White flight's effect on Charleston and Putnam
This is another installment in an ongoing series examining the legacy of the 50-year-old Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision and its effect on society as a whole.
The Rev. Lloyd Hill stepped out of his office to greet students as they got off the school bus at the Roosevelt Community Center.
"How are you doing there, young lady?" he asked a little girl in a purple coat. Hill, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, works at Roosevelt in the afternoons.
In 2000, Hill led East Enders who wanted the school for a community center. Former Mayor Jay Goldman decided instead to let the police department's traffic division use the building.
Hill headed back to his office after greeting students recently, and the group of about 20 students dispersed to two classrooms. Some grabbed a seat in the computer lab. Other started a game of pool in the game room.
These were the only two choices on a recent rainy afternoon. Roosevelt’s gym floor was being refinished, and the gym was blocked off with orange traffic cones and blue tape.
“I can’t let them play in the halls ... it would be chaos,” said Hill, smiling.
Last summer, Mayor Danny Jones announced that he would turn the gym, stage and a few classrooms over to the neighborhood.
Roosevelt is located in one of Charleston’s most racially diverse neighborhoods. About 30 percent of East End residents who live north of Washington Street are black, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. Most of the children who come to Roosevelt are black.
About 15 percent of Charleston residents are black, but those residents are not spread equally through the city’s neighborhoods. South Hills, Charleston’s more affluent neighborhood, has a black population of about 1 percent — about 80 individuals out of 7,500 in the 2000 Census.
Charleston’s population decreased by about 3,000 people between 1990 and 2000. In almost every neighborhood, the white population decreased, while the black population stayed stable or even increased.
The most striking example of the shift lies in the West Side neighborhood between Park Avenue, Washington Street, Kanawha Boulevard and the Elk River.
The neighborhood lost about 200 people overall between 1990 and 2000, decreasing to 2,300 people. But while white residents moved away, Census numbers show that the black population doubled. Whites outnumbered blacks by roughly 6 to 1 in 1990; by 2000, that had dropped to 2 to 1.
Main Street, which cuts through the middle of this section, looks like a street in any other Charleston neighborhood. Churches stand on every other corner. Houses with peeling paint and fallen gutters are scattered between long stretches of neat homes with trimmed yards.
Bob Hardy, director of the Charleston Economic Community Development Corp., has renovated houses in this part of the West Side. When the Charleston Housing Authority demolished more than half the buildings in the Orchard Manor low-income housing complex in 1998, Hardy said people used their housing assistance to rent homes on the near West Side, closer to downtown.
The houses are in better shape, and probably are seen as a safer place to live than those farther west, Hardy said. The bus route and a grocery store are nearby, which allows people without cars to live there.
“It’s not upscale, but it’s more middle class ... ,” he said. “People working more service-type jobs moved there when the [Union] Carbiders moved out to Cross Lanes, and farther out than that.”
It’s hard to say if Charleston’s white families moved to suburban communities in western Kanawha and Putnam counties, or left West Virginia completely, Mayor Jones said.
“In the 1970s, there were communities in the eastern part of Kanawha County that no longer exist,” he said. “Any numbers you get for West Virginia are going to be skewed, because people are leaving the state.”
“The neighborhoods in the city have changed drastically over the past 20 to 25 years,” said the Rev. Homer Davis, a former NAACP president.
Black neighborhoods once were isolated to a few areas along Wertz Avenue, the Elk River and a small section on the West Side. “Today, there is no area in the city that I know of that there is not some presence of African-Americans,” Davis said. “We have the freedom of mobility, but it still depends on our economic circumstances.”
The largest percentage of Charleston’s black residents live on the East End and West Side. According to the 2000 Census, people in those neighborhoods make less money, are less likely to own a car and are more likely to rent their home.
Houses there are older than those in Kanawha City and South Hills, and city building inspectors say most of their citations and demolitions come from property in the flats.
Longtime East End and West Side residents have said landlords bought up homes in their neighborhoods and carved them into apartments. Some of those longtime homeowners don’t want any more renters moving in, Hardy said.
“They think [renters] have a different type of attitude than the people who have lived there previously. The residents that have lived there for years say [renters] don’t care,” Hardy said. “Whether that is fact or fiction remains to be seen.”
“As good as anybody”
Mary Crozier Snow has held onto her house on the West Side for more than 50 years. Her cousin, a real-estate agent, found the Fourth Avenue location for $5,000 in 1947.
