely more known to people outside of Chicago —thanks in large part to the television show Good Times — the Robert Taylor Homes on the Southside of Chicago were perhaps the most infamous. As described by a federal bureaucrat in A Million in Captivity: the housing development was “a filing cabinet for the poor,” which speaks to the notion that the Black underclass was “not immediately acted upon” and forgotten.
Oral History: Life in RT Homes
Mapping the RT Homes

The Chicago Reader | Photo Essay A Look Back at Chicago’s Public Housing

Percy L. Julian

Born in 1899, Percy Julian is described by the Science History Institute as a steroid chemist and an entrepreneur who “ingeniously figured out how to synthesize important medicinal compounds from abundant plant sources, making them more affordable to mass produce.” At Depauw University he and another chemist “completed the first total synthesis of physostigmine, the active principle of the Calabar bean, used since the end of the 19th century to treat glaucoma.”
Further research laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills.
More On Julian History
The Science of Julian
5 Julian Facts

Morris Milgram

”If we don’t learn to live together, soon the world is going to come apart.”

A note from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania reads: “A social activist and civil rights trailblazer, Morris Milgram believed firmly in the possibility of racial harmony and based his efforts on the assumption that blacks should have the same access to housing as whites. Probably the biggest obstacle to the achievement of his goals was the difficulty in obtaining financing for his plans; Milgram was frequently rejected by banks and other financial institutions he approached for investment and venture capital.”
Housing Is Everybody’s Problem