When White Christians Saw Black Displacement as ‘Urban Renewal’ | Sojourners

When White Christians Saw Black Displacement as ‘Urban Renewal’

The exterior of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo: Jon Bilous / Alamy

If you walked up to First Baptist Church of Charlotte in North Carolina today, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything unusual about the space. Like many suburban churches in the U.S., it has sprawling grounds, acres of parking, and a fitness center. But what’s interesting about First Baptist is that it’s not in suburbs; its large campus is downtown, in the middle of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

I’ve spent the past six years studying churches and urban renewal, a mid-20th century movement in the U.S. intended, according to President Harry S. Truman, to provide “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family,” but which many activists now see as the foundation of our contemporary housing crisis. As part of my research, I’ve studied how Christians — especially white Christians — participated in the remaking of American cities. It’s not a history we often tell, but buildings like First Baptist are hiding in plain sight, monuments to a time when white churches allied themselves with forces that displaced communities of color and redistributed their lands. The legacy of that time remains present today. It continues to influence how neighborhoods develop and redevelop and who profits and who suffers as a result of our political and theological legacies.

Urban renewal happened here

Directly across the street from First Baptist is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, the seat of local government. But aside from a handful of municipal buildings and a park that is often empty, the space is notable for what is absent — local businesses, houses, and neighborhoods — rather than for what is present. The overly sanitized feel bears all the signs of a painful past: Urban renewal happened here.

As a federal policy, urban renewal began with the Housing Act of 1949, which included a program described as “slum clearance” through which cities could use significant federal funding identify areas they deemed dilapidated to be razed and then redistribute the land for new public and private developments. According to research by Mindy Thompson Fullilove, a sociologist who studies cities, the act displaced one million people in 992 cities between 1949 and 1973; two-thirds of those people were Black. The University of Richmond’s Renewing Inequality site visualizes much of this federal data so users can see what projects were conducted in their own area — and who was most impacted.

This is what happened in Charlotte: Before First Baptist and a new government center were built, there were lively sidewalks connecting more than 1000 families to hundreds of businesses and more than two dozen churches. There were multiple schools and grocery stores and theaters and funeral homes. Residents called the neighborhood “Brooklyn.” It was a Black neighborhood that was simultaneously the site of flourishing and deep struggle. Brooklyn was under siege by Jim Crow. Newspapers and public records from the time indicate that more than 90 percent of properties were owned by white landlords outside the neighborhood, who took advantage of the segregated housing market to make high rates of return on properties they did not adequately maintain. And yet, the work and prayer of its residents filled Brooklyn with color and creativity. The neighborhood thrived thanks to their brilliance, determination, and resistance, which is to say their love. Brooklyn resident Rose Leary Love wrote in her memoir that there were many neighbors who through “great and enduring sacrifices and constant personal struggle” worked with God to “make a way out of no way.”

With the help of state and federal funding, the city of Charlotte began erasing Brooklyn in late 1961. From 1961-1970, they destroyed 213 acres, leaving only four buildings standing. Though more than 1400 homes were destroyed, no new residential units were built in their place. The city then built new municipal buildings and tried to auction the remainder of the land off to white people and institutions, to no avail; white flight flight was draining the city in favor of the new suburbs. With the exception of First Baptist, no one else who could afford the land was interested. When I walk through the area today, 60 years later, dozens of former Brooklyn acres remain vacant, used only a surface-level parking.

‘They don’t believe they have any place here’

Most of white Charlotte saw little problem with urban renewal as it was happening. Even now, that opinion still holds among many people. One current First Baptist member explained to me that those who executed the projects here were merely doing what they were assigned to do. They were following the law. No guilt could be imputed. In their public statements, local policy makers in 1960s and ’70s Charlotte spoke of the projects as charitable. They would not listen to local Black leadership like NAACP chair Kelly Alexander. Nor did they hear national voices like writer and activist James Baldwin.

In 1963, Baldwin went to San Francisco’s Western Addition district to interview people facing an urban renewal project just like the one in Charlotte’s Brooklyn. In an interview, Baldwin recalled one 16-year-old Black youth saying to him, “I got no country. I got no flag.” In response, Baldwin could only listen. “I couldn’t say ‘you do.’ I don’t have any evidence that he does,” he recalled.

Raging at the country’s cruelty against places like the Western Addition, Baldwin continued: “We’re talking about human beings here. There is no such thing as a monolithic wall or some abstraction called a ‘Negro problem.’ These are boys and girls, they are 16 and 17 years old. They don’t believe this country means anything it says. They don’t believe they have any place here.”

I read Baldwin’s use of place literally as well as figuratively. It was not only that those Black youth and their families lacked social or political status, but that their own government was actively tearing down their houses and churches and sidewalks, the material spaces where they lived and breathed.

Baldwin recognized what white people had not: Black neighborhoods had long been under siege and were being destroyed by the very governments that they paid taxes to and fought wars for. Their tormentors were their fellow citizens, often liberal ones who supported the struggle for political equality while, at the same time, planning urban renewal projects and driving bulldozers into their homes.

White supremacy has always been about space and its conquest, about the alchemy of turning certain people and their places into money. Scholars like Thompson Fullilove have documented the horrific, lasting effects of urban renewal projects on communities of color. But what I’ve rarely heard white Christians talk about is what came after “redevelopment” bulldozed historically Black neighborhoods: the redistribution of land to the highest bidder. And the highest bidder was often a white institution, sometimes even a church. For example, in the Western Addition district that Baldwin visited, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church offered little resistance to the renewal project but increased their footprint in its aftermath. When San Francisco finished the destruction, which spared the church’s buildings, St. Mark’s presented a proposal to take over an adjacent half-block. Their new land went to rent-controlled housing for seniors, and a community and cultural center. Those are charitable operations, but charity does not make up for injustice.

Back in Charlotte, all of the city council members and the redevelopment commissioners who held power were white. And while doing research for my forthcoming book, Our Trespasses: White Churches and the Taking of American Neighborhoods , I learned something else about them: They were all Christians. Most of them were deacons, elders, or Sunday school teachers. A few key advocates were ministers.

In their sanctuaries, they did the things that Christians do. They sang hymns. They read scripture. They listened to sermons. They prayed for forgiveness and received assurance that their sins would be pardoned. They did those things on Sundays, and then Monday through Saturday they kept the bulldozers running and the federal money flowing.

In 1963 Baldwin published The Fire Next Time. Across the county, urban renewal was at its height in large and medium cities, including Charlotte. The echoes of the earth movers and wrecking balls and those who wielded them come through plainly in Baldwin’s denouncement: “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

What I read in Baldwin’s words of prophetic judgment is not that those city council members and redevelopment commissioners acted outside the bounds of their faith; rather, I think about how their lives were one terrifying, consistent whole. From Sunday morning to Tuesday afternoon to Friday night, from the pew to the seat of the bulldozer, they lived in a world that assumed their domination over land and space and material resources as a theological and political given. There was no conflict between Christian faith and the displacement of their neighbors. That legacy continues to have consequence in our lives today. The history of urban renewal is not behind us. Politically, theologically, and geographically, it continues to constitute the present in our streets and our sanctuaries.