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  • Getting the American Dream for Themselves:Postwar Modern Subdivisions for African Americans in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Margaret Ruth Little (bio)

A collection of mid-century modern housing hides in plain sight in Raleigh's postwar African American suburbs behind the still-existent color line. Few white residents are aware of these black neighborhoods. African Americans who had fought in World War II and entered the middle class in such professions as education, medicine, pharmacy, and the building trades created a separate existence for themselves in segregated east and south Raleigh. The custom ranch and split levels built for these upwardly mobile black families represent a startling divergence of architectural taste between middle-class whites and blacks in the small conservative southern city. Blacks looked toward a brighter future and chose clean modern forms; whites preferred expressions of the Colonial Revival style that harkened to an era of white dominance.

Urban historians who have tracked the movement of African Americans to the suburbs in tandem with whites in the post-World War II era have focused on the sociology of black suburban migration rather than the physical appearance of housing. This literature offers little architectural analysis, thereby implying that the suburban houses of blacks and whites are generally identical. Andrew Wiese's seminal study Places of Their Own does not distinguish between the architectural appearance of houses in white and black suburbs but does find a different pattern of black suburbanization in the South. African Americans' escape from most Northern and Midwestern inner cities occurred through expansion into older existing white neighborhoods, resulting in a contentious struggle between white suburban officials, realtors and developers, and upwardly mobile blacks. In the urban South, black and white civic leaders often collaborated to solve the postwar housing crisis, thus African American communities grew largely through construction of new developments on the edges of existing black neighborhoods. "Separate but equal" had been the modus operandi in the South since the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision set in place the doctrine of racial segregation and created the so-called Jim Crow era that lasted until the 1960s. Whites wanted to avoid turmoil and to maintain segregation. Southern middle-class blacks, like their counterparts elsewhere, wanted to express their newly won status through a physical separation from poor and working-class blacks. Most of them preferred new houses in strong black suburbs, equal in quality to those of whites, rather than the fear and isolation of attempting to integrate a white neighborhood.1

Segregation in North Carolina resembled that in the rest of the South, although the state enjoyed an atmosphere more enlightened than most others in the region during the term of progressive governor Terry Sanford in the early 1960s and within pockets of liberalism, as in Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. North Carolina's larger cities— Greensboro, Durham, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Fayetteville experienced significant civil rights struggles in the early sixties.2 Segments of the black population participated in the nonviolent civil disobedience movement that began with the lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960, at the Woolworth store in [End Page 73] Greensboro. Sit-ins, picket lines, and freedom rides spread to cities across the state during 1960 and 1961, and by 1963 some eating facilities and movie theaters had been integrated. The federal Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, which proscribed discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and voting, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which forbade discrimination in housing purchase and rental, expanded African American opportunities in both the public and private spheres.3

Raleigh occupied a special status in North Carolina as a black educational center nicknamed "Culture Town" by African Americans for its wealth of opportunities.4 Shaw University and St. Augustine's College, established at the end of the Civil War, were twin pillars of strong African American neighborhoods with black public and private elementary and secondary schools. A segregated black business district thrived on East Hargett Street at the east edge of downtown. A strong local civil rights movement flourished in the city. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), whose seal shows a black hand shaking a white hand, was...


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