A new city advertising campaign spotlights a tried-and-true source of civic pride – Chicago’s history as the birthplace of innovations that changed the world.
It’s an effort to lure travelers to the City of Big Shoulders as a tourism lull caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The spot touts examples of homegrown points of civic pride.
Skyscrapers. House music. Coffeemakers. Zippers. Softball.
Not on the list of Chicago innovations showcased in the glossy three-minute spot? Modern segregation.
The system that first forced Black Chicagoans to live separately from White Chicagoans and then later expanded to exclude Latino Chicagoans remains deeply entrenched, in part because it is a home-grown structure crafted by some of the city’s earliest power brokers who wanted to shape Chicago into a haven for White people through the force of violence supplemented by the weight of the law.
As part of WTTW’s effort, in partnership with South Side Weekly, to document the firsthand costs of segregation in Chicago, this map shows how the city’s population morphed between 1930 and 2020, but did not fundamentally change because of barriers erected by city leaders determined to keep Black Chicagoans, Latino Chicagoans, and White Chicagoans from living, working, and playing in the same neighborhoods.
As the map moves through the decades, it shows how those partitions have proven to be nearly impenetrable, outliving not only the legal justification for tools such as racially restrictive covenants, but also the physical manifestations of the divide chiseled into Chicago’s landscape, such as the demolished public-housing towers.
The system was tested and strained during the Great Migration, which saw tens of thousands of Black people flee racial terror in the South and move to Chicago. It was later exported nationwide after it proved effective and resilient.
The institutional structure of segregation invented and refined in Chicago proved to be “subtler and more durable” rather than an institution that relied on the force of law, writes Carl Nightingale in Segregation: A Global History.
The divide that system created endures today, with Chicago routinely ranking among the most segregated big cities in America when measured by the dissimilarity index, a tool used by sociologists to gauge how evenly distributed demographic groups are throughout a distinct geographic area, such as a city or metro area.
The dissimilarity index for Black residents in the Chicago metropolitan area, which stretches beyond the city limits to include Naperville and Evanston, is 73.8, ranking fifth behind the metro areas of Newark, Milwaukee, New York City, and Detroit, according to a Brown University study of data gathered during the 2020 census.
That index means that approximately 74% of White people would need to move to another neighborhood to make White Chicagoans and Black Chicagoans evenly distributed across the city.
Black residents of Chicago are also among the most isolated of urban dwellers, with an isolation index of 62.8, according to the Brown University study. That means Black residents are most often exposed only to one another, not members of other races or ethnic groups.
Chicago also ranks as one of the most segregated cities for Latino residents, ranking sixth behind the metro areas of Salinas, Newark, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York City, with a dissimilarity index of 55, according to the same study.
Latino Chicagoans are less isolated from members of other races and ethnicities in Chicago than are Black Chicagoans, with an isolation index of 47.8, according to the study.
Asian Chicagoans are the least segregated of Chicago’s three major racial groups, with a dissimilarity index of 40.4. Asian Chicagoans are also much more likely to encounter members of other races and ethnicities, with an isolation index of 20.8, according to the Brown University study.
That reflects, in part, the path many Asian immigrants took to Chicago, which came in the wake of federal laws that prohibited the immigration of Chinese people to the United States. The city’s first Chinatown was centered around Clark and Van Buren streets in 1880, with the community’s central business district moving to the area around Wentworth Avenue and 22nd Street a generation later.
While some Asian immigrants chose to live near those businesses, others chose to live in other parts of the city to avoid becoming a target of violence or hostility – a pattern that can be seen across the city today, as WTTW’s interactive map shows.
Even though more than 65% of Chicago’s population is Black, Latino, or Asian as measured by the 2020 census, efforts to dismantle segregation’s legacy has proven largely ineffective, with its hidden tentacles upholding a system that seems to many Chicagoans immutable. But the bill has come due for Chicago, and the city is paying the price in the form of grinding poverty, heartrending violent crime, and racial strife.
That deep-rooted divide has also been measured in cold, hard cash. A 2017 report by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Urban Institute determined that the divide between White, Black, and Latino Chicagoans cost the city $4.4 billion in lost income and contributed to hundreds of murders, while driving the drop in Chicago’s Black population that began in the 1980s and has only accelerated.
