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Navigating Segregated Life in Americas

Racial Borderhoods, 1910s1950s

Albert M. Camarillo

Albert M. Camarillo is the Leon Sloss Jr. Memorial Professor in American history at Stanford University. This article
is a revised version of the presidential address delivered to the convention of the Organization of American Historians
annual meeting in San Francisco, California, on April 13, 2013.
1
Rose Lpez Camarillo interview by Albert M. Camarillo, March 1, 1971, audiotape (in Albert M. Camarillos
possession), side 1, tape 1. Langston Hughes, Fooling Our White Folks, Negro Digest, 8 (April 1950), 3841.

doi: 10.1093/jahist/jat450
The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

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The Journal of American History

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On a summer afternoon in 1925, the teenager Rose Lpez and her friends attended the Saturday matinee feature lm at the only movie theater in Compton, California, where she lived
with her working-class Mexican-immigrant parents and siblings. At the time, the Compton
Theater was segregated by race in that predominantly white municipality where Mexican
Americans were the only racial minority of note. Though a small population of Japanese
American truck farmers lived on the outskirts of the small city, Compton strictly enforced the
exclusion of African Americans during the rst half of the twentieth century.
After Rose and her friends purchased their tickets at the box-ofce window, they lined
up for admission to the show, waiting for the usher to tear their tickets in half so they could
proceed to their seats. As the Mexican American teenagers approached the usher, he pointed
to the side entrances of the auditorium, and they obligingly followed his directions to sit
where, by customary practice, people of color satin the side sections away from the center
seating area that was reserved for whites. Rose had stayed back in the line away from her
friends, and as they entered by the side aisles she approached the usher and stated in perfect
English, Thank you very much, sir. She then walked down the center aisle to claim her
choice seat among the white patrons. Before the movie was projected on the big screen, she
looked over to her friends seated in the far side section, smiled, and winked; they winked in
return. Rosea bilingual, light-skinned Mexican American girl who could pass as white
had tricked Comptons color line, a tactic Langston Hughes had referred to in 1950 as fooling our white folks.1
Eleanor Dickey Ragsdale was the matriarch of a middle-class African American family in
Phoenix, Arizona, and she, too, fooled the color line. According to a black longtime resident of Phoenix, the citys racial divide wasnt much different than in the South. The difference here was that they didnt lynch you. By the 1940s Phoenixs African Americans and
Mexican Americans lived in a city inuenced deeply by the social mores of a substantial
population of white southern transplantscity leaders and common citizenswho formed
part of a larger community in which a racial hierarchy was designed to separate people of
color geographically within the neighborhoods of South Phoenix. Signs in storefront windows

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2
On the house-buying experience of Eleanor Dickey Ragsdale and Lincoln Ragsdale, see Matthew C. Whitaker,
Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West (Lincoln, 2005), 60, 10810. On housing segregation in
Phoenix, see Thomas E. Sheridan, Arizona: A History (Tucson, 1995), 283.

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indicating Mexicans and Negroes Not Welcome were the most obvious reminders of the citys
racial divide. The use of racially restrictive real estate covenants and codes of compliance among
white realtors and homeowners prevented most brown and black people from residing in better
neighborhoods with good schools. A real estate agent and former teacher from Philadelphia,
Eleanor was from a family of means, and though she and her husband, Lincoln, could afford
the new suburban homes that were sprouting everywhere in postWorld War II Phoenix, these
new houses were off limits to blacks, regardless of the purchasers class status. Refusing to accept
the status quo of black residential racial segregation in the increasingly deteriorating neighborhoods on the South Side, Eleanor consciously plotted to break the color line in the years following World War II. This African American woman, who, to some, could easily pass for white,
scheduled a meeting with a white realtor to view a home for sale in an all-white suburb of
North Phoenix. To help ensure she could slip below the color-line radar, she asked the realtor
to meet her at twilight and only allowed her dark-skinned husband to view the home at night as
they drove by the property. Lincoln was reluctant to go along with his wifes plan, but she nally
persuaded him and enlisted the help of a white friend who purchased the home and transferred
the title to the Ragsdales during escrow. Even with the title, Lincoln stated that when move-in
day arrived the realtors wouldnt let me in. The Ragsdales won that skirmish over keys to the
house, but a battle ensued when they were greeted by a concerned improvement committee of
polite white neighbors who insisted the black family would not be happy in the neighborhood
and offered to buy back the home. The offer was rejected, and the war of attrition between established white neighbors and new black homeowners was on. The Ragsdales awakened one morning
to nd the word nigger etched on their lawn in large black letters, and soon the phone calls began:
Hello . . . hello . . . who is it?the only response was an angry voice: Move out, nigger!
Eleanor and Lincoln dug in their heels, determined to live in their new home in North Phoenix
despite intimidation. Indeed, to show the white folks that the Ragsdales were there to stay, Lincoln did not erase the racial epitaph on their lawn.2
Clandestinely passing as white to gain entre as a homeowner in a racially restricted
Phoenix neighborhood, Eleanor Ragsdale planned to contest the residential color line and
help establish a beachhead for other blacks intent on securing better housing in a highly segregated city. Although hundreds of miles apart and separated by decades, Eleanor Ragsdale
and Rose Lpez were fellow travelers during an era when people of color both accommodated and contested the hardening racialized residential borders in cities and suburbs across
the land. Their stories are part of a large and complicated narrative of how people of color
navigated multiple color lines during the rst half of the twentieth centurya time that
saw the rise and consolidation of racially segregated neighborhoods in U.S. cities. Between
the extremes of people such as Eleanor Ragsdale, who directly contested racially bordered
neighborhoods, and the vast majority of people of color who did not, there is a relatively
uncharted history to which scholars have contributed important work over the past two
decades. It is a history, I argue, best told from a comparative perspective that considers the
contexts of particular racialized groups in areas I refer to as the racial borderhoods of cities
in the United States. Racial borderhoods were the products of ideas and ideologies about
group differentness that were often channeled into policies and practices of exclusion that
profoundly affected people of color. Comparing how different groups of color experienced

