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Mapping Inequality: Exploring Personal History in Redline Maps and the 1940 Census

The Detroit Eight Mile Wall is a one-foot-thick , six-foot-high  separation wall that stretches about 12 mile. It was constructed in 1941 to physically separate Black and white homeowners on the sole basis of race. The wall no longer serves to racially segregate homeowners and, as of 1971, both sides of the barrier have been predominately Black. Photo by John Vachon / Library of Congress

This is repost of a lesson I did in my social studies methods class at University of Portland. In all my years teaching I have never had students contact me unsolicited to tell me how much they were enjoying a homework assignment. I had 3 such emails with a few days of giving this assignment. For example…

Hi Professor Pappas,
Wow, I think I started working on my post before noon today and just published it.  Totally went down a rabbit hole for at least three hours but that was SO COOL!  I won’t bore you with the details here because it can all be found in my post, but that was probably the most interesting assignment I’ve ever done. Have a good weekend

This lesson explored the largely forgotten government policies that segregated nearly every major American city and metro area. We also looked at how those unconstitutional actions fostered inequality in America since their enactment in the 1930s.

In preparation for this class, students watched the video Segregated by Design.

class session – via Zoom

Class opened with the brief film Housing Segregation and Redlining in America: A Short History. This will next work in groups exploring the disparities in segregated neighborhoods. I then put students into breakout groups and using a Jamboard I asked them to mind map the legacy of redlined neighborhoods based on what they had seen in the two introductory videos. In breakout groups they brainstormed and developed visual comparisons that explored multiple factors such as – income, wealth, health, schools, policing, services, employment, environment.

Next I introduced the tools they would use for the lesson – digitized version of  1940 US Census and the website Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America . Mapping Inequality allows the user to explore the “redline” maps created by agents of the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) between 1935 and 1940. The maps are displayed over contemporary maps that makes it easy to view where redline districts are today,

HOLC Map of Portland Or

Next I took them to the the 1940 US Census and showed them how to look up street addresses and navigate to specific neighborhoods. I shared census pages from some Portland neighborhoods.

A sample “Best” and “Hazardous”

How to search in Census of 1940

Note: it helps to refer to Blank 1940 Census form showing categories

You will “search by location where the person lived.” Begin by narrow search by state, county, city, street. 

After you click search, you have the option to add a cross street. 

It will take you to multipage document that may not exactly zero in on the intersection you wanted. You may need to scroll through some pages to get to that location. You can find the streets and house numbers on far left. (Street written vertically) 

The assignment

I wanted the student to draw a personal connection between the HOLC categories (best, still desirable, definitely declining and hazardous) and the data from the 1940 census. To demonstrate, I shared my mother’s family entry from 1940 census then showed how my grandparents and family were living in a HOLC designated “Definitely Declining” neighborhood. I shared some family photos of the house and neighborhood. Then we looked at the family home value in 1940 and shared how the neighborhood had steadily declined to the point that the home today is currently valued at less than one-half of the inflation-adjusted value listed in the 1940 census.

I knew that not all students would be able to find a family listing in the census nor might they ever have lived in a city mapped by HOLC. So I left the final product very open ended and invited them to make connections that worked for them.

Sample student work

A number of students were able to find family members on the census and family home in the HOLC maps

A few students focused on the history of homes they lived in.

Some students looked how the HOLC influenced residential options for immigrant groups

One student explored the neighborhoods around University of Portland

And another looked the HOLC ratings of neighborhoods that were home to some notable rappers.

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