“That was a good deal,” she said. “Blacks at that time were moving into much nicer homes. But I don’t think the white families were moving out because of race.”
Another black couple moved next door about the same time. Their son still owns the house, but he rents it out. “They have a hard time with renters that don’t treat the property correctly,” she said.
Most of Snow’s playmates were white children when she was growing up on nearby Second Avenue. When they went to school, the white children walked north of Fourth Avenue to Glenwood, and Snow and other black children went the opposite way to Island School.
When she was older, Snow took the streetcar to her junior high school in downtown Charleston. White people would put packages or purses in the seats to keep black children from sitting beside them.
Snow keeps a photograph of her mother, Barbara, beside the front door. Snow’s father was murdered when she was a little girl, and her mother washed clothes to support her seven children.
“My mother taught us to accept a lot of things, as far as segregation was concerned,” Snow said. “She wanted us to feel as good as anybody, and she gave us a strong feeling for all people.”
There were some fights between the younger whites and blacks, but Snow missed them. “Maybe because of my mother. ... She was responsible for the way we lived through it,” she said.
“In my youth, you couldn’t hardly walk past Glenwood school. ... I think it is ironic that I became the first integrated principal there,” said Snow, who worked for Kanawha County schools for more than 50 years.
When Kanawha County schools integrated, some teachers didn’t want to serve under a black principal, Snow said. Some asked for transfers.
The neighborhood slowly has faded around her. Buildings that used to be grocery stores are boarded up. Snow used to sit on her front porch, or leave the front door open while she walked over to Second Avenue to see her mother, but not anymore.
Her car was totaled last month, and she has to ask for rides from her friends. Recently, someone fired a shot into her bedroom window during a drive-by shooting that left a man dead.
Her son in California has begged her to move out with him, but Snow said it’s too late in life for her to leave.
“I’m more cautious,” she said. “But I’m not afraid.”
“Some nice families
Hundreds of black residents in the downtown and East End lost their homes in the late 1960s when the city bought up houses through eminent domain for two urban renewal projects.
Ethel Porter, a retired nurse in her 80s who lives in Kanawha City, still gets upset when she talks about losing her house on Pinehurst Drive to Interstate 64 in 1970.
The Triangle District, an area between Washington, Capitol and Slack streets and the Elk River, was known for run-down property, prostitutes and bootleggers.
The land was used for a new water plant and Interstate 64/77. Officials also promised to build 700 units of housing for displaced Triangle residents, but less than half of that housing was ever built.
Some of Porter’s neighbors left Charleston altogether, moving to Institute and St. Albans.
Porter found a new home on Kanawha Avenue in 1971. “I received very little for my old house. [But] I got this place for a song, and I’ve been singing ever since,” Porter said. “Those of us who lost our houses to the interstate, we didn’t get rich.”
Her eldest daughter was in the first class to integrate at Charleston High School. The year was so rough on her daughter that Porter’s two younger sons skipped school and joined the Army.
“People talk about Birmingham and Selma [Ala.],” she said. “But Charleston wasn’t much better.”
She blames many of Charleston’s current problems on the displacement of Triangle District residents. “Some of it was a high-crime area,” she said. “But some nice families lived there, too.”
Some of the older members of Rev. Hill’s congregation remember the Triangle.
“The Triangle District happened because it could. The people stood up and said no, but it didn’t make a difference. They moved [to the East End] because this is where they were pushed,” Hill said. “...They were so shocked by [the Triangle demolition], they never left. It left a bitter taste; it left distrust.”
City officials still don’t always listen to what the black community wants for its neighborhoods, Hill said. He is glad Charleston opened the community center, but also feels the city might have spent a little more time and money if Roosevelt were sitting in South Hills instead of the East End.
“White people think, in order to give you something, they’re going to have to lose something,” he said.
But Hill wants to move forward with Roosevelt. City officials admit Roosevelt needs more work, starting with an elevator to make the second floor accessible to handicapped people.
Hill wants to recruit more volunteers before school lets out for the summer. He hopes a theater group could put together a production using Roosevelt’s stage.
He said he’d like to get the kids out to see a play or go whitewater rafting, anything to get them off the East End. “I don’t want to see these kids live in these houses until they tear them down.”
To contact staff writer Mandy Rorrer, use e-mail or call 348-5163.