Tom Ireland House, Webberville, Travis County, TX 1937 (via Library of Congress)
Published: May 18, 2012
In 1931, Herbert Hoover called the idea of owning one’s own home “a sentiment deep in the heart of our race and of American life.” In this episode, the History Guys search for the roots of that sentiment, and consider how it has played out over time. The image of a deed to a home with a yard and picket fence is at the core of the American Dream, but for many, the housing reality has looked more like a pile of rent receipts and back mortgage payments. Why has the ideal of home ownership been so difficult for so many generations of Americans to attain? Was there ever a Golden Age of home ownership, anyway?
Brian talks with Loren Moulds about Herbert Hoover’s career-long crusade to promote home ownership.
Deserted House on the Prairie
The Guys chat with historian Richard White about how the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act shaped development in the Plains and in the West.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
Brian unpacks the saga of the Contract Buyers League, a local activist group in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood that organized in the 1960s to protest unreasonable contract payments for their houses. The Guys then riff on the modern corollary of the CBL story: predatory lending.
Peter, Ed, and Brian take calls from listeners.
Creaky Boards and Cobwebs
Film critic David Edelstein takes us on a tour of haunted houses in the movies.
Rutgers professor Beryl Satter writes about about her father – a Chicago lawyer – and financial discrimination in the city’s housing market in the years following the Great Migration. (Source for story on the Contract Buyers’ League).
From Further Afield
“A Brief History of Debt”: Louis Hyman efficiently illustrates in an article for the History News Network that debt is no recent development for Americans.
See the online discussion that helped shape this show.
Peter Onuf: Major support for “BackStory” is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. [music]
E. Ayers: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is “BackStory With the American History Guys.”
Brian Balogh: Hey folks, welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy.
E. Ayers: Here with Ed Ayers, your 19th century guy.
B. Balogh: And we’ve got Peter here.
P. Onuf: Yeah, 18th century. [laughter]
B. Balogh: Today, we’re going to talk about an American dream that’s turned sour for a lot of people. Here’s President Obama speaking earlier this year in Falls Church, Virginia.
Tape (President Barack Obama): And this housing crisis struck right at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America. Our homes, the place where we invest our nest egg, the place where we raise our family, the place where we plant roots in a community. The place where we build memories.
E. Ayers: You know, President Obama taps into many powerful themes associated with homeownership and what he’s telling us is that in many ways we define ourselves by the home in which we live.
B. Balogh: And the way we define ourselves here at “BackStory,” is to go back in time and give you the real story behind the story. I want to talk about the first president to really push for universal home ownership in America. No, Peter, it wasn’t FDR.
B. Balogh & E. Ayers: It was Herbert Hoover.
Tape (Loren Moulds): He felt that home construction and getting more people into homes, their own homes, could actually provide not just an economic benefit for the country but a very very important societal benefit.
B. Balogh: That’s Loren Molds. He’s an historian at the University of Virginia studying Herbert Hoover and Loren says that Hoover’s push for homeownership goes back even further than his presidency, back to the early ’20s when Hoover was Secretary of Commerce. Hoover had a particular kind of person in mind when he was thinking about housing in the big city.
Tape (Loren Moulds): Foreign-born immigrants living in congested houses that are unclean and laborers who are considering Bolshevism.
B. Balogh: So he and his buddies over at Commerce begin to push. They want to get people out of the cities and into their very own suburban home.
Tape (Loren Moulds): They wanted to connect homeownership with owning the American dream. [music]
B. Balogh: To convince the American people what a good idea it is to own a home, Hoover starts a campaign, a campaign called Better Homes for America, and in 1924, Better Homes for America holds a bunch of fairs all over the country to show people just how great this suburban life can really be.
Tape (Loren Moulds): People could show up and look at model homes, built by local contractors, furnished by local businesses with Girl Scouts in the kitchen who had arranged all the carpets and the chairs. Right on the front desk would have a pile of pamphlets about how to build a house, how to finance a house, how to furnish a house.
E. Ayers: So, Brian, why does this movement to create new suburban houses emerge in the 1920s?
B. Balogh: Well, it happens in the ’20s, I think, because people have a little more money in their pockets. More and more people are looking around thinking about buying houses and, strange as it seems to us, people didn’t really know how to go about doing that.
Tape (Loren Moulds): Thousands of people, at least from Better Homes estimates, came and toured model homes and got pamphlets and signed up for informational books. The next year, 1925, eighteen hundred communities had Better Homes weeks with an estimate of three million people, and so by 1928, almost four thousand communities have Better Homes fairs and four million people attend them.
B. Balogh: And it worked, or at least something worked, because across the ’20s, homeownership rates went up from 41% to 46%, but more important than a 5% increase in the percentage of homeownership was the message that all Americans took away from this era and that was if you wanted to be a real American, you better own your own home.
Tape (Loren Moulds): I think Hoover actually could say it better than I could—“the man who owns his own home has a happy sense of security. No man ever worked for or fought for a boarding house.” [music]
E. Ayers: You know, even the least ironic among us would have to struck by the irony of Herbert Hoover being the voice of everybody having a home in the 1920s and then really just a few years later with the Great Depression and the Crash, by the early 1930s, there are towns all over America made up of tents and shanties and you know what they were called—Hoovervilles.
