As a work of public history on the open web, On The Line blends historical narrative and interactive maps to illustrate how the changing color line, mortgage redlining, exclusionary zoning, and school attendance boundaries shaped metropolitan Hartford. 1 But how do ordinary residents from different sides of the city-suburban line interpret this local civil rights history? When introduced to maps of inequality, how do audiences construct its meaning in their own words? What personalized connections (if any) do they make with this history, or messages do they take away from it? This section draws on qualitative data to better understand how ordinary residents make sense of spatial representations of civil rights history in the metropolitan Hartford region. Although public historians have examined how Americans understand our racial past via telephone surveys and observing history classrooms, 2 rarely have researchers directly observed and interviewed city and suburban residents while they interact with a history website, especially one featuring maps from the civil rights era. In our study, we found striking differences between how city and suburban residents perceive barriers versus progress, their emotional response versus detachment from the maps, and the degree to which they openly talk about the region’s racial history.
Our study design:
In collaboration with the University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC), we created four web-based interactive maps on demographic change and barriers to fair housing during the twentieth century. The first map, “Racial Change in the Hartford Region, 1900-2010,” displayed the percentage of white residents at the town and tract levels with a time slider and zoom tools to visualize change over time.
Our second map, “Home Value Index in Hartford Region, 1910-2010,*” presented the relative value of a single-family home, indexed to the mean value of the region each decade, where darker green indicates higher dollar value. Data from 1910 to 1980 was based on state tax commissioner records on local assessed values (adjusted for equalization by the author), while 1991 and 2002 data was based on single-family home sale prices compiled by the Capitol Region Council of Governments.
The third map, “Race Restrictive Covenants in Property Deeds, Hartford area, 1940s,” illustrated barriers against residents “other than the Caucasian race,” that some housing developers wrote into property deeds in the Hartford region, based on our search of property records in one suburb, the Town of West Hartford. In 1921, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of private property owners to insert these restrictions, but later ruled in the 1948 Shelley v Kraemer case that they were no longer enforceable by governmental authority. Yet restrictive language still exists in the legal property records today.
Our fourth interactive visual, the “Federal HOLC ‘Redlining’ Map, Hartford area, 1937,” featured a color map with linked appraisal reports created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in cooperation with local lenders to evaluate the “trend of desirability” in residential areas during the Depression. The HOLC color-coded map portrayed the highest grade (A) in green and the lowest grade (D) in red. This government agency considered not only housing conditions but also the “social status of the population,” and downgraded neighborhoods with non-white, immigrant, and poor residents. In later decades, these actions became associated with the discriminatory practice of “redlining.”
To understand how city and suburban residents interpreted these maps, we recorded 51 interviews in public locations during the summer and fall of 2011. Trinity College student researcher Candace Simpson ’12 obtain IRB research ethics approval and created the interview guide, which briefly explained each map, illustrated its interactive features, and asked participants open-ended questions, such as “Tell me what you see in this map,” “What does this map tell you about your neighborhood?” and “Do you see any connections between this and the prior map?” Also, a wrap-up question asked participants to reflect on the broader meaning of the maps, by asking: ” Some people look at these maps and see a story of racial or economic barriers that still persist, while others see a story of civil rights progress that our society has made over time. What do you see?” The interview concluded with demographic questions about the participant’s residence, racial identification, occupation, educational attainment, gender, and familiarity with the web.
Simpson conducted two-thirds of the interviews in public libraries and senior citizen centers during summer 2011, with assistance from Katie Campbell ’11. Both of them trained students from the Cities Suburbs Schools seminar to conduct additional interviews at a housing conference in fall 2011. A typical interview lasted between ten to twenty minutes. Key findings below are drawn from students’ thematic analysis of the interview transcripts. 3
Our sample consists of 48 usable interviews, with 21 residents of the city of Hartford and 27 residents of the surrounding metropolitan region. Given the limitations of our qualitative research methods and study locations, we do not claim to have drawn a representative sample of the population. But the demographics of our interview pool reflect general differences between the urban and suburban communities in the Hartford region. Of the group that identified as living in the suburbs, 96% had at least some college education. Of the twenty-one respondents living in Hartford, only 66% had at least some college education. The respondents also identified the year in which they were born. The mean age for the suburban group is fifty-nine years old, while the mean age for the Hartford group is much younger, forty-one years old. Although not necessarily needed to determine interpretation results, it is important to note specifically how differences of interpretation may be accounted for. Age and educational attainment may affect how the maps were interpreted; especially when one considers the major historical events and social movements that have happened in this country. 4
Barriers versus Progress
The most striking difference we found among interview participants was their response to the wrap-up question on whether the maps represented “barriers that still persist” or “civil rights progress over time.” We thematically coded their open-ended responses into four categories: barriers, progress, both, or an insufficient answer. At one end of the spectrum, 38 percent of Hartford residents perceived only “barriers,” more than twice as often as the 15 percent of suburban residents who answered this way. At the opposite end, 41 percent of suburban residents saw only “progress,” more than twice as often as the 19 percent of Hartford residents with the same response. In the middle ground, while 19 percent of Hartford residents saw both barriers and progress, only 7 percent of suburban dwellers recognized both aspects.
