A Movement Without Marches: Black Women in Public Housing

Starting in the 1920s and increasing exponentially in the 1930s, and onwards, the urban landscape of New Orleans, like many urban municipalities across the country, began to change as a result of a series of racially restrictive covenants and zoning ordinances, New Deal housing policies, local government blight and slum clearance initiatives, and real estate and banking practices. These changes took root with the passage of several federal and state acts, key among them was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Act of 1933, the National Housing Act of 1934 that established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and the Housing Act of 1937, also known as the Wagner-Steagall Bill, which created the United States Housing Authority. The formation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) established by Congress to refinanced mortgages in default to prevent foreclosures, and HOLC’s subsequent color-coded Residential Security Maps, or redlining maps, to measure real estate risk assessment of neighborhoods based on the racial demographics set up a discriminatory practice of urban divestment and exclusion. Outlined in the lending protocols of the FHA’s Underwriting Handbook, the practice of redlining institutionalized racial residential segregation, discriminatory housing practices in mortgage lending, and divestment in urban communities. The establishment of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) by the Louisiana Housing Act of 1936 coupled with the passage of the federal Housing Act of 1937, charged with coordinating and financing the construction of public housing developments in urban settings, set the stage for the displacement and relocation of low-income Black residents in public housing in the city.

In 1938 New Orleans became the first city in the country to receive federal funding under the Housing Act of 1937, codifying racial residential segregation in public housing and the social positioning of black residents, particularly low-income black women, in the city for decades to come through the public demonization of their subsidy-status and punitive socials policies that justified their mistreatment. For decades, nearly all mortgages underwritten by the FHA supported white families, while private banks frequently discriminated against Black households seeking mortgage assistance in the neighborhoods in which they resided. Slum clearance and urban renewal projects disproportionally uprooted black communities, and the locations chosen for public housing developments both displaced and confined black people to racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. Within its first three years, HANO secured $30 million in federal loan contracts for the construction of public housing, and by the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, the first six public housing developments in the city were completely occupied.

Four developments were reserved for Black occupancy

— the Magnolia (1941) Lafitte (1941), Calliope (1942), St. Bernard (1942) and the two developments for white occupancy — the St. Thomas (1941) and Iberville (1941).

By 1957, HANO was the fourth largest public housing authority in the country managing over 10,000 units or public housing, with Desire (1956) being the biggest development. Low-income black women found it difficult to find places to live in this continually changing housing landscape as racial and gender stereotypes, biases, and fears combined in insidious ways rendering public housing, for many, their only ‘choice.’ Public housing became sites of housing security, contradictions, activism, demonization, violence, community, poverty, and isolation.

Hidden within the history of public and subsidized housing in New Orleans are narratives of black women who engaged in a movement without demonstrations.

Circumscribed by opportunity and discrimination, possibilities and restrictions, affordability and surveillance, low-income black woman organized to improve the lives of public housing residents, transform housing policies, advance tenant rights, encourage resident engagement, support policy changes, and participate in community building efforts through partnerships and collaborations.

With the formal incorporation of The New Orleans Public Housing Tenants, Inc. in 1972, and the establishment of the Community Services Department at HANO in 1974, public housing residents significantly increased involvement in shaping management decision-making affecting their communities.

Through resident councils, the New Orleans Citywide Tenant Council, and interactions with housing officials, black women challenged poor maintenance policies, fought against illegal and unfair evictions, sponsored neighborhood clean-ups, created programs for senior citizens, developed recreational and after school enrichment programs for youth, organized against police brutality, established community centers and resident management corporations, formed non-traditional resident councils, created work opportunities for residents, partnered with local groups establishing child care centers and health clinics, hosted cultural events, advocated for safe and healthy housing conditions, and worked daily to address the impact of economic and housing-related poverty, violence, and substance addiction. Black women challenged dominant stereotypes purported by the media, elected officials, and others that criminalized their poverty, family size and composition, and residential neighborhoods. Resident leaders engaged with and reshaped housing institutions as they fought to improve the living conditions of their families and communities. Unable to actualize rights gained during the Civil Rights Movement, low-income black women in New Orleans, like many of their counterparts in urban cities across the country, developed mechanisms to address the harsh circumstances of the everyday violence of racist and sexist housing policies and the irresponsibility of government actions that accompanied living in public housing. Although limited by their housing options, the biographies, political agency, activism, struggles, triumphs, setbacks, experiences, and advocacy efforts of low-income black women—and the communities that supported them—is often invisible or marginalized in historical narratives of black freedom struggle and women’s liberation movements.

Here we acknowledge some of the women who transformed public housing in New Orleans:

Ursula Spencer, Mildred R. Taylor, Dorothy Allen, Lolita King, Hilda LeBlanc, Viney D. Reynolds, Donna Johnigan, Yvonne Marrero, Augusta Kerry, Barbara Villere, Debra Davis, Kathleen Matthews, Desiree Williams, Cynthia Wiggins, Leah Green, Birgil Green, Dianne Lee, Angela Winfrey, Lillie Clark,

Constant Haynes, Christopher Homes, Karen Johnson, Marla Taylor, Demetria Farve, Barbara Jackson, Fannie McKnight, Helen Lane, Crystal Jones, Barbara Carter, Beverly Magee, Yvonne Miles, Laura Johnson, Irene B. Griffin, Cynthia Doughty, Laura French, Delores Morrel, Sharon Jasper, Theresa Nicholas, Kim Piper, Stephanie Mingo, Kawana Jasper, Julie Andrews, Jessie Brock, and Ollie Pendleton.