B. Balogh: Pretty ironic, huh?
E. Ayers: Yeah. [music—“We’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover, for really showing us the way.”]
P. Onuf: Today, on “BackStory,” “The History of Homeownership,” we’re going to try to get a handle on another of its central ironies and that’s this—homeownership is a such a central tenet of the American dream of what it is to be a functioning member of our society and yet most Americans for the majority of American history have not been able to own their own homes. We’re going to try to explain that.
E. Ayers: So, I got it—Herbert Hoover was really important in sort of driving home, so to speak, this ideal of homeownership, but, you know, you gotta think, of course, about the 19th century. The 19th century was filled with the dream of owning a piece of property and being able to be your own boss and I have a piece of tape here to demonstrate just what I mean and it needs only five words of introduction: “Little House on the Prairie.”
Tape (“Little House on the Prairie”): “How much longer, Charles?” / “Til we settle? I don’t know.” / “We crossed into Kansas four days ago. What are you looking for?” / “I’ll know it when I see it.” / “But the children are tired and the joy seems to have gone out of all of us.” / “It’ll pass, Carolyn. We had no future where we were. It was a hand-to-mouth existence at best. I want more than for you and the children. A hundred and sixty acres free and clear from the government. A chance to plant and harvest my own crops, to be owing to no man. I want that.”
E. Ayers: So, that hundred and sixty acres that Michael Landon so longingly describes, that actually a real historical origin. It’s actually an act of Congress. Peter, you probably even know about that.
P. Onuf: Yeah, yeah. That’s the 1862 Homestead Act, but, you know, Ed, that goes back to the Land Ordinance of 1785. That’s when they started doing the checkerboard out there in the Midwest for the amusement of air travelers ever since. [laughter] You just look down and there it is. It’s all this geometry on the ground.
E. Ayers: Yeah, that’s a good point, Peter. This has a long history. The difference is that with the Homestead Act, they have certain requirements. First of all, you have to live on it for five years to really make it your home and you have to make improvements on it and with those kinds of requirements, you really need ways to get all the equipment to build a house out there. You need the farming implements. You need a way to make a life.
P. Onuf: Yep. I think I hear a choo-choo train.
E. Ayers: That’s right.
P. Onuf: Down the track.
E. Ayers: Exactly. But there’s one problem. This is the early 1860s and you will also know this, Peter, that we’re in the middle of the Civil War. The U.S. government does not have a lot of spare cash lying around to invest in a railroad and what they do have is land, lots of land, that they’ve just repossessed from the American Indians, so the government turns to, as we would say today, the private sector . They figure they can give some of their land away to railroad companies who in turn can sell it for a profit and use that profit to build a railroad.
P. Onuf: And Ed, when you say “give some of that land,” you mean give as in for free.
E. Ayers: Yeah. You know, there is no free lunch but there is free land. [laughter] And we’re not talking about a couple of acres here and there. This is a big time gift.
Tape (Richard White): I mean, I’ll just give you an example. The grant to the Northern Pacific is the equivalent of giving them the entire area of New England.
E. Ayers: This is Richard White, an historian at Stanford, and author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of America.
Tape (Richard White): We can think of a state named Railroadian and it would be I think the third or fourth biggest state in the country after Alaska, Texas, and maybe Montana. That’s how much land they gave to the railroads, all to private corporations.
P. Onuf: Talk about corporate welfare.
E. Ayers: Yeah, I know, Peter, but this time they really believed it was going to be a win/win because according to the plan, the government wouldn’t actually be losing any of the value of the land.
P. Onuf: [laughter] They’re giving it away, aren’t they?
E. Ayers: Yeah, they’re giving away some of the land. Think of it this way. Imagine a checkerboard, as you did earlier, the airplane flying over it, but picture a real checkerboard with red and black squares and the railroad is the crease down the middle. The government gives all the red squares to the railroad.
P. Onuf: And what about the black squares?
E. Ayers: Well, the government keeps those and because those black square are next to the red squares that the railroad has, they double in value as soon as the railroad is built.
B. Balogh: I understand this. You guys know I’m from Florida. I understand all about real estate speculation, but what’s different about this is it’s the government that kind of speculating. They’re hoping that the squares they hold onto are going to increase in value, right?
E. Ayers: And they’re going to put a railroad through the middle to make sure they do. That’s the whole idea, so now you’ll have a railroad that will keep the country connected, transcontinentally and help grow the economy and develop all those black squares. It sounds like a brilliant idea.
B. Balogh: Yeah, in theory, but even though it’s your century, Ed, it seems to me that people are pretty suspicious of the government back there. I mean, didn’t some people protest the government simply giving away all of this public land?
E. Ayers: Oh, that’s later. Okay, that does happen, but 1862, when this plan was first proposed, even the settlers said, you know, what a great idea. I mean, the railroads are what’s going to make their dream of their own little house on the prairie possible. Here’s Richard White again.
Tape (Richard White): The homesteaders are commercial farmers. They’re not out there to live off the land. They’re out there to make money and they know that once you get away from the rivers, you need railroads to make money so as long as this worked as planned, they’re not raising a great deal of objections to it.
B. Balogh: Hmmm— “As long as this worked as planned”, I sense storm clouds brewing on the horizon.
Tape (Richard White): Well, the problem is, let’s say you grant the land, but the railroad goes bankrupt as the railroad does. Well, the railroad still holds all those red squares. There’s no way it can sell them now. It’s in bankruptcy and sometimes the railroads don’t build again for 5, 10 years. You have a bunch of settlers who want to come in and settle but the land isn’t available to them. They have to move outside the railroad grant.