For suburban residents, the conclusion that significant progress has been made seems to rest on the assessment that discrimination no longer exists. While they acknowledged the concentration of minorities in Hartford, they explained this as a result of minority residents’ own choices rather than exclusionary practices in suburban areas. We found that 12 of the of the 27 suburban residents (44 percent) made comments suggesting either a lack of discrimination or minorities’ choice to concentrate. Many of the suburban residents made extreme claims about the nonexistence of racial barriers, with comments like “There’s no discrimination whatsoever,” (Participant 117) and “We’re more on progress, less obstacles. In other words, you can live almost anywhere,” (Participant 118). Another suburban resident drew a romantic contrast between West Hartford’s past and present by stating, “It has opened its arms, its doors, and its heart and has welcomed in minorities and those with lower income,” (Participant 114). These definitive comments suggest that suburban residents have an idealized vision of civil rights progress and also make it appear that these participants define discrimination as an either-or concept, rather than a continuum of varying degrees. With the notion that discrimination only falls into one of two categories—existent or nonexistent—it is understandable that respondents would perceive progress, since conditions for minorities today are starkly different from what they were prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
In contrast, residents of Hartford appear to have a more nuanced view of discrimination. While many participants acknowledged that barriers as explicit as race restrictive covenants are no longer prevalent, a slight majority of city residents—eleven, or fifty-two percent—stated that members of racial minorities had been forced into urban concentration by white suburban residents. Their language was often harsh and implied enmity on the part of whites. One Hartford resident felt that white residents of the suburbs “corralled minorities or blacks into certain areas,” (Participant 121), while another claimed, “They’re trying to run us out,” (Participant 122). To one city resident, the maps were evidence of “Hartford always being a target,” (Participant 137). These accusations were not simply unfounded attempts to deflect blame, as they were supported with descriptions of specific discriminatory actions such as steering and redlining. 5
While the majority of our suburban participants were white (about 70 percent) and the majority of our Hartford participants were non-white (about 60 percent), race was not a stronger predictor than residence on one’s response to the barrier-progress question. The contrast between city and suburban responses is best illustrated by comparing two participants, both who identified as African-American, but lived in different locations. A Black Hartford resident emphasized the persistence of barriers by stating:
If it’s there, it’s there. It’s hard for me to say progress because I think the powers that be have just gotten craftier in implementing what their desires are. So even though the covenants aren’t enforced, it may appear to be progress, but I think a deeper look may reveal that progress hasn’t been made. I wouldn’t see progress. I think there’s still barriers (Participant 121)
By contrast, a Black suburban resident emphasized how the same maps showed racial progress:
I think that we are used to our barriers as stepping stones to obtain progress. I see us on a slow progressive slope. I believe in time that we will go a little higher in that slope. I see it as opportunity. I don’t think that we’re going to go backwards. We might be at a standstill for a while but I don’t think we’ll ever go backwards again. I didn’t answer your question outright because I think there’s advantages to both. And I’m a believer. I know that you can overcome these barriers. They make wonderful stepping stones to wherever you want to go (Participant 144). 6
The differences between these two interviews resembles anthropologist John Ogbu’s thesis on secondary cultural differences. 7 In this analogy, the Black suburban resident is similar to a “voluntary minority” who perceives obstacles as temporary barriers to be overcome on the road to progress, while the Black urban resident resembles an “involuntary minority” who sees the same obstacles as more permanent barriers with a continuous history to the present day.
Emotional versus factual responses
We also found a geographical difference in the tone of participants’ responses to the maps. Interview transcripts were categorized into two types of responses: emotional (which included strong reaction words, such as “wow,” “ridiculous,” “crazy,” and “shocking”) versus factual (where respondents simply restated descriptive details about the maps with no clear expression of their feelings). In response to the first map on racial change in the Hartford region over the past century, all viewers saw the same picture: an increasing minority population and decreasing white population in the central city. But the tone of their responses differed sharply, with 67 percent of the Hartford residents reacted with emotion, while 63 percent of suburban residents voiced factual statements. For example, one Hartford resident interpreted the map with strong feelings indicating that she felt like, “They’re trying to run us out because remember, this is the capital, this is the city” (Participant 123). Another example of an emotionally filled response came from a Hartford resident who exclaimed, “That’s ridiculous. It’s disgraceful. That’s why I don’t like the suburbs” (Participant 111). Many of the other Hartford responses used strong language and adjectives, indicating their feelings about the map.