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3
Albert M. Camarillo, The Racial Borderhoods of America: Mexican Americans and the Changing Ethnic/Racial
Landscapes of Cities, 18502000 (New York, forthcoming).
4
Ibid.
5
On the European immigrant experience in the United States, see, for example, John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A
History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, 1985); and David R. Roediger, Working toward Whiteness: How
Americas Immigrants Became White (New York, 2005). On African Americans in cities, see, for example, Kenneth
W. Goings and Raymond A. Mohl, eds., The New African American Urban History (Thousand Oaks, 1996); and
Kenneth Kusmer and Joe Trotter, eds., African American Urban History since World War II (Chicago, 2009). On the
experience of Mexican Americans in cities, see, for example, George J. Snchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity,
Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 19001945 (New York, 1993); Thomas E. Sheridan, Los Tucsonenses: The
Mexican Community in Tucson, 18511941 (Tucson, 1986); and Dennis Nodn Valds, Barrios Norteos: St. Paul and
Midwestern Mexican Communities in the Twentieth Century (Austin, 2000). On the experience of Asian Americans in
urban areas, see, for example, Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 18501943: A Trans-Pacic Community (Stanford,
2002); Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban
California (Chicago, 2009); and Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the
Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton, 2008). For a social science theory framework focusing on racial boundary
properties that compares African Americans, southern Europeans, eastern Europeans, and Mexican Americans, see
Cybelle Fox and Thomas A. Guglielmo, Dening Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants,
18901945, American Journal of Sociology, 118 (Sept. 2012), 32779.

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efforts to keep them out of all-white geographical areas and how they navigated racially sequestered life in U.S. cities reveals many common features of the human condition and, at
the same time, uncovers differences between and within groups. I discuss many of those commonalities and differences in this essay.3
The comparative framework I employ is drawn from a soon-to-be-published book that considers the urban residential patterns of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans in seventeen citiesseven industrial cities located in north
central and northeastern states and ten cities of the Southwest. This essay focuses on the
rst half of the twentieth century, though the larger study examines patterns from 1850 to
2000.4 To understand more fully, in broad strokes, how various racialized minorities navigated life in segregated cities across time and space, I offer three general categories that reect
many of the actions taken, desires fullled and unfullled, and dreams for a better life that
millions of Americans shared when they found themselves increasingly conned to areas
bounded by race. All three categories involved negotiating barriers: crossing, passing, and sidestepping color lines.
The great majority of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans in
the nations cities simply tried to make life livable for themselves and their families within
a society that segregated them in neighborhoods, relegated them to particular types of jobs,
and denied them equal access to public facilities. Historians and social scientists have ably
described the processes of adaptation and accommodation experienced by newcomers to
urban America as fundamentally a search for stability and security. The large volume of literature on European immigrants and African Americans in industrial cities describes the
multiple ways different groups adapted their lives in the urban milieu. Although less has
been published about Mexican American and Asian American adaptation, the urban histories of these groups describe similar phenomena associated with adjustments to urban life.5
We have a reasonably good understanding of the histories of labor, social, and political
organizations, and religious institutions established by immigrants and African Americans,
but we know far less about how people of color adapted their lives in segregated settings by
moving across color lines. Most experienced crossing a color line, but how they crossed
varied greatly. Of course, examples of those who boldly contested color-line boundaries, as individuals or as members of civil rights organizations, provide dramatic, often well-documented

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6
On various forms of racial passing among African Americans, see Kathleen Pfeiffer, Race Passing and American
Individualism (Amherst, Mass., 2003); Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception
across the Color Line (New York, 2009); and Baz Dreisinger, Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture
(Amherst, Mass., 2008).
7
Camarillo, Racial Borderhoods of America.

