Suburbanizing Jim Crow: The Impact of School Policy on Residential Segregation
Karen Benjamin

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Saint Xavier University

Primary Discipline

History of Education
An extensive literature documents the historical process of suburbanization, residential segregation, and the popularity of restrictive covenants in the early twentieth century. Yet, the importance of local school policy in facilitating and driving that process remains a neglected area of research. Over the last century, school policy and housing markets shaped each other so extensively that a line cannot be drawn between them. This argument is particularly relevant for southern cities during the period of rapid urbanization between World War I and the Great Depression. During the school construction boom of the 1920s, southern school boards manipulated school site selection to create residential segregation in cities with previously integrated housing patterns. According to municipal documents, school board minutes, and local newspapers, board members in Houston, Raleigh, Atlanta, and Little Rock placed the newest and most expensive white schools in outlying suburbs with racially restrictive covenants. Meanwhile, they placed black schools in older neighborhoods rather than the newer suburban developments popular with the black middle class. Since schools helped determine where people lived, these policies helped pull white residents from integrated areas to all-white suburbs and cement black residents in deteriorating neighborhoods. As a result, previously vibrant, integrated spaces became politically isolated and economically depressed ghettos. Moreover, board members selected many of these sites over the ardent protests of both black and white residents, belying the myth that “de facto” segregation was at play. Neither the process of school site selection nor the outcomes of residential segregation reflected democracy.
About Karen Benjamin

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