E. Ayers: And when they move away from the railroad grant, it’s obviously a lot harder to get their stuff to market.
Tape (Richard White): And the other thing you should think about is that the railroads are actually going to put all the land up for sale. Well, sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they use it to mortgage land grant bonds and they pretty much keep the land and the land’s tied up and the settlers can’t get to it, so there’s a whole series of ways in which this whole thing goes disastrously wrong and until about 1873, there’s no more land grants to railroads.
E. Ayers: That quickly? That’s only 11 years basically, right, that it goes on?
Tape (Richard White): Yeah, it’s about 10 years too long actually. [laughter]
P. Onuf: Okay. So, what happens to all those would-be settlers then who want to go west but they can’t find any land?
Richard White: Yeah, the ones who do get land but the land is so far from the railroads that it’s just not economically viable for them to get goods to market.
E. Ayers: Well, if you want to get all technical, the system doesn’t actually work for them. [laughter] And as a matter of fact, most of those would-be homesteaders don’t make it. Only about a third of them last the five years required to get title to the land. The rest move on. Some try again elsewhere. Some call it quits and head back east and thinking about this huge rate of failure, I mean, two-thirds, that’s a lot, I had to ask Richard—how did those parts of the country recover.
Tape (Richard White): Well, large parts never did, you know. The parts where it worked well up until the 98th meridian, those are pretty thoroughly settled by the 1890s, but once you move west to the Missouri River and then you go to the Sierra Nevadas, this huge area of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and the deserts, you know, this had been boom and bust country and parts of this have still have been losing population since the 1920s, so parts of this you could argue never did recover. This was a bad policy with very very lasting consequences and when you go to the empty sections of the United States, the places where there’re small towns drying up in the Great Plains, the places where you’ll see the land has been brought into huge ranches or large farms, you’re looking at failed homestead country. [music]
E. Ayers: That was Richard White, an historian at Stanford University.
P. Onuf: We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, we’re going to give you a whole new definition of blockbuster. It has nothing to do with movies, but if it did, it might be the most depressing movie you’ve ever seen.
B. Balogh: We’ll be back in a minute. You’re listening to “BackStory.”
P. Onuf: Welcome back to “BackStory.” I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th century guy.
B. Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. [sound of phone ringing]
Tape (Jack McNamara): Jack McNamara.
B. Balogh: And this is Jack McNamara. Today, we’re talking about the history of homeownership in America and back in the 1960s, Jack found himself in the middle of a homeownership story so complicated it could only happen in the 20th century.
P. Onuf: Oh, yeah, yeah. What’s so special about the 20th century?
B. Balogh: Well, it’ll be worth it, guys, I promise.
E. Ayers: All right, Brian. Lay it on me.
B. Balogh: In 1967, Jack McNamara was a Jesuit seminarian and he came to Chicago on what we might today call a mission trip. The local pastor wanted a bunch of young guys like Jack to each take a city block and basically just talk to the people there, find out what their problems were.
Tape (Richard White): He called it Operation Saturation.
B. Balogh: Jack thought it was a summer gig.
Tape (Jack McNamara): That summer project ended up to be about four-and-a-half years.
B. Balogh: Jack was stationed in North Lawndale, a mostly African American neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. Grey stone detached houses, each family sharing a wall with its neighbor and the reason Jack spent so long there, it began with a conversation he had with a woman on his assigned block. Her name was Ozirea Arbertha.
Tape (Jack McNamara): I was sitting in her living room one night. She was a widow with four kids and she was working at the post office making $5,000 a year. Her mother was living with her. She was making $4,000 a year scrubbing floors at a hospital at night and Mrs. Arbertha that night as we were sitting there, with a tear coming down her face, said, “I think I could make it if I didn’t have this big mortgage payment,” and I said, “how much is your mortgage payment?” and she said, “$226 a month.”
B. Balogh: That surprised Jack. Just a couple of years before he had been living in Skokie, a white suburb with homes that were by all accounts nicer than Lawndale’s, and Jack’s mortgage payments, well, they were $108.00, less than half of what Mrs. Arbertha was paying. [music] To understand why Mrs. Arbertha’s payments were so high, you need to understand what Lawndale was like a decade earlier. Back then, Lawndale wasn’t an all-black neighborhood. It was an all-white neighborhood, but near the end of the 1950s, real estate speculators played on the racial fears of white homeowners. They spread rumors that a wave of blacks was poised to move in, a situation that would drag down property values and ruin the neighborhood. It was a process of blockbusting.
James Alan McPherson describes the speculators’ tactics in a 1972 issue of The Atlantic: “some merely hired black women to walk their children through white neighborhoods or paid black men to drive noisy cars through an area a few times a day. Sometimes, it was a telephone call for Johnnie Mae. Another caller might simply say, ‘they’re coming.’ The whites sold. Many at prices far below the appraised value of their homes.”
