Building a White Belt

The history of racism in the United States infuses all areas of American life. The spaces in which we live retain this history, and even the most familiar amenities are implicated in the racial practices of our nation. Ideas about "good" and "bad" neighborhoods reveal tacit aspects of our culture. We explain these disparities in terms of the economy, of incidental population movements or of de facto racial practices buried in the American historical subconscious. Rarely, however, do Americans directly confront the racial constitution of their specific communities to examine the actual processes that led to the present American condition. Confronting my own experience growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, I began with a quandary: why is it that Glen Ellyn, a wealthy suburb west of Chicago, has a mere 2.13% African-American population (2000 census) compared with the city’s 36.8%? Racial politics must have helped build Glen Ellyn and its neighbors (particularly Naperville). But can we make this observation more concrete? Here, I use a specific historical example to illustrate the kinds of local decisions that created the segregated suburbs.

In the long aftermath of the Civil War, American townships had developed complex race relations, culminating in discrete conflicts in the twentieth century. Of these, the issue of residential property rights was one of the most prominent. On November 29, 1907, the Wheaton Illinoian (the local news publication for several towns in central DuPage County) reported a "movement" that, in conjunction with an effort to drive out "liquor dealers…inspired demand for a similar attitude towards colored people." No explanation was given for these sentiments, but a short paragraph stated that this "demand" was rebutted in a meeting, in which it was also noted that "in the last three years only three or four colored families have come here," and that "old respected citizens [were] willing to vouch for their character." Thus, the African-Americans in Glen Ellyn were few enough to placate the white citizenry and were of a certain "respectable" kind. The entry then notes that "the movement [had] fallen flat." The writer seems to have understood the weight of exclusionary practices, and suggests that the people of Glen Ellyn opposed exclusion purely on the basis of race.

But where the Glen Ellyn reporting ceased, other papers began to portray a startling series of events. The next day, the Chicago Daily Tribune’s front page stated, "Glen Ellyn residents adopted resolutions opposing [the] presence of negroes in [the] suburb." One week later the Illinoian proclaimed: "Glen Ellyn property holders draw a dead line around the ‘black belt.’" The Illinoian author elaborates: "[T]hey did not object to the negro because of his color, but simply because his presence… was depreciating real estate values." According to the Tribune article, real estate dealers in Glen Ellyn held a public meeting after A.G. Hulbert sold a "choice lot" to George Dunham, an African-American man of reputable means. Hulbert, in his defense of the sale, suggested that a suitable "nigger district" in Glen Ellyn would be ideally inhabited by "a Frenchy mongrel [that is, an African-American of "character"], who, though noisy and profane, is regarded by the whites as otherwise harmless." The opposing realtors William Grimshaw and E.W. Zander, using Naperville as their model, claimed that allowing African-Americans to live in Glen Ellyn would diminish an otherwise rising "value" in the town: "In Naperville…[t]hey will not sell land or anything else to negroes or give them work, and they stay away. Negroes will lower the price of real estate. Do we want them here?" Zander attempted to explain himself: "[I]t is not on account of race or color that we do this. It is merely because colored people depreciate the value of property." Fannie Weir, George Dunham’s aunt and a resident of Glen Ellyn, attended this meeting and accosted Zander furiously, pressing his logic: "You say it is not on account of our color….Then why is it?" Zander had to concede, "I guess it is the color."

Even after Weir dismantled the rhetorical façade, the real estate dealers remained resolute. Soon after, Hulbert included "prohibitions against liquor dealers and negroes" when advertising his available property, and the African-American population declined sharply around this time. By 1912, both Fannie Weir and the Dunham family had sold their property and left Glen Ellyn. These racial restrictions seem to have lifted around 1919 when the Chicago Defender congratulated Benjamin Bertha, an African-American, on moving to Glen Ellyn. But the village’s black population had already diminished extensively, and by 1930, according to U.S. census and county records, the village had only six black families, three of whom owned their property. Thus was the link between color, wealth, and residential property ownership established in Glen Ellyn, creating the pattern of exclusion we still see today. ◊