Little Rock is today a city of two halves. One, to the east of I-30 and to the south of I-630, is predominantly black and poor. The other, to the west of I-430 and to the north of I-630, is predominantly white and more affluent. Anyone who drives across the city can see this with their own eyes, and anyone who takes the time and trouble to do so can examine the demographic data to confirm it.
How did the city, 60 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, end up this segregated? The answer lies in the incredible expansion of segregated neighborhoods since the mid-20th century. Some would suggest that this came about through a series of individual choices. But that is not true. The city’s current geographically segregated housing patterns have been consciously created by public policy, with private sector collusion, since the 1950s.
Little Rock’s housing patterns did not always look the way they do today. From its earliest days, the city developed a reputation for having a more progressive racial climate than surrounding areas. The scarcity of labor in the pre-Civil War period meant that skilled black slaves were in demand and could bargain for better terms of employment and for more freedoms. Some were allowed to “hire out” their labor and keep a portion of their wages, and some even purchased their own living quarters.
As a result, even during slavery, racially mixed housing patterns in the city were established. In Little Rock, unlike many other cities, there were no laws to prohibit blacks and whites living in the same area. As the city grew, discernible black residential areas did begin to develop just off West Ninth Street’s downtown black business district and toward the east of the city. This was due largely to economic constraints, the location of black institutions, and the practicalities of finding security in numbers. Yet there were also many “pepper and salt” (that is, mixed black and white) neighborhoods, too. As late as 1941, a study sponsored by the Greater Little Rock Urban League noted that, “While Negroes predominate in certain sections … in Little Rock, there are … no widespread … ‘Negro sections’ [of residence].”
The passage of the federal Housing Act of 1949 changed all that. The act, designed to beautify cities in the post Second World War era, was used by Little Rock to begin an aggressive racial redistricting of the city. It initially held out the promise of better conditions for Little Rock’s black population by eradicating poor housing and replacing it with new public housing units. But white city planners had other ideas. Their focus was less on improving the conditions of the black community and more on using funds to perpetuate and even extend segregation in the city. B. Finley Vinson, head of the Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) and its slum clearance and urban redevelopment director, freely admitted that, “the city of Little Rock through its various agencies including the housing authority systematically worked to continue segregation” through its slum clearance and public housing projects.
The intent of city planners to use federal housing policy as an instrument for achieving residential segregation was evident when black areas of residence were seemingly targeted for redevelopment because of their close proximity to white neighborhoods rather than their slum status. The first part of the city designated as a “blighted area” for demolition and clearance was a 10-block area of homes at the heart of the downtown Little Rock black community in the Dunbar neighborhood. Blacks viewed the area, resident Lola S. Doutherd said, as “the choicest area of the Negro residential section. … It contains many churches, schools, completely modern homes, paved paid out streets, and it is within easy walking distance to the business section of the city.” Doutherd alleged that “coercion and intimidation” was used by the LRHA to force black residents to sell their properties in the area. The LRHA “threatened the owners by telling them if they did not sell at the appraised price, they would be ordered in court and given less, or evicted from their homes.”
While the LRHA evicted black residents downtown it built black public housing on the edge of the city limits as far away from white neighborhoods as possible. The first public housing projects built under the redevelopment plans were the 400 units of Joseph A. Booker Homes in the far southeast city limits. Other housing projects followed a similar pattern. By 1990, the major public housing projects of the 1950s had 99 percent black occupancy. Predominantly white areas had only 5 percent of the city’s public housing units and there were none at all in the far west of the city.
Given this residential gerrymandering, it is hardly surprising that Little Rock’s first response to the Brown decision was to build two new geographically segregated high schools in the city. In addition to the existing centrally located white Central High and black Dunbar High, Horace Mann High was built in the predominantly black eastern part of the city, and Hall High was built in the predominantly affluent white western part of the city. From the outset this encouraged the school district to grow in a geographically segregated manner hand-in-hand with city housing policy.
City residents clearly understood what was happening. A 1964 report by the Greater Little Rock Conference on Religion and Race titled, “Confronting the Little Rock Housing Problem: An Alarming Trend,” noted that, “The evidence indicates an advanced trend toward complete racial segregation in housing.” At one meeting of concerned citizens, Little Rock housing director Dowell Naylor was asked bluntly, “Is development in housing in Little Rock drawing racial groups together or silently drawing them apart?” Naylor answered, “Drawing them apart.”
Private sector practices bolstered public policy in creating a geographically segregated city. “Restrictive covenants” were placed in property contracts to prevent resale to blacks. “Redlining” was used by banks and mortgage brokers to deny loans to black families in white areas of residence. Real estate agents used “racial steering” to show white purchasers homes only in areas of white residence, and black purchasers homes only in areas of black residence. In a maneuver known as “block-busting,” real estate agents sometimes deliberately moved black families into centrally located white blocks of residence. Whites moving out were sold more expensive homes in the growing Little Rock western suburbs, while blacks paid high prices for the limited housing stock left available to them.
Meanwhile, unwanted efforts by black families to move into white areas were resisted. In September 1965, lawyer John Walker purchased a home in the all-white Broadmoor addition in West Little Rock. A can of paint was hurled through his front window and his shrubbery was set on fire even before his family moved in. After they moved, white neighbors ostracized them. As one resident put it, “The policy in Broadmoor is to ignore the Walkers. If no one says anything to them I think it will be only a matter of time before they move somewhere else.” They were right. Walker moved north to the University Park development not long after. The area was one of the rare instances where middle-class blacks were able, through a concerted effort, to preserve a black presence in West Little Rock.
In 1966, the Arkansas Gazette ran a series of articles by Jerol Garrison that assessed trends in “Race and Residence.” An editorial summed up the findings: “There has been a clear trend, a trend toward the concentration of Negroes in one large area centrally located, and of whites in newer residential areas to the west. … The movement is away from the ‘pepper and salt’ pattern in which Negro and white neighborhoods are interspersed.” It concluded, “In such circumstances racial segregation becomes more obvious and all-encompassing, especially when schools desegregated by law become largely segregated in fact simply because of prevailing residential patterns.”
In 1971, when busing threatened to overturn the purpose of residential segregation by forcing cross-city transportation of students to ensure integrated public schools, Little Rock witnessed a sprouting of new private schools. Their locations once again largely mirrored the city’s segregated housing patterns. The latest charge toward charter schools in West Little Rock can be viewed as simply another wave in the ongoing school building program in the city dating back to the mid-1950s that has sought to reflect and reinforce segregated neighborhoods.
Other urban planning devices have created a divided city. Often viewed as the bogeyman of geographical segregation in Little Rock, the construction of I-630 in fact only drew a hard line across an already segregated city. I-630 is not the primary cause of today’s segregated neighborhoods. Their origins go much deeper and wider than that. But I-630 nevertheless effectively cemented the existing demarcation between those neighborhoods.
Since the 1950s Little Rock has successfully created a more residentially segregated city. This means that the current clamor for neighborhood schools will inevitably produce schools that are just as segregated as the purposefully segregated neighborhoods that surround them. And those segregated neighborhoods will not only have segregated schools, but many other segregated facilities as well, in practice if no longer by sanction of law. Residential segregation has now replaced Jim Crow segregation laws as the main instrument of racial division in the city in the 21st century.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Professor and chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Jess C. Porter is assistant professor of geography in the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
A longer version of this piece can be found in John A. Kirk, Beyond Little Rock: The Origins and Legacies of the Central High Crisis (University of Arkansas Press, 2007).