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The Beginings of the Black Experience in Community Development

For Black History Month, I am reposting my series on the Black Experience in Community Development, as well as my motivation for writing this blog. Also, I am celebrating leaders in community development on my Facebook page This is post one, a brief history.

As planning and architecture in their modern notions did not come into being into well into the late 19th and early 20th century, many of the modern terminology for neighborhoods, architecture and neighborhoods did not exist. Therefore, I’m going to use a few major historical periods to describe how black families interacted in their built environment.


Before slavery, those who would become African-Americans lived in close-knit villages, where they farmed,hunted, educated themselves, worshiped and built community. Everyone knew everyone and everyone helped each other as much as possible,pending no ethnic or tribal conflict. Slavery uprooted this institution, but only temporarily.  Although plantations in themselves are an example of self-sustain enterprise, Blacks were forced to maintain this structure, for no pay and substandard housing and accommodations. However, they recreated their own family structures on the plantations and eventually helped themselves escape and be freed.


During the Jim Crow years, African-Americans had limited opportunities to patronize mainstream (read: white-owned) businesses. If the business served them at all, it was at the back door or on one side, but not the other. For this purpose a whole network of black owned service businesses existed. These businesses were often nearby residences, churches and schools, such that a walkable community was formed. This dense community also provided a return to the village concept of African villages.  In addition, blacks, along with huge chunks of the general population at this time rode buses in high numbers. Because of the reliance on public transportation, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a major economic, as well as social and political statement.

Urban Renewal

After World War II, the FHA funding patterns, Interstate Highway funding and building and other urban renewal policies picked up steam. However, these policies supported growth into the suburbs, where often, due to the policy of redlining, blacks were kept out of certain neighborhoods. In addition to being kept from going to the suburbs, black neighborhoods were often seen as slums, blighted or just inferior due to already evident prejudices. Thousands of neighborhoods were shut off or destroyed thanks to suburban highway projects and mass teardowns, which in some cases remained as vacant fields or empty storefronts.  Money or support moved to the suburbs, which were seen as the future of development. Whites fled inner-city neighborhoods aided by Federal Housing Administration mortgages with low rates and restrictive covenants, preventing Blacks from moving along with the white families. Blacks left behind were ignored and once clean and safe neighborhoods declined. Many Blacks were forced into government housing when displaced by “urban renewal” projects. Over the years, “the projects” became synonymous with drug activity, welfare queens and over-all laziness. When Blacks were allowed to move into suburbs, it was to those that were all Black or in the process of becoming all Black. The flight to the suburbs of professional Blacks was the death knell of many neighborhoods.

However in recent years, glimmers of hope have appeared in traditionally black neighborhoods, as well as a number of significant green-living movements. Stay tuned to find out more about those movements, as well as steps we can take to completely include blacks and other people of color into beneficial sustainable community measures.

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