Tape (Jack McNamara): The speculator would come in and buy a place from an outgoing white family for $15,000, for example, and then two days later, they would turn around and sell it to a black family for $28,000. You know, that wasn’t all of it, because they were paying interest on an additional $13,000 so by the time they got through 20 years, they would’ve put in $25,000-$26,000 more. We referred to that total mark-up as a race tax. [music]
B. Balogh: The obvious question is why would anybody pay double market value for their home. Why not just go somewhere more affordable? The most fundamental reason was that blacks were not welcome in most white neighborhoods. In many instances, there were stipulations in the actual deeds that restricted owners from selling to non-whites. As for renting, well, a lot of these families had enough of that.
Tape (Clyde Ross): I thought buying a house was a step up, you know.
B. Balogh: This is Clyde Ross. Like many of the other new faces in Lawndale, he had grown up down South. He was a sharecropper in Mississippi.
Tape (Clyde Ross): Regardless of what it was going to cost me, I was going to try to make it up beyond, you know, the plantation-style situation.
B. Balogh: In case you didn’t catch that, he said he was trying to get beyond “the plantation-style situation.” So in 1961, he bought a home for $27,500, a home he later learned was worth only $15,000. But here’s the kicker: Clyde applied for a mortgage to cover the inflated asking price, despite having a job and being a first-time buyer, he was denied. And blame for that lies not with speculators but the U.S. government. [music]
In the 1930s, the government wanted to encourage homeownership, not just for the richest Americans, but for everyone. So the Federal Housing Administration, or the FHA, created a safety net for banks. They basically said if you give mortgages to higher-risk, low-income borrowers, we’ll guarantee those loans and if those people default, it’s the government’s loss, not yours. The thing was the FHA would only guarantee loans in certain neighborhoods.
Tape (Tom Segrue): The line in the underwriting manuals was that the introduction of an “incompatible element” to a neighborhood would deem that neighborhood to be too risky for a federally underwritten loan.
B. Balogh: This is Tom Segrue, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
Tape (Tom Segrue): “Incompatible elements” meant ethnic or racial minorities. Any neighborhood with more than a handful of African Americans living in it was usually systematically excluded from those loan programs.
B. Balogh: In a process known as redlining, the government drew up detailed maps to make these distinctions clear.
Tape (Tom Segrue): They also colored the maps, so the neighborhoods that were green and blue were rated the highest. The neighborhoods that were yellow, kind of risky; the neighborhoods that were red were deemed too risky for federally underwritten loans and those neighborhoods were invariably neighborhoods with significant minority populations.
B. Balogh: With mortgages off the table for so many African Americans, they were left with only one option to finance a house: it was called a Land Contract.
Tape (Tom Segrue): And these contracts essentially made homeownership very difficult to obtain. I mean, you miss one payment and the house would be repossessed and the speculator who had bought would put it on the market and sell it to somebody else. It was essentially a kind of a ‘buying on installment’ plan.
B. Balogh: Under a contract, you got all the responsibilities of homeownership without actually owning any equity in the house.
Tape (Clyde Ross): You got a contract, you don’t own the house.
B. Balogh: Again, Clyde Ross.
Tape (Clyde Ross): You just paying for it. And you were responsible for tax, insurance, upkeep, heat, lights, gas, and everything you were responsible for.
B. Balogh: Jack McNamara discovered that hundreds of families in Lawndale had purchased their homes under these contracts. More shocking still was that none of them realized their neighbors were in the same situation. Everyone thought they were the only ones.
Tape (Jack McNamara): Most of them were embarrassed to have bought on contract. They would tell each other they had mortgages, but they didn’t, you know, none of them did have mortgages.
B. Balogh: So they referred to it as a mortgage?
Tape (Jack McNamara): Right, and mostly because, you know, it was embarrassing to have to admit that they had this inferior form of homeownership.
B. Balogh: McNamara organized a meeting with about 10 families. That meeting turned into many meetings and the 10 families turned into 500. The group gave themselves a name—the Contract Buyers League or CBL. Their goal—to renegotiate the members’ contracts, to lower the price of their homes, all 500 of them, to fair market value. Despite their numbers, there was an initial reluctance to act. A lot of these families had been paying their contracts for upwards of 10 years. That’s a lot of money to lose if something goes wrong. Clyde Ross likened the situation to something he saw as a boy back in the Mississippi.
Tape (Clyde Ross): When I was at home, I used to graze a cow. I would have one cow and so we put a chain on her leg and tie her and we would put her in places where she’d see grass twice a day. So, one time I come out to move her in another place and the chain was off. And the cow didn’t even know it. [music] The cow was still walking in the same area where she’d eat. She didn’t even know the chain was off she was so blindfolded that she had been in the chains so long she thought that the chain was still on her leg.
B. Balogh: But Ross, like McNamara, knew that if something was going to change, it was going to change right now. Nobody liked contracts. They just needed a little convincing to fight back,
Tape (Clyde Ross): So, my voice was then, well the chain is off, you know, just move on out and do something else. [music]
B. Balogh: The CBL organized a payment strike. To be safe, the Lawndale families put aside the payments they would’ve made in a safe deposit box. If the renegotiations worked, they wanted to have cash on hand to cover the back payment.
Tape (Jack McNamara): What was cool was that we kept track of how much we had and, you know, it came to a million dollars pretty quickly. The night before the first eviction, we had a large crowd meet in a church there and we could’ve paid right then but people got up and said, well, “night’s darkest hour come before the dawn” and “we ain’t got nothing no how anyway,” so everybody kind of remained resolved and in solidarity.
