December 14, 1945 — US Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, Washington DC
As president of the National Council of Negro Women, I welcome the opportunity of testifying in support of the Wagner-Ellender-Taft general housing bill now being considered by this committee.
The National Council of Negro Women is an over-all coordinating organization, comprised of 19 affiliated national organizations and 20 metropolitan councils. The aggregate membership of the affiliated is in excess of 800,000 women located in every State in the Union. The council, in turn, is affiliated with the National Council of Women. Our programs have been concentrated in such vital areas as employment, housing, veterans’ rights, consumer education, general education, family welfare, and health. Among these, we have consistently recognized the importance of housing, which has been the subject of discussion and study in our annual workshop.
Certainly the Senators Wagner, Ellender, and Taft, who have made made such long, diligent, and thorough study of this problem in their respective committees and have brought forth this comprehensive bill, merit the highest commendation of the American people. The evolution of this bill is representative of democracy at its best.
The national council is happy to note that this bill carries the names and sponsored leaders of both the great political parties. We interpret this bipartisan approach and long study and preparation that went into the typical American attack upon recognized, well-defined social need. In this same spirit, the national council would like to pledge to the sponsors full support of the principles of this bill as well as those contained in this statement.
The subject of this proposed legislation has long commended the interest and study of the National Council of Negro Women. In 1943, our postwar planning committee prepared a pamphlet entitled “Disease, Death, and Deliquency are Bred in Slums.” This pamphlet outlined an action program with a slogan “Don’t Rest Until Every Home Unfit for Human Habitation Is Stamped Out of Your City!” This slogan is indeed a complement to the worthy goal proposed under S. 1592 — “a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” To say that the National Council of Negro Women endorses this goal would actually be an understatement, for we have long and earnestly plead for freedom of all people from the slums.
Members of my council staff have studied carefully the provisions of this bill and have advised me that, in general, the testimony offered by such organizations as the American Council on Race Relations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Urban League, have covered adequately the technical provisions, and heartily concur with their endorsements as well as with their constructive criticisms of the bill. But as the matter was discussed with me, I thought it to be of such paramount importance to Negroes, and similar low-income groups, that I am impelled to make a statement in behalf of the council.
This is a crucial period in the life of the Negro in the United States. We Negro women — mothers of families — have deep anxiety for the future of these families. Thousands of our people have migrated from farms to cities and from the South into the North and Far West. They have crowded into these cities to help in the war effort at the call of their National Government. Now that the war is over, thousands more are following them. As a group, they are crowded into severely restricted, veritable slum ghettos of cities from coast to coast. Negroes are losing their wage jobs, and Congress has not yet seen fit to continue the President’s Fair Employment Practice Committee nor act on full employment legislation to assure remunerative job opportunity for all workers. Our employment picture for the future is dark. We are confused and restless. I can recall that after the First World War similar conditions led to open conflict and violence. In each instance, the terrible housing conditions contributed largely to these upheavals. I see in this piece of legislation a ray of hope that may help relieve these conditions. I see a ray of hope because this bill does have a number of provisions which aim to help families of low and medium income and, through the use of public funds, to provide for the beginnings of large-scale slum clearance.
But the provision for urban redevelopment and public housing is almost like a candle flame in a sea of darkness. These slums are the most cancerous sore in the American life. Many of us had hoped, therefore, that American ingenuity would strike America’s slums with the same resourcefulness, vigor, and sweeping attack that was used in marshaling our industries and national resources to overpower the Axis. The bill is good, but in terms of the magnitude and importance of the job it is too timid for the courageous and pioneering spirit of America. I understand that $22,000,000 per annum for 4 years is provided in this bill to subsidize public housing and only $4,000,000 per annum for 5 years is provided to subsidize the slum clearance land assembly plan. This totals $26,000,000 a year. We spent almost that much on a heavy cruiser during the war. The amount would not even buy a battleship or an airplane carrier. I should urge that we turn loose a whole task force in our attack upon this stronghold of crime, health, delinquency, and racial tension.
I also note that the larger part of the job is to be done by private enterprise with the Federal Government’s help through the Federal Housing Administration. We hope that his aid will be extended to Negroes in accordance with their need and economic qualifications, but our experience so far with the FHA has been that even the upper middle income level of Negroes had undue difficulty getting housing assistance through these channels.
The provisions in title IV of the bill, directed toward assistant private enterprise to develop decent housing for lower income groups, strike at the heart of the housing need so widespread among the families of racial minority groups. I would especially commend the sponsors for proposing the long-neglected protections for consumers. The warranty provision requiring the builders’ guaranty is especially essential for housing aimed at the low-cost levels. And the lapse payment provisions will give the struggling home buyer a chance he has long needed to protect his home. Lack of responsibility for the interest of the consumer has long been a deficiency in the administration of Federal aids under the National Housing Act. I think this has been due to failure of [the] administration to recognize that the primary purpose of housing legislation is, as Senator Murdock as so well stated —
That we supply the American citizen who is interested in a good home with a good home.
We should no more permit the dealers in housing to sell bad structures under a Federal stamp of approval than we would permit a merchant sell tainted meat; certainly not with Federal aid.
