Border City Blues

Border City Blues

It is no coincidence that the starkest reactions to police violence—from Ferguson to Baltimore—have flared in cities strung along the Mason-Dixon Line.

Peaceful protests continue Tuesday in Baltimore after Monday's riots (Arash Azizzada / Flickr)

As episodes of police violence and community response continue to accumulate, it is important to note their geography and their history. It is no coincidence that the starkest confrontations—from Ferguson last August to Baltimore this week—have flared in urban settings strung along the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed these “border cities” have always been key points of friction in American race relations—as political battlegrounds over slavery in the Civil War era, as borderlands of Jim Crow in the century after that, and as landmarks of the urban crisis in the postindustrial city.

These settings are marked by a few key features and patterns. First, border cities had substantial black populations before the Great Migration that began in the World War I era. St. Louis’s black community numbered 44,000 in 1910, or about 6.5 percent of the city population. Baltimore’s black community was almost twice that size: 85,000, or over 15 percent of the city. Further north (Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee), the black population in 1910 made up only 1 or 2 percent of city totals.

With this demographic pattern came the early conviction among realtors, city planners, and white homeowners that black occupancy was a threat to social order and property values. It was for this reason that southern and border cities pressed ahead with racial zoning ordinances, restricting black occupancy to the blocks in which they were already established, early in the century: Baltimore (1911), Richmond (1911), Winston-Salem (1912), Atlanta (1913), Louisville (1914), St. Louis (1916). Such naked violations of equal protection were struck down by the Supreme Court in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917, but their motives and impact lived on in other legal restrictions (such as race-restrictive deed covenants), in the ethics and practice of private realty, and in public policies (especially local zoning and federal mortgage subsidies).

The net effect was that segregation in these border settings hardened dramatically over time. Our best summary historical measure of racial segregation in American cities is the “dissimilarity index,” which measures how evenly blacks and whites are distributed across the wards or census tracts that make up a city. The dissimilarity index runs from 0–100, with higher values indicating higher degrees of segregation. Most northern settings began the last century (1900) with already moderate levels of segregation (55 in Boston, 58 in Chicago, 61 in Cleveland, 61 in Detroit) which then rose steadily over time. In border settings, segregation was modest in 1900 (29 in Louisville, 37 in Baltimore, 41 in St. Louis) but then shot up. By 1950, Baltimore (at 80) and St. Louis (at 85) were among the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. And they stayed that way even as the civil rights movement erased most of the formal mechanisms of segregation. As of 2010, St. Louis (72) and Baltimore (66) are still deeply segregated.  They are no longer exceptional in this respect, but their path to segregation was: efforts to sort the local population by race in St. Louis and Baltimore began earlier, they were more systematic, and they live on in starker forms.

Border cities, in this respect, have always betrayed a potent combination of regional and historical characteristics. Race relations in these settings are essentially southern, rooted in the institutions and ideology of Jim Crow segregation. But their organization of property—reflected in private realty and in public policy—follows a northern pattern in which the institutions and mechanisms of local segregation are particularly stark.

None of this explains the death of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray. But it does help explain why those deaths meant so much to the citizens of Ferguson and Baltimore, and provoked such dramatic responses.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. His books include Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.