Race and the Built Environment

N.D.B. CONNOLLY. A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. 376. $27.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780226378428.

The reading for this week discusses the connection between race and the built environment. The work is A World More Concrete, the first book by Professor of History at John Hopkins University, N.D.B. Connolly. The book tells the story of the foundation, construction, and renovation of a “Jim Crow system” (called “American Apartheid” to encourage comparisons with South Africa; the author sees both as variations on colonialism) in the Greater Miami area from the founding of the city in the late 1890s to the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. Concrete is a complex story about how a diverse and unlikely group of actors found a consensus around black inferiority and white popular sovereignty. Together, although often unwittingly and with few realistic alternatives, these people built a political structure for white supremacy around ideas of real estate, land use, and property rights. That structure survived the end of de jure segregation and has remained in place today, long after the Civil Rights Movement defeated Jim Crow.[1]

Concrete is a long-twentieth-century approach to the relationship between urban development and the unequal color line in Greater Miami, here synonymous with South Florida as a whole. Those familiar with modern Miami will know it ranks as one of America’s poorest and most segregated cities, and that the black community’s economic growth has not only stagnated but actually declined to lows not seen since the city’s incorporation. Concrete is trying to trace the roots of this inequality from the founding of the city to across the Civil Rights Movement and into the present. Connolly presents a new narrative of urban Miami, from its incorporation, to its frontier expansion into the eastern Everglades, to its relatively peaceful desegregation and eruption in riots afterward. In the process, Connolly wants to show how the layout of racial inequality pivoted on property. In reference to clashes between Caribbean and US blacks in the 1920s, he concludes, “The difference was not one of culture. It was one of property.” This is a good summation of Connolly’s argument. In a sense, we cannot find the answers to modern black inequality by talking about cultural difference. We must find them by talking about property rights.[2]

Concrete shows how people made a “tremendous investment” in white supremacy, actually building it into the physical infrastructure of metropolitan America long before the postwar period. This was done through the application of a wide range of tactics that evolved across the twentieth century. These tactics are widely diverse, yet they must be understood as part of the same tradition. They include lynching; intimidation; covenants, deeds, and statutes for segregation; redlining and racial zoning; urban renewal or gentrification; housing projects and resettlement plans; forced conscription and eviction; revitalization and other housing reforms; demolition; slum clearance; tenant dependency; and other forms of eminent domain. Sometimes these tactics were overtly racist, like the bombings, shootings, or lynchings that enforced the city’s color line in the 1910s and the 1920s. Sometimes they were covertly racist, like the HOLC “Security Maps” of the 1930s. These maps foreclosed the opportunity for black neighborhoods to obtain access to rising forms of government credit, like FHA loans, by labeling them undesirable and dangerous places to invest.[3]

American historians have long known that white property owners were heavily invested in the extension of Jim Crow; that those people were both liberal reformers and hardened racists; and that their investments created patters of segregation that still largely determine the urban environment. Those who are familiar with Miami will also know how this story was uniquely shaped by the city’s special relationship to the Global South. This is where discussions of the UNIA, white tourism, hurricanes, imported migrant labor, US imperialism in the Caribbean, Pan-Americanism, the black Atlantic, and the Cuban Revolution come into play. All this aside, Connolly does something in Concrete that is totally new. He shows how the Jim Crow system was really an “interracial coalition.” How “the world people built” depended on successive generations of liberal black leaders. These people also contributed to, and profited from, “infrastructural power.”[4]

Concrete shows how black property owners in Greater Miami adhered to a tradition “of abiding conservatism” rather than “radical politics.” These leaders were often black liberal reformers and landlords, politicians, and real estate developers with significant investments in the segregated yet lucrative black rental market. They were people like Kelsey Pharr, Dana Dorsey, William Sawyer, Theodore Gibson, Sam Solomon, John Culmer, Ira Davis, Edward Graham, Lawson Thomas, Athalie Range, and even Luther Brooks (who is one of the central characters of Concrete, yet was a white slumlord). They ran racial uplift organizations like the Colored Board of Trade, the Adelphia Club, and the Citizens’ Service League. The point here is that these names are generally associated with Miami’s progressive vanguard. They are the city’s traditional Civil Rights heroes. Yet not in Concrete. Connolly reminds us that, whatever else these people were, they were also property owners securely invested in the continuation of black poverty.[5]