That study analyzed how Chicago fared compared with less segregated cities, measuring income, life expectancy, college completion, and homicides.
Segregation’s Earliest Origins in Chicago
Most historians date the beginning of the modern era of segregation to a 1917 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared explicit racial segregation violated the Constitution. The majority opinion in Buchanan v. Warley invalidated a Louisville law that sought to prevent Black people from buying homes in a coveted part of town as a deprivation of liberty and property without due process of law.
“While Buchanan clearly did not lead to a general rollback of de jure segregation, the decision inhibited state and local governments from passing more pervasive and brutal segregation laws,” according to David E. Bernstein, a professor at George Mason University School of Law.
Similar laws had been passed across the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, as the Great Migration continued.
In 1930, there were approximately 230,000 Black people in Chicago, accounting for nearly 7% of the city’s population. Thirty years later, there were 810,000 Black Chicagoans, who made up nearly 23% of Chicago's population, according to census data.
American urban population in the United States nearly doubled between 1910 and 1929. Undeterred, Chicago’s all-White power brokers would blaze their own path and find other ways to keep Chicago’s newest residents, most of them Black, concentrated on the city’s South and West sides in subpar apartments and homes.
Those initial efforts contributed to a wave of housing-related racial violence that plagued the city between 1917 and 1921. The violence reached its apex during the summer of 1919 when 17-year-old Eugene Williams went swimming in Lake Michigan near 31st Street beach and “inadvertently drifted across an invisible line that divided the waters by race.” Williams, who was Black, died after “a group of [W]hites, insulted by such an act, began throwing stones..., one of which struck Williams, causing him to drown,” wrote Chicago History Museum curator Julius L. Jones.
Seven days of shootings, arson, and beatings ensued, killing 15 White Chicagoans, 23 Black Chicagoans, and injuring another 195 White people and 342 Black people, according to records kept by the Chicago History Museum.
That violence could not be allowed to rage if Chicago’s leaders – all of whom were White – were to see their “city in a garden” transformed into an economic powerhouse to rival New York City.
The solution developed by Chicago’s burgeoning real-estate moguls – who formed the first organization in the nation to consolidate the power of property owners into a political force – was designed to benefit Chicago’s White residents at the expense of many Black Chicagoans.
As Chicago recovered from the violence, the Chicago Real Estate Board launched a campaign to blanket the city with racially restrictive deeds and covenants that prevented properties in certain areas from being sold to “persons of African blood” or those identified as “Negro or Negroes” or even just not “Caucasian.”
Supporters touted the covenants as a way to avoid the violent clashes that often resulted when White property owners felt the presence of Black neighbors threatened their property values – and their hard-fought economic stability – without running afoul of the law.
The board’s most important tool was a standard covenant drafted by Nathan William MacChesney, a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. The ease of inserting that racist language into property deeds allowed the racial covenants to spread across the city “like a marvelous delicately woven chain of armor” from “the northern gates of Hyde Park at 35th and Drexel Boulevard to Woodlawn, Park Manor, South Shore, Windsor Park, and all the far-flung [W]hite communities of the South Side,” according to the Hyde Park Herald in 1927.
Other cities soon followed Chicago’s lead, and the nation’s leaders blessed the strategy.
In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule in Corrigan v. Buckley. That case sought to determine whether a group of White homeowners in Washington, D.C., acted legally when they agreed not to sell their houses to Black purchasers. The court rejected an appeal in the case, saying it could not intervene in a private transaction that did not involve government officials.
The impact of the court’s non-decision decision was far-reaching and is still visible nearly a century later across Chicago, helping to create the massive wealth gap between Black Chicagoans and White Chicagoans that continues today.
Those covenants served to inflate real-estate prices in Chicago’s Black community, because the city’s growing Black population could live only in already-crowded areas of the city south of the Loop and on the city’s West Side along what would become the Eisenhower Expressway.
Chicago’s distorted real-estate market also made it all too easy for unscrupulous property owners to exploit Black people eager to get their share of the American dream, which they were told involved owning a home and building generational wealth.
Contract-buying schemes during the 1950s and 1960s cost Black families between $3 billion and $4 billion, according to “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” published in 2019 by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center at the University of Illinois Chicago.
