When Yvonne Johnson was a young girl in east Greensboro, it was in many ways a different world. She split time between her parents’ house on Beech Street, about a block from N.C. A&T, and her aunt’s place on Market Street, where there were rows of corn on one side and faculty housing on the other.
She didn’t know then that she would one day become the first Black mayor of Greensboro. But she had a strong sense of the community that was already setting her on that path.
Johnson, now 79, remembers enduring racism and living under segregation as a child. But she also remembers a vibrant network of Black neighborhoods and Black-owned businesses around what is now the nation’s largest historically Black university.
Bakeries, pharmacies, restaurants, clothing stores and repair shops — all owned and operated by Black people who supported one other. The racism that kept them segregated was an insult, but the community spirit that kept them thriving was a source of pride.
What Johnson didn’t fully realize then was the struggle that went into opening businesses and purchasing homes — and that the tight-knit community existed out of necessity.
Johnson talked about that struggle last week at a panel discussion at Dudley High School in Greensboro.
“I found out later that a lot of these businesses borrowed money from other Black people to open, not necessarily from the banks, which would not loan them the money,” Johnson said.
It was a system that would come to be known as “redlining” — named for the red lines on maps used by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and Federal Home Loan Bank Board to designate Black neighborhoods where they would not loan money or invest.
“We understood that in the 1930s laws were passed to create and build a middle class — to allow people to accumulate wealth and pass it on from generation to generation,” said Carlos Grooms, university library technician at N.C. A&T and an organizer of the current conversation series on redlining. “But because of the practices of redlining, it excluded our communities.”
Redlining worked hand-in-hand with more overt, official federal and state forms of discrimination and white supremacist terrorism to keep Black people in their supposed place — geographically, economically and psychologically.
“Segregation was rampant,” Johnson said. “Sitting in the back of the bus, colored water fountains and waiting rooms were there when I was a kid. So we knew that if we wandered off in other places we were in danger. And as we progressed economically and some of us wanted to live in other places, crosses were burned by the Ku Klux Klan and threats were made to our lives.”
The practice of redlining continued well after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which aimed to end it. Though less official, it is, in many ways, still happening today. Its legacy has been long-lasting, largely blocking Black communities from the traditional routes to middle-class stability and advancement for generations and contributing to economic and health disparities in Black communities to this day.
Still, the breadth and impact of redlining is as poorly understood by many today as it was by Johnson as a child in the east Greensboro of the 1940s and ’50s.
The ongoing public conversation series, “The History of Redlining in East Greensboro: Conversations About Our City’s Past and Present,” is working to change that.
A heartfelt conversation
The redlining conversation series is a collaboration between N.C. A&T’s Bluford Library, Dudley High School, Greensboro Bound and the Greensboro Public Library. It’s supported by a grant from the organization, NC Humanities.
But it began as a series of far less formal conversations at A&T.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Grooms, the university library technician, began a regular virtual coffee break program. Employees would socialize with the colleagues they used to see in person every day. There was only one rule: no talking about work.
There was plenty outside of work on everyone’s mind.
“Unfortunately, we experienced tragedies during that time,” Grooms said. “We saw the murder of George Floyd on television. It made us think about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. It took us into a deeper conversation about systemic racism. And one day we had a very heartfelt discussion about redlining.”
Discussions about systemic racism and historical injustices like redlining have become a third rail in American education, from the K-12 level to college classrooms. Conservative activists and Republican lawmakers have dismissed such discussions as themselves racist historical revisionism and politically driven indoctrination designed to make white students feel guilty.
As bills are filed around the country to prevent and police the teaching of history and literature dealing with racism and Black experiences, those involved in the redlining conversation series say it’s that much more necessary.
“We have to acknowledge, teach and fully discuss our past in order to know where we are today, why we are here and where we go from here,” said the Rev. Bradley Hunt, president of the Greensboro branch of the NAACP and a participant in last week’s panel discussion at Dudley High School.