As Connolly argues, private property was a “centerpiece and core value of American liberalism.” These generations of black leaders wanted in on the deal, so they fought to acquire and then protect their private property even when it ran counter the interests of poor blacks. Throughout Concrete, Connolly shows how this “black bourgeois” articulated citizenship via problematic notions of “private rights.” Direct-action movements were confrontational toward white allies—like investors and politicians—and ultimately harmful to the bottom line, so these leaders favored soft approaches. They appealed to “taxpayer rights” and a “conference table approach” to negotiation. They rejected boycotts and relied on a rhetoric of personal merit, black inferiority, and white paternalism. They argued that the answers to black poverty lied in the criminal failings of the black community itself. Crime, prostitution, and vice in black neighborhoods, for example, was not the inevitable result of segregation, systemic poverty, neglect, zoning, predatory capitalism, and over-crowded conditions. It was the result of a lack of merit and immorality.[6]

How did black leaders deeply invested in private property profit from racial poverty?  Well, here are a few of the ways. For starters, many of these people were landlords who made fortunes collecting rent checks from poor black tenants. Providing basic services like trash pickup or housing repair was not in their best interest, and they faced little pressure from the city government to do so. These individuals threatened tenants with citations and evictions while they carved up rental units into small kitchenettes in order extract more profit. They were interested in a high-density life—housing projects, ghettoes, and slums—because these yielded the best revenues, even though their conditions fostered crime, disease, segregation, and economic dependency. Connolly shows that black leaders not only milked the black poor of their hard-earned pay via exorbitant rents, but they took credit for progress when they deployed those rents for projects that reinforced segregation. Likewise, they fought activists who represented tenant’s rights, and they formed conservative civic organizations to squash reform movements that threatened their interests. When organizations like the Coconut Grove Committee for Slum Clearance fought to replace crowded tenements with single-family homes, black property owners fought them all the way.[7]

Readers will have to decide whether Connolly comes down too hard on the black bourgeois in Concrete. He claims his narrative is not about “tearing down imperfect men and women,” yet some may feel that he threatens racial unity by critiquing these traditionally beloved figures. In his defense, he does mention that their options were limited, and he includes a few devastating quotes that suggest how limited they really were. For example, the first black judge Lawson Thomas was accused of being complicit with a particularly appalling eminent domain project, one that forcibly and abruptly evicted black residents from their homes and put them in the rain. He replied, “I did my best, but I am not God.” Similarly, Kelsey Pharr may have been a Civil Rights leader and an Uncle-Tom figure at the same time. He collaborated with police to turn a man over for lynching, and he once said “On the battleground of life, men succeed or fail, rise or fall, solely on merit.” But Pharr was also a mortician in the black community during the age of lynch law. He had witnessed firsthand what happens when you attack the system from the outside.[8]

Connolly is also clear that the black bourgeois was successful in breaking down some racial barriers. Concrete chronicles the demise of the poll tax, segregationist charter, and white primaries. It shows the end of racial zoning, and the establishment of the first black patrolmen, black judge, and colored beachfront. It shows the end of de jure segregation in public spaces. And yet, property ownership has not changed all that much. As the Miami Herald reporter Juanita Green writes, “The slums are still there.” The world that people built during Jim Crow still stands. Indeed, the thesis of Connolly’s Concrete is that Jim Crow is still alive. Unfortunately, he does not offer any suggestions about how to kill it.[9]


[1] N.D.B. Connolly. A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 6, 11, 42, 279, 290.

[2] Ibid. 120.

[3] Ibid. 3, 94.

[4] Ibid. 241, 290.

[5] Ibid. 156.

[6] Ibid. 207, 228, 231, 239, 279.

[7] Ibid. 156.

[8] Ibid. 40, 119, 160, 237, 290.

[9] Ibid. 290.