After making a large down payment, Black home buyers would agree to make monthly installments while paying sky-high interest rates. Unlike a typical mortgage, the buyer did not accumulate equity and could be evicted at any time. Elected officials and the courts allowed the practice to continue for decades and prevented many Black families from bequeathing anything to their children or grandchildren.
“For example, homes in racially changing neighborhoods purchased by a speculator for $12,000, would be resold days or weeks later on contract to a [B]lack buyer, for $22,000,” according to the report.
Redlines Get Drawn
At the same time as the use of racial covenants spread, the ravages of the Great Depression pushed home ownership out of reach for many White people – and the federal government responded. But that aid was carefully doled out in a manner that served to reinforce the structure of segregation invented in Chicago and exported across the North.
That structure was built upon racially restrictive covenants, redlining and contract buying.
The Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, explicitly refused to back loans not just to Black people who wanted to buy homes but also to those who lived near Black people on the basis and belief that those investments would not pay off. That practice came to be known as redlining.
“Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever [B]lack people lived,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. “About half of all residential neighborhoods in [Chicago] were effectively off-limits to [B]lacks.”
Neighborhoods where homes could not be sold to Black people – and remained racially homogeneous – were designated with green lines first by the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and then the Federal Housing Administration, creating a self-reinforcing system that served as the scaffolding for modern segregation.
Banks and government agencies were unwilling to invest in neighborhoods “redlined” by federal agencies, touching off a vicious cycle of disinvestment that fueled crime and poverty. Much of the South and West sides were off-limits for federally backed mortgages, essentially preventing Black Chicagoans from building real-estate wealth and locking many out of the middle class.
The de facto segregation that shaped Chicago also meant that when the American Housing Act of 1949 sent millions of federal dollars to urban centers to build housing to be run by local governments, it seemed obvious to Chicago’s leaders – who remained all White – that those homes should be built in areas cordoned off from Black people.
More than 98% of all the family public-housing units built in Chicago between 1950 and the mid-1960s were built in all-Black neighborhoods, according to records cited by Coates. Because the need for housing was so vast – but the available land was limited by an unwillingness to expand the area where Black people could live – soaring public-housing projects again reshaped the city.
By 1968, Chicago officials had used its vast housing projects to create what the historian Arnold R. Hirsch called a “second ghetto” by wielding the power of the federal government – and its financial resources – to ensure that Black Chicagoans and White Chicagoans lived nearly totally separate lives.
The End of Racial Covenants
The use of racially restrictive covenants remained untouchable by the nation’s courts until 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they unconstitutionally violated the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Just as Chicago created that instrument of segregation, its demise was seeded in Chicago.
The roots of that decision can also be found in Chicago, when Carl Hansberry bought a house in West Woodlawn covered by a racial covenant. After the area’s homeowners’ association tried to force Hansberry out of his home, he sued in federal court and won on a technicality.
That conflict was later immortalized by his daughter, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun. The play was nominated for four Tony Awards and became a film in 1961.
Ultimately, covenants were outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, at the height of the civil rights era, and the groups that created the system they benefited from eventually attempted to shed that ignominy.
The Chicago Real Estate Board became the National Association of Realtors, and apologized in 2020 for its role in upholding and expanding segregation in cities such as Chicago.
But the damage remains, decades after redlining and racially restrictive covenants were relegated to the dustbin of history. For every $1 banks loaned in Chicago’s White neighborhoods, they invested just 12 cents in the city’s Black neighborhoods and 13 cents in Latino areas, according to a 2020 study by WBEZ and City Bureau.
While that revelation prompted outrage and brought vows of actions from Chicago’s elected officials, city leaders have struggled to craft a way to force those banks to lend equitably. An effort to reduce or withdraw city cash from those financial institutions has been largely unsuccessful, despite a concerted effort, because of a limited range of options.
The Rise of Latino Neighborhoods
By the time the civil rights movement dismantled the legal apparatus that created modern segregation, it had shaped Chicago in a way that became so prevalent as to be almost invisible despite its clear power.
It would not be until 1990 that federal officials used the decennial census to measure Chicago’s Latino population, even though the first Mexican immigrants arrived in Chicago nearly a century earlier, fleeing the upheaval of the Mexican revolution.
