Hempstead, Segregation and Black Suburbia

By Candice Frederick
September 29, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
The Hempstead Community House, Hempstead, New York, 1950s,

Courtesy of the Ebrom Family 

In honor of our new exhibition, Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson, curator James Levy  (University of Wisconsin) explores segregation in one of the most popular suburban neighborhoods in the U.S.—Hempstead, New York.

For years Americans have debated whether segregation in northern communities is a result of preference or legal barriers.

While northern states did not enact Jim Crow laws that explicitly enforced segregation, their towns became highly segregated landscapes—the result of deliberate policies. The effects of such policies punished Hempstead Village. Realtors employed blockbusting to scare whites into selling their houses to black families at inflated prices. And county officials, who would never do so in their own neighborhoods, enabled slumlords. By the 1960s, however, many of the older homes became the target of “slum removal” which saw houses of black families destroyed and replaced with apartments.

The same insidious story played out in Glen Clove, Great Neck, and Rockville Centre, forcing displaced black homeowners to move to already-crowded and segregated neighborhoods. Despite passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the trend towards segregation intensified and by the 1970s, Hempstead was becoming even more segregated. The result has been the de jure isolation of African Americans in communities characterized by high density, low incomes, crippling foreclosure rates, little residential mobility, and marginalization.

Opponents of residential segregation gained ground in more recent years. In 1992, Suffolk County passed the first local law that restricted “welfare dumping” in housing “that was dangerous, hazardous or detrimental to life or health.” The law was aimed at absentee landlords profiting from the rental of deteriorated homes to the poor. And the struggle against such practices continues.

Visit our Black Suburbia exhibition (running October 1–December 31, 2015) to learn more.