Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Robert Weaver and the Fight for Fair Housing

3519 14th Street NE (Site)

“American cities have a choice to make. They can maintain strict residential segregation or they can initiate urban redevelopment and sound urban planning. They cannot do both.”
(Robert Clifton Weaver, 1948)

Economist and fair housing advocate Robert Clifton Weaver (1907-1997) wrote these words in his seminal 1948 study, The Negro Ghetto. This book was the first to comprehensively address the racist housing policies that had segregated northern cities and were displacing increasing numbers of African Americans in the name of "slum clearance" and urban renewal.

Weaver had served as a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet" in the 1930s alongside Ralph Bunche and Mary McLeod Bethune. From there he went to work for the American Council on Race Relations, where he studied the impact of racially restrictive housing covenants and contributed his expertise to the NAACP's legal battle against them. Covenants in Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere kept most urban housing off-limits to African Americans at a time when huge numbers of black migrants were fleeing the South.

In The Negro Ghetto, Weaver carefully outlined the role of covenants and other private and public policies that confined black residents to old, overcrowded, and overpriced housing. His research also countered the widely accepted theory that African Americans' movement into a neighborhood caused property values to plummet. Weaver served on the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital, which authored the influential 1948 report Segregation in Washington.

In a 1952 address, Weaver reported on the unexpectedly negative impact of urban renewal and the development of public housing, which he said was “providing a mechanism for the entrenchment of segregation on an unprecedented scale." Displacing African Americans had become public policy, he warned. As an administrator for New York State in 1955-59, Weaver fought for open housing. Although he remained critical of federal housing policies, he went on to administer the U.S. Housing and Home Finance Agency (which worked with the Federal Housing Administration and oversaw urban renewal) and in 1966 became the first secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

When he worked for the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, Weaver lived at 12th and Kenyon streets NW in Columbia Heights. But, he grew up in Brookland in a house that his parents purchased in 1900. They were among a group of African Americans who moved to the neighborhood when a white developer marketed a small number of houses to black buyers. Weaver's mother "carefully supervised [her children's] interaction with white neighbors to protect them from racial prejudice," wrote Wendell Pritchett in a 2008 biography. The Brookland house that the Weavers lived in was replaced by the current house on the site around 1968, while Weaver's Kenyon Street house is now the site of Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

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