By the 1960s, many Mexican immigrants had settled in Pilsen, named by the Czech immigrants who made it their home during the last decades of the nineteenth century, and created a new neighborhood known as Little Village, or La Villita.
At the same time, Puerto Rican migrants displaced from other parts of Chicago had made Humboldt Park their home, creating a second center of Latino political power.
But those decisions were guided by the invisible framework of modern segregation, and Latino communities initially flourished along the edges of Black neighborhoods and White neighborhoods, creating a buffer between the two racial groups, according to the Latino Policy Forum.
But that began to change as Chicago’s Latino population rose, and Chicago’s Black population continued to drop as families left their impoverished neighborhoods to craft a better life, just as previous generations had left the South in the early twentieth century.
By 2017, Latinos made up the city’s second-largest ethnic group. The people of Chicago are 31.4% White, 29.9% Latino, 28.7% Black, and 6.9% Asian, according to the 2020 U.S. census.
That change has upended the balance of political power at Chicago City Hall, with the City Council’s Latino Caucus refusing to endorse a ward map that has fewer than 15 wards with a majority of Latino voters.
However, the City Council’s Black Caucus has refused to vote for a map that creates fewer than 16 wards with a majority of Black voters.
Because of Chicago’s history of segregation, it would not be possible to create a new ward with a majority of Latino or Black voters by reducing the number of wards with a majority of White voters. Both maps that were the focus of debate in January 2022 would create 13 wards with a majority of White voters and three wards with a plurality of White voters.
The only major change that both caucuses agree on is the need to create one ward that includes all of Chinatown, which is the only Chinatown in the United States that is growing in population, according to the 2020 census. Both proposed maps would redraw the 11th Ward to include a majority of Asian voters, which would be the first of its kind in Chicago, and comes as Chicago’s Asian population surged by 31%, according to the 2020 census.
The racially polarized debate that grew increasingly personal and pointed between Black and Latino alderpeople during the first months of 2022 is part of the legacy of modern segregation in Chicago.
The remap battle is perhaps the most visible inheritance handed down to twenty-first-century Chicago from its segregated history, forcing both Black and Latino politicians to fight over a limited part of the city where resources are scarce and investment far from robust, while areas where a majority of White people live are left out of the zero-sum fight.
An Uncertain Future
When she was elected Chicago mayor in 2019, Lori Lightfoot made history.
The first gay person to serve as Chicago’s mayor, Lightfoot was also the first Black woman to claim the suite of offices on the fifth floor of Chicago City Hall.
But Lightfoot also became the first mayor to directly confront segregation as a pernicious force that had been created, bolstered, and reinforced by Chicago officials acting in their official capacity with access to the city’s checkbook.
Lightfoot has worked to reduce residential segregation by expanding the city’s support for affordable housing in every area of the city, and has supported policies that seek to use city funds to build and renovate homes that low- and moderate-income Black and Latino Chicagoans can afford.
In addition, Lightfoot pushed through the first affordable housing on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side in the city’s history over the objection of the area’s City Council member, striking at the heart of aldermanic prerogative, which has been used to keep Black, White, and Latino Chicagoans concentrated in separate neighborhoods.
“Housing is at the heart of segregation in this city,” Lightfoot said before the December 2021 vote.
Lightfoot has also put reversing the decades of disinvestment caused by racial covenants, contract buying, and redlining at the center of her economic development policy. The mayor’s Invest South/West initiative aims to commit $750 million in city funds from 2019 through 2022 in 10 of Chicago’s most segregated neighborhoods.
But that effort has been complicated and slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the deep divides that can be traced directly to the system of modern segregation, which is as much a product of Chicago as deep-dish pizza.
By nearly every metric, the virus was far more deadly for Black Chicagoans living in those neighborhoods that were once redlined – putting the residue of segregation in stark relief and making clear how much work remains to put an end to the harm still caused by that long-dismantled system.
More than 100 years after Chicago leaders pioneered the use of tools designed to keep Black residents and White residents separate in a city carved out of the prairie and built on swamps that smelled of onions, the cost of those now-discarded innovations remains nearly incalculable.
But if those divisions remain ingrained in the fabric of the city, Chicago has at least made enough progress to spotlight those partitions – and to elect leaders willing to call them out directly and promise to do better.
Heather Cherone is a political reporter for WTTW News and Chicago Tonight.