Part 4: Building, Selling, and Shopping the Lines

Suburban Block and School-Busting

But not all suburbs remained as white and wealthy as West Hartford or Avon. The neighboring community of Bloomfield, located immediately north of Hartford, reveals a more conflicted story of suburban rise and decline. In the 1930s, this agricultural town constructed its own high school, establishing a public education infrastructure ahead of Avon. During the 1950s, Bloomfield’s population leaped from 5,746 to 13,613—a 137 percent increase, the highest growth rate of any municipality in the state that decade. Bloomfield launched an ambitious elementary school construction campaign to keep up with its rising student population, and paid for all school improvements from its expanding property tax base.[1]

Real estate agents generally refused to sell suburban homes to any Black family in the metropolitan Hartford region during the 1950s. But agents shifted their discriminatory stance in the early 1960s, by quietly agreeing to sell properties to Blacks in Bloomfield, which already had small minority population engaged in agricultural work. Middle-class African-Americans like Spencer Shaw, a librarian who described having had “several refusals before from real estate people,” finally succeeded in moving his family from Hartford to a home he bought from a Greek couple in Bloomfield. But Shaw’s purchase sparked a racial transition on the street. “I think within about two months, four or five of the other families moved out,” he recalled.[2]

By the late 1960s, several Bloomfield residents charged that real estate agents were engaging in “block-busting” tactics, where they intentionally sold homes in white neighborhoods to black families, then pressured whites to sell their properties at below market value in order to “get out” before more blacks moved in and their home values dropped even further. Like “racial steering,” this illegal housing practice also involved public schools. John Keever, a white homebuyer who asked to look at homes in Bloomfield, reported that several salesmen “made innuendos about the school system” and warned that his daughter might to subject to recent “attacks on white girls in the Bloomfield schools.” Real estate agents showed homes to Keever in Avon and West Hartford, and spoke about these suburbs in “glowing terms,” but provided no favorable information about Bloomfield.[3] In 1973, Bloomfield town leaders and fair housing advocates filed federal complaints, and a year later the U.S. Justice Department brought official charges of racial steering against seven major Hartford-area real estate firms.[4] Despite efforts by many black and white Bloomfield residents to voluntarily integrate schools and maintain neighborhood stability, the dominant white racial fears caused a collapse in the reputation of the suburban school system.[5] Whites fled the Bloomfield schools at rates much faster than the overall suburban population during the 1970s, underscoring the powerful ties between public education and private real estate.

Narrowly defined, block-busting only affected the residents of one block at a time: the anxious whites homeowners who feared that living on the same street with blacks would lower their property values. But in Bloomfield, white flight occurred rapidly across large sections of this community, even where blacks had not moved next door, but rather into the same elementary school attendance zone. Perhaps a more appropriate label would be school-busting, where real estate agents’ actions sparked the departure of anxious white homeowners who feared that sending their children to the same school with blacks would lower the value of their educational credentials.[6]

Unlike Southern school districts that operated under court-ordered desegregation during the 1960s, school districts in metropolitan Hartford functioned with relatively few governmental mandates on race and education. Of course, during the civil rights era, activists and media focused attention on growing racial differences between schools in Hartford, and between city and suburban school districts. But state officials did not require much to be done about it during this period. In 1966, Connecticut encouraged suburban districts to voluntarily participate in the Project Concern transfer program by accepting Hartford minority youth into their schools. Yet the program’s numerical impact remained small (at its peak, only 5 percent of Hartford students were involved), districts freely dropped out, and not a single white suburban child was required to attend a Hartford school. Although the Connecticut legislature did pass a mandatory racial imbalance law in 1969, it had relatively little effect. The law required individual school minority enrollments to be within 25 percentage points of each district’s average, but since this regulation was applied separately to each district, it had no impact across municipal boundaries. In 1970, for instance, all West Hartford schools were required to be within range of its district minority average (3 percent), while next door in the city of Hartford, schools needed to be within range of a higher district minority average (67 percent). Local civil rights activists filed a federal school desegregation lawsuit in 1970, charging that the racial disparities between Hartford and suburban schools were unconstitutional. But that suit evaporated after the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Milliken v. Bradley, which stated that city-suburban desegregation remedies were unlawful unless suburban intent to segregate could be proven.[7] In fact, no legal mandate for school desegregation lawsuit prevailed over the Hartford region until the Sheff v. O’Neill state supreme court ruling in 1996, long after suburban stratification had solidified. As a result, mandatory school desegregation simply was not a driving factor in the shaping of metropolitan Hartford; other links between housing and education were clearly influential.

  1. Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., Ideology in America: Change and Response in a City, a Suburb, and a Small Town (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969).
  2. Spencer Shaw, interview with Jacqueline Katz, City-Suburb Oral History Project, Cities, Suburbs, and Schools project, Trinity College, July 2, 2003.
  3. James Ross, "Realty Bypassing Told by Resident." The Hartford Courant, June 21, 1973, p. 52.
  4. "Town Files Complaint Series with HUD on Real Estate Sales," The Hartford Courant, November 18, 1973, p. 42; Thomas Williams, "US Sues 7 Area Realty Firms." The Hartford Courant, May 3, 1974, p. 1A.
  5. Wintonbury Historical Society, From Wintonbury to Bloomfield (Bloomfield, CT: Wintonbury Historical Society, 1983), p. 114.
  6. On city block-busting and neighborhood schools, see Amanda I. Seligman, Block By Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago's West Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), chap. 5
  7. Thomas D. Williams, "Suit Seeks to Stop School District Law," Hartford Courant, 21 February 1970; Susan Eaton, The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2007).

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