Redlining is such an uncomfortable discussion because it forces people to look at undeniable, systemic racism within living memory and reckon with its repercussions, Hunt said. To some, slavery might seem like an injustice depicted in history books, Hunt said, but redlining happened to the parents and grandparents of people living today — and it’s still happening in many communities.
“In this city, in our state and our country there are so many things that we have always known about in our community,” Hunt said. “But there was always this secrecy.”
“Redlining is an example of an intentional effort by state, federal and local government rooted in systematic racism,” Hunt said. “It’s important that we have the discussions that we’re having in this whole series so that we can talk in an honest way about what happened and the effects it has continued to have. Because as I’ve said, when you look at everything from Lost Cause ideology to book banning and book burning, which we’re seeing today, history repeats itself. We have a historical literacy problem, an information literacy problem.”
The problem isn’t just historical, said Dr. Padonda Webb, executive director of the Student Health Center at N.C. A&T.
Webb joined Johnson and Hunt on the panel last week at Dudley High School to share how redlining has had ongoing generational health effects on Black communities. Food deserts still exist in previously redlined neighborhoods, areas where Black people are still suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of resources and investment in redlined areas is still very much with us, Webb said.
Webb likened the difficult conversations around systemic racism and its various impacts to having conversations with older relatives about various health exams.
“It’s awkward, but it’s very, very necessary,” she said.
“We’ve always had these conversations”
At UNC System schools, conservative governance has made conversations around race and history harder to have in recent years.
From the political fight over UNC-Chapel Hill’s failed attempt to hire Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to UNC Law Professor Eric Muller losing an appointment after sharing his legal views on the Silent Sam Confederate monument controversy, faculty across the system say it’s clear academic freedom is threatened.
That’s exactly why HBCUs need to continue their tradition of discussion and activism on issues of race and history, said Dr. Jelani Favors.
Last summer, Favors returned to his alma mater, N.C. A&T, as the Henry E. Frye Distinguished Professor in the Department of History and Political Science. But before that, he authored the award-winning book “Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism.”
The book examines the ways in which HBCUs like A&T have always been incubators of activism and social change, something Favors calls a “second curriculum” beyond the classroom. From educating national civil rights leaders, attorneys and legislators who beat back racist laws and policies to fostering activists like the A&T Four who sparked the national sit-in movement, Favors said HBCUs have always been at the forefront of difficult social conversations.
“We’ve always had these conversations on the issues that white America has never wanted to confront,” Favors said.
“Yes we’re dealing with STEM and we’re talking about business but the energy within these institutions has always provided space to have conversations around race,” Favors said.
On May 21, Nikole Hannah-Jones will return to North Carolina for a conversation with Favors at N.C. A&T, as part of the series on redlining. They’ll talk about her work on “The 1619 Project” and her long history of reporting on inequality in housing and public education. But Favors also plans to talk with her about her tenure fight at UNC-Chapel Hill and ultimate decision to instead accept a position with Howard University.
“I think it would be irresponsible to have Nikole Hannah-Jones with us at A&T and not talk about that,” Favors said.
Opponents of Hannah-Jones’s hire at UNC-Chapel Hill, including mega-donor Walter Hussman, cited her writing on the issue of reparations for slavery. That’s an issue primarily white institutions have seen as dangerously radical territory for generations, Favors said. But it’s been an ongoing discussion at HBCUs from their inception.
“It was clear from the outset that HBCUs were going to be the seed beds of activism — to call for the end of slavery, the 14th and 15th Amendments,” he said. “That die was cast from the very beginning.”
Favors said since arriving at A&T he has had other schools reach out to him to be part of conversations around issues like reparations that they don’t believe they can have themselves.
“I think it’s a sad commentary but also a sobering commentary that we have not been able to have these same conversations within PWIs [primarily white institutions] and PWIs have in fact perpetuated white supremacy,” Favors said. “But it’s great to see A&T bustling with activity around these issues. Aggies are happy to be on the forefront of that.”
More information on the redlining conversation series, including dates and times for events through May, is available here. N.C. Policy Watch will continue to cover these events.