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A Turning Point: The historical impact of redlining on communities today

Decades ago in some Cleveland neighborhoods, there were illegal lines drawn to do one thing: Keep certain people from crossing them.

CLEVELAND — Decades ago in some Cleveland neighborhoods, there were illegal lines drawn to do one thing: Keep certain people from crossing them. They were not painted on Cleveland pavement, but red-inked on some city maps.

It was called "redlining," designed to foster racial segregation and discrimination in housing.

"It made it more difficult for Black people to get financing on favorable terms and it limited where they're able to buy," Georgia Tech History Professor Todd Michney explained.

Michney studies redlining and how, beginning in the 1930s, a federal agency called the Home Owners' Loan Corporation created color-coded maps of hundreds of American cities, including Cleveland. Maps were coded as to a neighborhood's desirability as well as the government's emphasis as to what race of people it thought should live there.

Specifically, HOLC pushed real estate agents to keep people of color out of Cleveland neighborhoods painted red. 

"The federal government during the 1930s used this custom and encouraged it," Michney said, "and helped to spread that practice to local lending institutions."

Cleveland civil rights attorney Avery Friedman, who has long fought for fair housing, says redlining was designed to promote white supremacy.

"To make sure that certain people, because of race and other factors of which we have no control, could not move into better neighborhoods," Friedman told us.

In many areas, redlining existed from the 1930s well into the '60s, a time of a rapidly growing Black Cleveland population spurred by the Great Migration of Blacks from the segregated South. In 25 years alone, Cleveland’s Black residents grew from 35,000 to 147,000.

Still, the numbers increased beyond that. Mostly residing in what is now the Cedar-Central neighborhood, Blacks pushed to find housing in redlined areas, or in neighborhoods which actually had race restrictions built in individual property deeds. 

"Deeds that said, 'This house cannot be sold to black people,'" Michney said, "and sometimes it said 'to Jews,' sometimes it said 'Chinese people.'"

In his book "Surrogate Suburbs," Michney chronicles how the first crack into the redlining wall came as Black World War II servicemembers returned to Cleveland from overseas, where they fought for freedoms they did not have at home.

"That gave kind of a boost to Black soldiers," he explained, "themselves coming back expecting more rights and better treatment."

The battle against redlining was slow. However, the fight for fair housing came in the wake of an assassination. Friedman remembers how a 1968 Fair Housing Bill was deadlocked in Congress with no chance of passing, that is, until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the nationwide rioting which followed.

"Legislation dealing with redlining — which had been bottled up in committee — rocketed through both houses of Congress, was hand-carried [to the White House] and signed by the president, Lyndon Johnson, on the 11th of April, one week after the murder," Friedman recalled.

For 55 years,fair housing has been the law offering protections for all people renting or buying homes, getting mortgages, or seeking housing assistance. The law is a protection against racial, color, national origin, religious, sex, familial status, or disability discrimination.

The red lines of discrimination now live only on historical maps.

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