I cannot help but feel that, while this bill has great potentialities in it for good, it has certain possible dangers, particularly for Negroes and other racial minorities. This bill puts considerable Federal power and funds; belonging to all the people, in the hands of a few agencies which will affect profoundly the housing policy of the Nation. I further observe the tremendous power vested in local communities under the provisions of this legislation. While I respect the unassailable concept of local responsibility, I must ask you to recognize the potential abuses of this approach n the absence of legislative safeguards for those groups isolated from the main stream of community life and influence. We must recognize the fact that democracy has not been achieved equally with respect to certain of our citizens in thousands of communities in the United States. The powers governing a place to live are powers governing life itself. And the authority of life and death cannot be casually assigned, with Federal aids and sponsorship, to those who have not proved worthy of so sacred a trust. If these Federal funds and power are utilized in behalf of democratic living, it can make a great contribution to our way of life. On the other hand, if they are misused, especially when it comes to the participation of Negroes and other races, it may set up divisions which may imperil national life. This was dramatically recognized by Mr. Justice Keiler MacKay, of the Ontario Supreme Court, in his recent ruling against restrictive covenants in Canada. Said he:
In my opinion, nothing could be more calculated to create or deepen divisions between existing religious and ethnic groups in the Province or in this country, than the sanction of a method of land transfer which would permit the segregation and confinement of particular groups to particular business or residential areas. It appears to be moral duty at least to lend aid to all forces of cohesion and similarly to repel all tendencies which would imperil national unity.
It should be noted that Mr. Justice MacKay, in arriving at his decision, rested the case upon the principles of the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Organization.
Here is an opportunity to strike a blow for the democracy we all profess. The President of the United States himself has given us a lead. He has stated and restated his belief in support of nondiscriminatory policy in employment. He has urged that this policy be implemented by specific clause and by administrative machinery. Following that lead, I would urge that this bill contain a sweeping clause which would require that wherever Federal funds, powers, or instruments are utilized to guarantee aid, or subsidize slum clearance or housing development, the benefits of the bill be extended in accordance with need and economic qualifications and without regard to race, creed, color, religious, or political affiliation.
The provisions of this bill for protection of families to be displaced from redevelopment areas are highly commended. I believe that the highest responsibility true statesmen is the protection those who stand most defenseless because of economic, social, and political impotence. Certainly, highest statesmanship was achieved the drafting these protective sections the bill. Indeed, the land assembly and urban redevelopment title of the bill would be unalterably opposed by racial minority groups if these provisions had not been included. I therefore want to go on record urging that section 604 of title VI accepted precisely as stated in the bill and that all proposals to modify it by eliminating such conditions as the requirement of facilities prior to displacement be rejected by this committee.
In commenting on the amendments to the United States Housing Act of 1937, with exception of the one establishing a 20-percent gap, which I do not favor, I would like to say that the Public Housing Administration has been a bright light in the whole dreary picture of housing available to Negroes during the past 10 years. It stands in startling contrast with the irresponsible and vicious practices of the Federal Housing Administration, which has not only failed to contribute toward the solution of the housing problems that face Negroes but has actually intensified these problems.
It is my earnest hope that this Congress, in passing this general housing bill, will effect every possible measure to establish clearly in the administrative agencies responsibility for extending their programs to meet the fundamental needs to which the legislation is directed. Titles IV and V cannot possibly reach the needs of the racial minority groups if obstructed by the prevailing practices, so ably described by the NAACP, of the Federal Housing Administration.
The reason I do not favor the 20-percent gap between public and private housing is simple. I do not see how the objective of the bill can ever be fully achieved when such broad income sector, embracing millions of families, is not provided for. Furthermore, if this gap is retained, how are have standard housing available for “graduates” of public housing at prices they can pay?
I cannot too highly praise the recognition of the housing needs of the rural areas of this Nation. Today, with our declining birth rates in urban centers, the Nation’s future generations, and thus the Nation’s future, lies in the vast manpower reserves of rural life. Decent homes for the tenants, the sharecroppers, the migrant farm laborers, and the poorer farmer will truly be a profitable investment in America’s future.
Before I close my comments, I would like to quote from that great and beloved champion of decent housing, the late Dr. Edith Elmer-Wood:
It will help if we remember not to put the cart before the horse. The consumer really does not exist by the Divine Providence to provide profits for business and industry. On the contrary, business and industry, mechanisms of wholly human origin, exist to maintain the multitude of homes, big and little, which contain men, women, and especially children who are to carry on the human race.
The equality of opportunity in which we all believe (however far we have fallen short of achieving it) involves a fair chance to every individual for bodily and spiritual health and for a normal family life.
It has been well said that there no better test of the civilization of a nation than the kind homes the masses of its people live in.
Either democracy will destroy the slums, or the slums will destroy democracy.
Source: General Housing Act of 1945, Hearings Before the Committee on Banking and Currency, United States Senate, 75th Congress, 1st Sess. on S. 1592, A Bill to Estabish a National Housing Policy and Provide for its Execution, Part, November 27, 28, 29 ,30, December 4 and 5, 1945 (Washington DC: US Government Pricing Office) 1946, pp. 855-860.