B. Balogh: The CBL fought the eviction attempts that followed, sometimes in court, sometimes in more wily fashion.
Tape (Jack McNamara): At the beginning, we were able to get so many people inside the house that when the sheriff’s guys came, they couldn’t get in to remove the furniture. [laughter] Just stand in the house.
Tape (Clyde Ross): I was in there. If they’d move the stuff, when they’d leave, we’d put stuff back in.
B. Balogh: Despite their creative tactics, the activists could only do so much and at least 12 families were thrown out of their homes for good. But many were able to renegotiate, presumably as a result of the payment strike. By the end of 1970, a hundred and six contracts had been renegotiated with each family saving an average of $14,000. McNamara says that over the next several years that number rose to 490 families with an average savings of $13,500, putting them more or less on par with what a white homeowner with a mortgage would’ve paid. [music]
Clyde Ross was one of them. By the time he renegotiated, he had been making contract payments for a decade, so he didn’t owe any more money on his house, plus he had that all money saved up from the payment strike.
Tape (Clyde Ross): So what we gonna do with it? Fix the house up. Bought me a new car.
B. Balogh: A brown Chevy and best of all, he got the deed to his house. He remembers that day very clearly.
Tape (Clyde Ross): Oh, man, it was an unbelievable the day, you know, it was unbelievable that I could walk in this house and say, well, I own this house and I ain’t gotta to pay more mortgage.
Tape (Jack McNamara): And then the chain was really off.
Tape (Clyde Ross): Oh, I’d say it was off and after that, I couldn’t sleep. [laughter] Two or three nights I couldn’t sleep.
B. Balogh: Clyde still lives in that house today 50 years later. [music]
E. Ayers: Special thanks to [Nylia Boudeau] who helped us in the reporting of that story.
P. Onuf: And to Beryl Satter whose book Family Properties tipped us off to the story of the CBL. You can find a link to check out that book on our website, backstoryradio.org. [music]
B. Balogh: Guys, after World War II, nothing seemed more natural than owning your own home and really, nothing seemed more up to the individual.
P. Onuf: Yeah.
B. Balogh: If you got a good job, you made some money, you bought a home. Maybe you moved to the suburbs and I think there’s a story about the Contract Buyers League and Clyde Ross shows us how important the rules of the game are and I think it’s worth pausing here to talk about just how much home ownership had to do with purely individual choice and how much it had to with the larger set of rules in play. Certainly, in my century, the government really shaped many of those rules. Peter, I’d be curious to know, back in your period, how much did the government shape those rules.
P. Onuf: Well, I think it’s important that there were rules. The myth of American expansion is that settlers, entrepreneurial adventurous settlers move out into virgin land and mixed their labor with it and made it their own and those property rights then were recognized by the state but it goes just in the opposite direction. It’s important to point out that Chicago was part of the Northwest Territory originally and before that, it was, well guess what, Indian country. But American policymakers believed that they were public lands. That is, they belonged to all Americans and then they were privatized. If it weren’t for the state, if it weren’t for its rules, if it weren’t for the removal of Native Americans by the action of the federal and state, getting them out of there, then those lands would never have become available to become private property and so that whole process suggests that rather than property rights being natural, self-generated by enterprising individuals, they are very much a function of the state.
E. Ayers: You know, the culmination of this, Peter, I think comes in 1862 in the Homestead Act. It’s the homestead.
P. Onuf: Right. It’s a beautiful thing.
E. Ayers: By this point, the land’s literally feel empty to the white settlers pouring in there and, of course, this is happening in the middle of the Civil War at the very same time that another drama that’s played around the same matrix of law and customs and race and business and that is what is going to happen to the four million people held in slavery for 200 years who had cleared the land that is the South and, of course, we all know the phrase that was used that was held out—40 acres and a mule, which was, in fact, a government policy that was discussed. Wouldn’t it be fair to give the enslaved people 40 acres and the mule is the machine that you have to have to till it, to make it a farm. And, unfortunately, this dream emerges in the wake of the war as the war is coming to an end in 1865, but almost as soon as that emerges, it’s extinguished. Almost as soon as the government holds out the hope that it may be ready to do for enslaved people what it had done for white settlers, it’s snatched back.
P. Onuf: That’s because of those property rights, right, Ed? I mean—
E. Ayers: Yeah.
P. Onuf: The land was already owned, wasn’t it?
E. Ayers: Exactly. We know that these southern slave-owners had risen up in rebellion against the United States, but even more important than that, they had property rights and you simply cannot put the country back together if you’re going to take the property, the homes, away from the white landowners and so for the next two or three generations, the formerly enslaved people and their children try to make a place for themselves in the South. They save and combine their resources in every way they can to buy even the smallest piece of land but these were the direct sources of the story in Chicago because despite all that work, all that sweat, all that sacrifice, African Americans of that region there along the Mississippi find themselves steadily more dispossessed rather than getting a chance to buy into the American dream and despairing, they feel the only way they have a chance is to go to Chicago and the other cities
P. Onuf: So, it’s not go West, young man, it’s go to the big city, young man.
E. Ayers: Exactly.
B. Balogh: Guys, let me just add a postscript. A lot of people thought that discrimination would be ended when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Fair Housing Act stated that discrimination based on race, based on other factors, was illegal. But then a very funny thing happened—we had the deregulation of the housing market. The government said, you know, yes, let’s step back, let’s let the market decide who’s credit worthy and who is not credit worthy.