Most suburban respondents took a more observatory and detached approach. One suburban resident said, “I see a concentration of Black people living in the North End of Hartford, and also a growing trend toward people living in Windsor and I guess New Britain” (Participant 135). There was no other indication of a feeling about the “concentration of black people in the north end,” the respondent just noted that they were there. Another suburban resident said, “What I see is a migration of the White populations to the suburban areas.” The participant went on to explain a little more, but again did not provide any responses indicating personal attitudes about the migration (Participant 114). 8
Even when viewing the map of racially restrictive covenants, which painted a striking portrait of a largely forgotten chapter in Northern racism, suburban residents generally discussed the maps very analytically, with personal and emotional detachment. Two typical suburban residents simply described what they saw: “So there were restrictive areas. You had to be white” and “Oh yeah. This map basically shows where the restrictions would have applied if it crossed from West to East” (participants 118 and 104, respectively). Both of these responses are fairly typical of suburban residents in that the responses are largely void of emotion. When suburban residents did use emotion to describe this map, it was generally understated and intended to communicate their disapproval, not necessarily shock. If suburban residents did describe shock and surprise, it would be lucid and without sharp interjections.
By contrast, maps of racial covenants incited the most emotion in Hartford respondents, partly because most were very surprised to find racially exclusive language formally written in property deeds. When viewing this map, a typical Hartford resident asked the interviewer: “So when is this? Okay, it’s not now, that’s ridiculous…. That’s crazy, oh, my gosh. It’s crazy because you hear about segregation within neighborhoods back in this day and age, but I would never think of it being where I am” (participant 111). Harford residents were more likely to show higher levels of emotion in their responses and relate maps to their personal experiences. 9
Speech and Silence about Race in the Maps
Overall, we found that Hartford residents were more likely than suburban residents to talk openly about race in their interpretations of the maps. For example, many city dwellers seemed to be more engaged with the racial history, and many could not believe the barriers that have existed against Blacks in places like West Hartford, a inner-ring suburb. One Hartford participant wanted to know why they didn’t learn about these restrictions at school. (137) When asked what they thought about the map, participants from Hartford were more likely to elaborate on race when discussing connections between different maps. For instance, one urban resident reflected:
The only thing I can think of like looking at this map they are saying they do not want anybody other than white people living here more people were living in the city of Hartford were African Americans and people that are living in Hartford because of things like this. Telling people they cannot live in the town because of the color of their skin. The more and more people moving into the city and out of the suburbs. Then looking at the map where you see the housing. The home values declined when you saw minorities rise in the city (Participant 142). 10
By contrast, some suburban residents seemed very reluctant to discuss race with the Trinity interviewer, who in most cases was a student of color. One suburban dweller, when asked to talk about what he saw in a map that displayed racial barriers, simply remarked, “I have no comment on that” (Participant 136). A West Hartford resident felt uncomfortable talking about the race restrictive covenant map, stood up, and excused himself from the remainder of the interview by stating, “I have to go to work” and quickly walking away. 11 These striking silences remind us of prior research, such as Mica Pollock’s Colormute, on how people do (or do not) talk about race in American society. 12
- A version of this section was presented as a paper at the Social Science History Association meeting in Boston in November 2011. ↩
- Roy Rosenzweig and David P. Thelen. The Presence of the Past: popular uses of history in American life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; Terrie Epstein. Interpreting National History: race, identity, and pedagogy in classrooms and communities. New York: Routledge. 2009. ↩
- Students in the Cities Suburbs Schools seminar in fall 2011: Ashley Ardinger, Candace Baker, Louise Balsmeyer, Shanese Caton, Courtney Chaloff, Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, Booker Evans, Bryan Garrett-Farb, Daniel Luke, Hannah Malenfant, Bobby Moore, Mary Morr, Pornpat Pootinath, Jessica Schlundt, Karina Torres, Carlos Velasquez, and Nathan Walsh. ↩
- Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, unpublished paper, Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Mary Moor, unpublished paper, Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Karina Torres, unpublished paper for the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Margaret Gibson and John U. Ogbu. Minority status and schooling : a comparative study of immigrant and involuntary minorities. New York: Garland, 1991. ↩
- Courtney Chaloff, unpublished paper, Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Nathan Walsh, unpublished paper for the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Candace Baker, unpublished paper, Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, Fall 2011. ↩
- Candace Simpson, “Who Sees What: How Do Different Maps Tells the Same Stories? Unpublished paper for the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar at Trinity College, September 2011. ↩
- Mica Pollock, Colormute : race talk dilemmas in an American school (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004). ↩