Fading Lines, Lasting Legacies

After the implementation of the HOLC map, more and more restrictive covenants began to appear both within the city proper and in the surrounding residential areas. The map created a visual representation of the lines that divided race in Harrisburg and helped to reinforce them. Restrictive covenants, on the other hand, was the local response to the map codings. By building new, exclusive communities local realtors could not only perpetuate racist stereotypes but profit off of the fear they created. Whiteness was linked with prosperity and financial stability while Blackness was paired with instability and danger.

The 1950s also saw the rise of suburban neighborhoods nationwide and along with them the development of “Sundown Towns”. Both individual towns and entire suburban neighborhoods used a variety of intimidation tactics to create a hostile environment for African Americans. The combination of unspoken racial restrictions and legal restrictive covenants further limited African American access not only to housing stock but to socio-economic opportunity.

For more information about the unspoken racial restrictions present in the 1950s and 60s in Harrisburg, visit the Stories in Place exhibit created by the Digital Harrisburg Initiative and the Messiah University Center for Public Humanities

Danger After Dark: The Development of Sundown Towns

Planned communities in central Pennsylvania used a variety of methods to limit access to their properties. Many of the neighborhoods like Camp Hill and Lemoyne that developed on the West side of the Susquehanna river were hot spots for restrictive covenants. Colloquially known as the “White Shore”, this area historically has been unavailable to anyone but upper class Caucasians. Tensions between schools led to violent confrontations at sporting events.

Residents of the West Shore who attended games between the all white Cedar Cliff High School in Lemoyne and the interracial John Harris High School would shout racial slurs and encite riots after games. As late as 2002, African American and mixed race people were barred or discouraged from buying properties on the West Shore. Harrisburg today continues to expand into the surrounding area, yet many African Americans have found it difficult to leave its center.

(Image: “FHA Stresses Importance of Neighborhood Standards”, The Evening News Harrisburg: December 4, 1937.)

Modern Legacies?

It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that racially restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional. However, this act did nothing to retroactively address racial restrictions that were already in place. Today, the West Shore remains a majority white, higher income area while inner city Harrisburg is experiencing wealth drain.

There were activists within the city that worked both locally and nationally to combat the segregation that was present in Harrisburg. One such reformer, Maude Coleman, was instrumental in many campaigns for African American welfare. Having been displaced by the Capitol Park Extension twice, Coleman was directly at the center of racial conflicts by the early 20th century. Later on, she would become a member of the Interracial Board and the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare where she would lobby for greater rights and fair treatment of African Americans.

Coleman did not shy away from the reality of the racial divides in Harrisburg. She puts it quite plainly in her letter to Governor Duff in 1950 (as seen above):

“Our position…is not like that of other groups. It is absolutely impossible for us to rent or buy property in Harrisburg in any decent neighborhood because of all kinds of restrictions.”

Maude Coleman, February 20, 1950

Unequal access to housing leads to greater, long lasting financial gaps. Equity is the main source of wealth for middle-class Americans. Additionally, if one generation is unable to access sufficient equity, it becomes increasingly difficult for the next generation to make up the difference.

Statistically, transgenerational poverty disproportionately affects African Americans. Young African Americans are ten times more likely to live in poor neighborhoods as young whites. However, only 40% of families who lived in poverty a generation ago still do, compared to 67% of African Americans. When trapped in poorer neighborhoods, people have less access to good education, healthy food, and are even usually exposed to higher air pollution leading to greater rates of lung disease.

While all of these are national trends, they can still be applied to the conditions in Harrisburg. The following maps courtesy of PolicyMaps.com demonstrate modern population data on Harrisburg comparing demographic distributions, finances, and social vulnerability. The darker the color of the map, the higher the percentage or numerical value.

The image on the left is the percent of Black or African Americans living in different areas of Harrisburg from 2015-2019. The map on the right shows the poverty rates from the same time period.
The image on the left is the median household income in Harrisburg between 2015-2019. The map on the right shows the predicted social vulnerability for the same time period.

From the turn of the 20th century, racial stereotypes have been slowly codified into laws which have uprooted African American communities while denying them the opportunity to move anywhere else. The lasting legacies of segregated housing in Harrisburg have yet to be intensively studied. But as research continues on this topic, more can be understood about how the landscape was reshaped by restrictive covenants and what aftershocks have been left today.

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