The problem came in that some of these corporations continued to discriminate not based on credit worthiness but based on the color of people’s skin and we know that Bank of America, Countrywide Division, discriminated against minorities, steered them into riskier, higher cost mortgages solely based on their minority status. We know this because the Justice Department sued Bank of America and Bank of America settled with the Justice Department for $350 million so this push and pull between what is clearly an American ideal and the reality of American practices continues even today. [music]
E. Ayers: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, what to do when your house fights back.
P. Onuf: You’re listening to “BackStory.” See you in a minute.
B. Balogh: This is “BackStory.” I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy.
E. Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, the guy in the middle in the 19th century.
P. Onuf: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century history guy. Today on our show “Homeownership, the Bittersweet Dream.” Each week while we’re putting our show together, we invite some listeners to call in and ask us their questions, so, guys, let’s do it. [music] All right, we have a call from Gettysburg, PA, and it’s Carrie. Carrie, welcome to “BackStory.”
Caller (Carrie): Hi, thanks.
P. Onuf: Hey. Great to have you on the show and you have a question about homeownership.
Caller (Carrie): Yes, so right now, I am a student at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, and that sort of colors my question.
P. Onuf: Ohhh—
Caller (Carrie): From sort of your historical perspective, what has the role of the church been in encouraging homeownership or not, including sort of the church’s role as a homeowner in providing, like, parsonages.
P. Onuf: Um huh.
Caller (Carrie): Did churches play any role in sort of drawing people to the community and encouraging them to stay and put down roots and buy homes?
P. Onuf: What a wonderful question and that’s the role of the church in the history of American real estate and then the church, the home of God, the house of God, what is its relationship to the homes of mere mortals, Ed?
E. Ayers: Well, it’s one of the things that points out that if we were talking about Catholics, we’d be talking about a very different kind of home than if we’re talking about Protestants, right? And the whole idea of the parsonage is that there is a family probably—
P. Onuf: Yes.
E. Ayers: Associated with the pastor and you require something much like a home and I’m guessing that this is actually quite reassuring to Protestants. Compared to a monastery or a nunnery, which are in the 19th century places of deep suspicions for Protestants and so I think that the parsonage is sort of an instant welcoming sort of symbol but also a domesticated symbol.
P. Onuf: That’s great, Ed. Let me spin a little bit earlier on that same theme because I think it’s an important one and you bring up the Protestant thing, we’re having a religious call here, that is in Puritan New England, the church itself, the meeting house, is not sacred space and this is a rejection of the Catholic notion in the big cathedrals and in the churches that these are consecrated sacred spaces, and the corollary of that I think is important for Carrie’s question because if there’s nothing particularly special about the meeting house, there is something about every house that’s special. In a way every house is a house of God because that’s the site of family worship.
E. Ayers: Right. Which is really the core of Puritan faith, isn’t it, Peter?
P. Onuf: Yes, absolutely right. So, I think maybe one answer—this is pretty vague Carrie and you can push us on this—is the connection between the idea of the family and worship and the house which becomes a, in a way, for each family, a kind of sacred or sentimental space.
B. Balogh: What’s your reaction to that, Carrie? I want to find out if Peter’s right or not before I confirm his point. [laughter]
Caller (Carrie): I mean, I think that sounds pretty reasonable and it would make sense to me that if the house is a sacred space, then obviously if you own your own house, you’ll put more work into it.
P. Onuf: Yep.
Caller (Carrie): And you’ll treat it differently than if you’re just leasing from someone else.
B. Balogh: So here’s my point that builds off yours and Peter’s, which is in the 20th century, in Catholic parishes, Catholic homeowners were far more reticent to leave their older homes and move out to the suburbs because they needed that connection with the sacred space.
P. Onuf: That’s interesting.
B. Balogh: Which was still the church and even in the face of white flight, after World War II, Catholics, ethnic groups that were still attached to that sacred space of the church, moved out of their homes at much lower rates than Protestants.
P. Onuf: That is so cool, Brian, and I remember as a Protestant child, you went to the church that was most convenient and it was a marketplace of churches. There was any particular—
B. Balogh: A church of your choice.
P. Onuf: A church of your choice and that would be the one that’s in walking distance, but in a way, any Protestant church is good for any Protestant, right? [laughter] And people do switch from Methodist to Presbyterian. I know I’m talking about mainstream more than evangelical sects today, but that idea that maybe the important place or site is the home and what happens there and that’s where you do honor to God, it’s not necessarily in the place of worship.
B. Balogh: Because the home is just a portable container for the family.
P. Onuf: Yeah, absolutely.
B. Balogh: Which is the real object of moral formation.
P. Onuf: Yes, you got it.
Caller (Carrie): Thank you very much.
P. Onuf: Thanks for call. Bye bye.
B. Balogh: Bye bye.
Caller (Carrie): Bye. [music]
P. Onuf: We’ve got another call. This one’s from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Mary Kim, welcome to the show.
Caller (Mary Kim): Hi.
P. Onuf: Hey.
Caller (Mary Kim): Thank you.
P. Onuf: Well, it’s lovely to have you with us in our home here, in our various studios.
Caller (Mary Kim): I’m happy to be here.
