Color Line Quotes in Arc of Justice
In the early 1920s, sophisticates scrambled to grab a share of the black life that southern migration was bringing into the cities. White producers mounted all-black musicals. White couples fumbled with the Charleston. And white patrons poured into Chicago’s South Side jazz joints and Harlem’s nightclubs. If they were lucky, they squeezed into the Vendome, where Louis Armstrong held the floor, or Edmund’s Cellar, where Ethel Waters sang the blues. The frenzy was shot through with condescension. White slummers thought black life exciting because it was “primitive” and vital. Visiting the ghetto’s haunts became the era’s way to snub mainstream society, to be in the avant-garde.
No matter how many advantages families along Garland Avenue enjoyed, though, it was always a struggle to hold on. Housing prices had spiraled upward so fearfully the only way a lot of folks could buy a flat or a house was to take on a crippling burden of debt. The massive weight of double mortgages or usurious land contracts threatened to crack family budgets. Men feared the unexpected assault on incomes that at their best barely covered monthly payments […] And now they faced this terrible turn of events: Negroes were moving onto the street, breaking into white man’s territory. News of their arrival meant so many things. A man felt his pride knotted and twisted. Parents feared for the safety of their daughters […] And everyone knew that when the color line was breached, housing values would collapse, spinning downward until Garland Avenue was swallowed into the ghetto and everything was lost.
He’d recount it with frightening specificity: the smell of kerosene, Rochelle’s screams as he was engulfed in flames, the crowd’s picking off pieces of charred flesh to take home as souvenirs. Maybe, just maybe, he did see it all. The bridge was a short walk from his home. He could have been outside—coming back from his father’s fields—when the mob drove Rochelle through East Bartow. But he was only five years old in the summer of 1901. And it seems unlikely that Dora would have let him outside anytime that day. More likely, the horrific events imprinted themselves so deeply on Ossian’s mind that he convinced himself that he had been there. Either way, the effect was the same. The image of the conflagration—the heart-pounding fear of it—had been seared into his memory.
But it was mounting discrimination in the real estate market that increasingly sealed Negroes into Black Bottom. Since the early 1910s, white real estate agents and landlords in Chicago and New York had refused to so much as show Negroes homes in white neighborhoods, saying that the presence of colored people depressed property values. In the course of the Great War, these practices spread to Detroit. Not every real estate agent or landlord signed on: if colored folks were willing to pay a premium for a piece of property in a white part of town, some real estate men were happy to oblige them. But to defy the new racial conventions took more courage—or more avarice—than many real estate agents and landlords had. So discriminatory practices passed from office to office, property to property, and racial hatred gradually turned into common business practice, the way things were done.
While Du Bois pledged that Negroes would return from Europe ready to fight for equal rights, socialists A. Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen preached the power of armed resistance. “We are…urging Negroes and other oppressed groups confronted with lynching and mob violence to act upon the recognized and accepted law of self-defense,” the pair wrote during the bloody summer of 1919. “Always regard your own life as more important than the life of the person about to take yours, and if a choice has to be made between the sacrifice of your life and the loss of the lyncher’s life, chose to preserve your own and to destroy that of the lynching mob.”
Then, a woman who lived across the street from Bristol’s house mounted her porch and launched into a harangue. “If you call yourselves men and are afraid to get those niggers out,” she screamed, “we women will move them, you cowards!” That was it. Almost instantaneously the mob began stoning the house. Someone approached the police to ask if they would step aside for five minutes; it wouldn’t take any longer to drive the coloreds away. When the inspector refused to move his men, the mob stoned them too.
But it was nothing more than a façade, as inside the police headquarters, corruption was rampant, and every Negro in the city knew that justice received here would be tempered at best, lethal at worst. Colored people raised in Alabama, Mississippi, or Florida hardly expected justice to be blind, but still they despised the blinding prejudice that seemed to consume Detroit’s cops. Colored men were two and a half times more likely to be arrested than whites, colored women almost seven times as likely as their Caucasian counterparts. Once they were in custody, Negroes routinely were held for days without being formally charged and often were denied access to lawyers—sometimes suspects were moved from precinct to precinct so they couldn’t be found, then were threatened and even beaten until they confessed.
All summer long, the Invisible Empire had been trying to “induce Negroes to go into districts populated entirely by persons who would … resent such an invasion,” hoping that […] Detroit would be consumed by racial violence so severe the city government would topple […] Of course, Negroes had a legal right to live wherever they wished. But, insisted Smith, “it does not always do for any man to demand to its fullest the right which the law gives him. Sometimes by doing so he works irremediable harm to himself and his fellows.” In fact, segregation was a social good, and those who dared to challenge it an enemy to their people and their city […] “I shall go further. I believe that any colored person who endangers life and property, simply to gratify his personal pride, is an enemy of his race as well as an incitant of riot and murder.”
The Klan was in the ascendancy; the Negroes’ white allies on the bench had deserted them; the mayor they had helped to elect had endorsed injustice and declared the pursuit of civil rights a threat to peace and liberal democracy. No longer was this simply a question of whether the Sweets were justified in firing into the mob on Garland Avenue. Now the Talented Tenth was locked in combat against segregation itself, battling to preserve some shred of the promise that brought almost a million people out of the South in the previous ten years, to show that the North was different, to prove that there were places in America where Jim Crow would not be allowed to rule. This had become a fight over fundamentals.
With its fight against restrictive covenants, though, the NAACP believed it had a way to show its erstwhile allies that in the era of the KKK they were not assured of being on the safe side of the color line. Already the NAACP had reports of builders barring Jews from new housing developments. And there was every reason to believe that Anglo-Saxons would soon extend such prohibitions to Catholics and immigrants as well. Every opportunity they had, association officials hammered the message home. Agreements that denied blacks access to the homes of their choice were “the entering wedge of the Ku Klux Klan program of elimination.”
Not once in the many appearances that the newspapers reported did Smith defend the right of colored families to live wherever they pleased, as he had done during the July disturbances; not once did he criticize banks, insurance companies, builders, and real estate agents for hemming Negroes into Black Bottom, nor did he condemn mobs for assaulting those few who managed to break through its boundaries; not once did he talk about the Sweets, although the story was white-hot as the mayoral campaign was coming to a climax. It was a political silence, given white Detroit’s hostility to Negroes crossing the neighborhood color line, a simple act of omission—and an unrepentant sin of commission in the ongoing construction of a segregated city.
But his message was soothingly soft. He wouldn’t demand that the walls of segregation be brought down, that whites welcome blacks into their neighborhoods, or that they acknowledge Negroes as the brothers they were. Like Johnny Smith before him, he asked for nothing more than tolerance. “I ask you gentlemen in behalf of my clients,” he boomed, “I ask you more than anything else, I ask you in behalf of justice, often maligned and down-trodden, hard to protect and hard to maintain, I ask you in behalf of yourselves, in behalf of our race, to see that no harm comes to them. I ask you gentlemen in the name of the future, the future which will one day solve these sore problems, and the future which is theirs as well as ours, I ask you in the name of the future to do justice in this case.”