The cover of Rhonda William's Politics of Public Housing shows eight African-American women, all past residents of public housing projects in Baltimore. At a discussion of the book organized by the Division of U.S. Studies, Prof. Williams began her presentation by introducing each of the women to the audience. That reflected the purpose of the book, which was to permit the women to tell what Williams described as an overlooked story: the story of the women themselves and the way they, as marginalized and economically needy African American women, survived; the way they provided for their families; the way their status and circumstances shaped their identities; and the way they were, finally, motivated to act. They were not simply poor black women recipients of public housing, but poor black women activists who learned about their rights and fought for them. Their engagement with public housing reshaped it and kept it from becoming an unmitigated failure. Williams views them as the unsung grassroots participants in the struggle for civil and human rights.

As part of the New Deal policies of the 1930s, public housing was built to replace dilapidated "slum" housing that was essentially the only type of dwelling available to poor families in urban areas. For the recipient families, public housing offered an opportunity for respectable living conditions. The Baltimore public housing projects initially were divided almost equally between white and black families – but they were segregated. As federal policies including the GI Bill and loans from government agencies such as FHA enabled white families to move to the suburbs in the decades after World War II, the face of public housing changed from that of white and black families to one of black female-headed households. The result, when coupled with the cities' disinterest in maintaining decent conditions in public housing, was discrimination, negative stereotypes about people receiving housing assistance, and humiliation.

The women fought back. Prof. Williams noted that the women's activism revolved around basic issues of consumption such as access to decent food and housing. They challenged the daily indignities of social neglect by organizing and serving on housing advisory boards, tenant associations and community organizations. The density of the projects enabled quick transmission of information and rapid political action: in a few hours, project residents could organize demonstrations at City Hall.

Today, according to Barbara Samuels, one out of seven Baltimore residents lives in public housing. Samuels, Managing Attorney for the ACLU-Maryland's Fair Housing Project and the lead lawyer on a successful suit to desegregate Baltimore City public housing, said that public housing was not a failure but that segregated public housing most certainly was. Separating people by both race and class, segregated public housing minimized the possibility of upward mobility for African-American residents. Baltimore essentially struck a deal, she commented. It would create public housing as long as it was segregated. It situated public housing in deteriorating black neighborhoods and located urban renewal projects elsewhere, thereby bolstering segregation. Inner city public housing locations prevented residents from following jobs to the suburbs. Slum clearance in turn tore down more housing units than were replaced by public housing. It destroyed black communities, ripping apart the social fabric and cordoning off the poorest African-American women.

Prof. Woods, who has worked on urban planning projects in Baltimore, included the black middle class in the many groups of people – corrupt Baltimore politicians among them – he considers responsible for withholding their support from decent public housing. Too many American cities are no longer refuges for the poor, he asserted, but fortresses of wealth. This reflects a transition point for the country. Public housing was the physical evidence of the welfare state, and support for the welfare state has declined as the federal government has loosened its ties to labor and tightened those to suburban voters. Prof. Williams' work, he commented, will serve as an important model for new poverty studies, which seek to negate the influence of the underclass studies that have demonized black communities. Had such studies been available earlier, he commented, there might not have been such an absence of a public outcry when public housing began to be demolished.

Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129