P. Onuf: So, tell us what’s on your mind.
Caller (Mary Kim): Well, I’ve been thinking about how increasingly there’s this emphasis on larger and larger homes that include fairly specific, like almost single-function rooms, like a media center or a family room—
P. Onuf: A man cave.
Caller (Mary Kim): A play room. A man cave.
B. Balogh: The Scotch Tape room is my favorite.
Caller (Mary Kim): Right. The wrapping paper room.
P. Onuf: That’s exactly—
Caller (Mary Kim): And I’m wondering, you know, and so these things are very clearly defined and I think that even carries out into the exterior of the space so that our borders and our boundaries are so clearly defined and I’m wondering how that’s changed over time and also how that may affect our sort of notions of privacy and connectedness or not connectedness or isolation from each other.
P. Onuf: Mary Kim, this is a totally fabulous show-long question. Where to begin on what the ever larger house has done to American life and where does it come from. Is it un-American?
E. Ayers: Well, it would have to begin, the whole idea of privacy, in the late 18th century, wouldn’t it, Peter?
P. Onuf: Oh, yeah. You know, where it comes from really is a change in domestic architecture and the interior design of homes so that people would have separate bedrooms. When there was enough space, and the great thing about American houses, is they were poorly built and they were built not to last. That’s planned obsolescence. Building materials were cheap and there was plenty of space, so it was possible to fulfill fantasies of having personal space pretty early.
E. Ayers: You know, I guess I would’ve thought, Peter, that the idea of private bedrooms and all, I don’t know if that was an English idea that we imported or did it grow up because there was enough space here.
P. Onuf: Yeah, well, I think it is a combination, in a way. I think the best way to understand American ambitions and home building is to see them from the beginning as gentrifiers, as trying to build up and live up to their notion of the aristocracy or the gentry and that’s what the middle class is, after all, it’s mass aristocracy. It’s having knock-off products mass produced that were originally the kinds of things that aristocrats would have.
E. Ayers: And when I go back to my home in Pagebrook Manor or whatever, right?
P. Onuf: Yes, exactly, right. I think that’s a theme that goes through American history as we’ve both built houses and filled them with things that speak to our status or sense of who we are and it’s interesting that privacy is such an issue because on one hand we want to show off. Its conspicuous consumption; on the other hand, then that space within is supposed to be sacredly ours.
B. Balogh: Yeah, and Mary Kim, I just want to say in the 20th century the reason that houses get bigger and bigger is we fill them with a lot of stuff.
Caller (Mary Kim): Right.
B. Balogh: And a lot of that stuff has kind of a specialized function and perhaps the most important example of that is the television where there might one television on the block in the early 1950s. You went over to your neighbors to watch the TV—
P. Onuf: Yeah. It happened to me. I’m that old.
B. Balogh: It very quickly becomes something that occupies the center of the house so much so that it becomes the television room—
Caller (Mary Kim): Right.
B. Balogh: And I visited a very wealthy house a few months ago. It wasn’t in a gated community. It was in a doubly-gated community [laughter] and—
P. Onuf: How did you get in there anyway?
B. Balogh: And there was— That’s another show, Peter. And there was a television in virtually every room in that house.
E. Ayers: My dream house.
B. Balogh: Yeah.
Caller (Mary Kim): Right, right.
E. Ayers: But, you know, I figure the 21st century is equal game for everybody, wouldn’t you say?
P. Onuf: Yeah.
E. Ayers: So I can go ahead and say—
P. Onuf: You bet.
E. Ayers: So, Mary Kim, I don’t know if you’ve noticed or if you’ve read, but houses are shrinking again, that the pattern that you described I think is an historically specific moment. We think of McMansions, right?
P. Onuf: Yeah.
Caller (Mary Kim): Uh huh.
E. Ayers: So, they’re very much ’80s, ’90s, and the early 21st century, but now they’re no longer not only possible, we’ve decided that we don’t like them, that they are wrong.
Caller (Mary Kim): Right.
E. Ayers: That they’re gauche and too much, so, I mean, you’re asking this question, so why do you think—
P. Onuf: Yeah, you want to know more about her. Yeah, what’s going on, Mary Kim? Tell us about your house. Take us on a virtual tour of your house.
E. Ayers: How many TVs do you have?
Caller (Mary Kim): Well, fortunately, we only have— I’m happy to say we only have one, but there’re two things I think that have like—
B. Balogh: Wait a second. More importantly, how many radios do you have? [laughter]
Caller (Mary Kim): Ohhh— [laughter] I only have one in my house, but mostly I listen not at home.
B. Balogh: Okay.
P. Onuf: Right.
B. Balogh: Just so you listen.
Caller (Mary Kim): I listen online or in my car.
P. Onuf: Just so long as you listen.
Caller (Mary Kim): [laughter] Well, so, two things: one, we did happen to— My husband and I did happen to fall in love with this old Victorian house which is— It’s got the sort of smaller defined rooms but it’s much more space than we ever really needed, so [laughter] it’s this kind of odd kind of mixture for me the way I feel about it. I mean, I love being in an older home that we can preserve something of the past but at the same time, it does in some ways satisfy those ambitions that you spoke of earlier—
P. Onuf: Right.
Caller (Mary Kim): Where you would have all this space to fill with all of our stuff.
P. Onuf: Right. But I bet the bathrooms are small and the public spaces are big.
Caller (Mary Kim): They are.
P. Onuf: And then that’s the difference between these engorged houses in the late 20th century is the public spaces would shrink and the TV would have its own room or the TVs would have their separate rooms and there would be the man cave and so forth.
