Popular culture and the federal government celebrated the suburbs as the post-war American ideal. But this ideal was not intended or attainable for everyone. Housing in the United States was deeply segregated even before the rise of the suburbs. Federal and state policies denied Blacks and other marginalized groups access to fair housing for decades.
Nearly 7 million white Americans left cities between 1950 and 1970. Suburban developers seeking business catered to the newcomers. The developers promoted communities where like-minded neighbors could build an American dream together. Many suburban developers included clauses in real estate contracts guaranteeing white residents that Black families would be kept out of the neighborhood. The founder of the famous Levittown in Long Island, New York, argued that such policies were necessary to attract residents.
In the same two decades, nearly 3 million Black Americans left the rural south for the urban North, continuing the Great Migration. They were not welcomed in most suburbs. Because they lacked options, many Black families moved into new government-sponsored public housing. Public housing was designed to provide low-income families with a home. The large apartment buildings packed many people into a small amount of space without any amenities.
The domestic reality for white and Black women was very different. White women were more likely to stay home full time to care for their families. Most married white women who worked earned a modest income, which added to the family’s spending money. They had access to better-quality homes filled with time-saving appliances. They also had the support of and participated in volunteer organizations that benefited their schools and communities. Black women rarely had the option to care for their families at home full time. Economic inequalities and employment discrimination based on race meant that most Black families needed two incomes to survive. As working mothers, Black women had less support and time to invest in their homes, children, and other needs. And no amount of hard work would earn them access to the suburbs.