E. Ayers: But what you’re pointing to, Mary Kim, is something even like the size of a house is deeply historically rooted and so you’re cursed with the self-knowledge that you need to decorate it in a way historically specific.
P. Onuf: Well, that’s right. Right. She’s a victim of her own house and now she has a stewardship. She has to take care of that house.
E. Ayers: That’s right.
P. Onuf: Right? Whoa. That’s a house to built to last and you’re in charge. Mary Kim, good luck and thanks so much for calling.
B. Balogh: Thanks a lot.
Caller (Mary Kim): Thank you.
B. Balogh, P. Onuf and E. Ayers: Bye bye. [music]
E. Ayers: You know, guys, we’ve been talking for the last hour about the dream of American homeownership, but a lot of people have made money off the nightmare of homeownership and I’m not talking about those people who are handing out subprime mortgages. I’m talking about Hollywood. I mean, just think about it, just recently I’ve seen all these ads for movies, “Dream House” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” and if you can believe it, the third installment of “Paranormal Activity,” but this genre of sort of the modern haunted house was created in the 1970s and 1980s, the post-Nixon years, when in moves like “Poltergeist” and “The Amityville Horror,” the houses themselves really take a starring role and a scary starring role. Now, why would that be? Well, fortunately, we were able to ask New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein to scare us up an answer.
Tape (David Edelstein): American men got back from World War II where they had seen truly horrible things and they dreamed about a country that would be safe, where they could keep their family safe from the kind of things that they had seen overseas. They dreamed of a national highway system. They dreamed of a suburb. And the ’70s, on the other side of the counterculture, when we were suddenly laughing at “Leave It To Beaver,” we were suddenly laughing at “The Brady Bunch,” many of us getting high and watching those old episodes, that’s when we began to question the very foundation of the American dream.
Tape (from “Poltergeist”): “They’re here.”
Tape (David Edelstein): Films like “Poltergeist” really prey on our deep suspicion that this is a not a way of life that we can sustain. Perhaps the houses are very pretty and freshly painted and there’re beautiful gardens, but somewhere or other, someone has done something wrong. There is some original sin and in the case of “Poltergeist,” of course, we learn it’s become a joke, it’s become a cliché. It was built over an Indian graveyard.
Tape (from “Poltergeist”): “That son of a [bleep], you moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? That son of a [bleep] had left the bodies and you only moved the headstones. You only moved the headstones. Why? Why?” [creepy music]
Tape (from “Amityville Horror”): “I just wished they’d— All those people that had died here, I mean, ewwww— A guy kills his whole family? Doesn’t that bother you?” / “Sure, but houses don’t have memories.”
Tape (David Edelstein): Well, this is “The Amityville Horror,” which is supposedly based on a true story. We’ve since discovered that it was, in fact, a scam, though it fooled a great many people. What’s interesting about that movie is that you see that this idea of this house, it’s not only haunted in and of itself, but it gets inside. It stirs the inner demons.
Tape (from “Poltergeist”): “Would you please leave that damn fire alone and listen to me?” / “I’m not going anywhere. You’re the one that wanted a house. This is it, so just shut up.”
Tape (David Edelstein): They chose this house. They wanted to move there because they felt that it would change their lives, the way we all feel that we’re going to be able to relaunch our lives. We’re going to be able to start afresh and this demon here manages to prey on the very things that this house was supposed to be strengthening.
Tape (from “Amityville Horror”): “What do you want from us?” / “God [bleep], this is my house!”
Tape (David Edelstein): In this culture in particular we invest so much of our hopes and dreams, so much of our identity is invested in our houses, in our real estate. We’ve become increasingly obsessed with real estate at a time when so many people are unable to afford it and are, in fact, being dispossessed. Now, it’s sort of funny—when you think of dispossession versus possession by demons, well, in some ways, the ghost in the haunted house is the most efficient foreclosure artist in history because you buy something and you think it’s mine, I own this house, I own this land, and then you are slapped upside the head, [creepy music] you understand somebody comes out of the deep dark past and says you don’t own this, you don’t own anything, you don’t even own your own flesh. I can get inside you. I can get inside these walls. I can get into your baby’s room. I can bring this house and everything it’s standing on and everything it represents in your pathetic bourgeois world, I can bring it crashing to the ground and you don’t have a chance against me. You don’t have literally a prayer.
E. Ayers: David Edelstein is a film critic whose reviews appear in New York Magazine and are heard on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and CBS “Sunday Morning.” [music—“come on, let’s build a house, come on, let’s build a house”]
P. Onuf: And that’s going to do it for us today. For a great list of books, sources and completely unsubstantiated videos of real-life poltergeists, head on over to our website, backstoryradio.org where you can join the conversation. Don’t be a stranger.
B. Balogh: Special thanks today to Camille Wells, Adam [Rome], Gwenn Wright, Robert Schiller and Miller Center Fellow Robert Henderson.
E. Ayers: “BackStory” is produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel and Anna Pinkert. Our senior producer is Tony Field.
B. Balogh: Jamal Milner is our technical director. Nell Boeschenstein is our researcher and Frank [Sorello] is our international. “BackStory’s” executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.
P. Onuf: Major support for “BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor and The History Channel—History Made Every Day.
__________: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. “BackStory” was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.