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cases. But what about those who crossed color lines with no intent of advancing the cause
of civil rights in general? Or what about those who literally moved across color lines from
city to city hoping that the next move would bring better fortune or at least less severely
segregated, less overcrowded, and less oppressive housing conditions? And there were those
who mistakenly or unknowingly crossed color lines only to face violent consequences for
entering contested racialized spaces.
Dwelling even more in the shadows of history are people of color who passed the color line,
temporarily and permanently; some made decisions to break completely from families, friends,
and communities of origin. The process of passing the color line also entailed fooling our
white folks, as Lpez did, or experimenting with life on the other side, even if just for a few
hours. Passing the color line for others involved deciding to conceal or modify cultural and
ethnic identity to be accepted in a white world and to escape segregated neighborhoods and
life-styles. All of these forms of passing required, rst and foremost, a color testonly those
with light-colored skin and Caucasian features were white enough to pass. For some groups more
than others, language and cultural skills were nearly as important as the level of melanin in
their genetic makeup.6
Navigating segregated life in U.S. cities by the 1940s and 1950s took on a dimension in
which youth of different ethnic and racial backgrounds either ignored or aunted the color
lines that had been accepted by their parents. Thousands of young people intentionally sidestepped those lines, engaging in taboo social behaviors across racial and geographical boundaries as they encountered one another through avenues of popular culture.
Sidestepping and crossing color lines were among the options available to people as they
adapted to segregated urban life. These options were conditioned and variably affected by what
I call ideologies of differentness, the formation of racial borderhoods, and the practices and
policies of exclusion associated with what I refer to as the Crow cousins (Jim Crow and two relatives). Together, these three frameworks not only help explain the many adaptive techniques
open to people of color as they experienced life in their respective racial borderhoods but also
provide the contexts for understanding the host of disadvantages that people of color experienced during the apex of residential racial segregation in twentieth-century U.S. cities.7
Ideologies of differentness involved much more than attitudes about race and skin color. I
employ the term differentness purposely, instead of differences, to claim that ideas about various
groups in the American past pivoted around dominant societal perceptions, attitudes, stereotypes, and other thoughts that not only categorized some people as different but were also
used to make normative value judgments to rationalize and justify subordination on many fronts.
Although ideas about group differentness were typically premised on conceptions of inherent
or immutable dissimilarities and notions about inferiority and superiority, these ideologies
changed over time as a result of multiple historical forces. From the late nineteenth century to
the mid-twentieth century there were several distinct axes of differentness that dened how
various immigrant groups and domestic racial minorities were viewed by the larger society.
These axes were fundamentally tied to ideas about cultural, religious, national, ethnic, linguistic, gender, and social-class distinctions. None of these axes was more insidious and durable

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8
On the importance of changing perceptions about European immigrants and differentness along axes of
national origin, race, culture, and religion, see, for example, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color:
European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, Mass., 1998); David Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became
White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, 1994); and James R. Barrett and David Roediger, Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality, and the New Immigrant Working Class, Journal of American Ethnic
History, 16 (Spring 1997), 344.
9
On race relations in the Jim Crow South in the decades following Reconstruction, see C. Vann Woodward,
The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, 1955); Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in
the South since Emancipation (New York, 1984); Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy
(Baton Rouge, 1983); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy
in North Carolina, 18961920 (Chapel Hill, 1996); and Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the
Age of Jim Crow (New York, 1998).
10
My application of James Crow was inspired by Isabel Wilkersons brief mention of its use in California. See
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of Americas Great Migration (New York, 2010), 211.

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than that based on ideas about racial differentness. And when multiple axes of differentness
rotated, intersected, and intertwined, they powerfully shaped social relations, forged public
policies, and inuenced cultural practices. To be sure, axes of differentness changed during the
course of the twentieth century as some pejorative ideas were shifted away from previously maligned groups as members status in society improved. Others had far greater difculty casting
off axes that dened them as qualitatively different. Ideas about differentness were altered by
many inuences, including international wars, changing political economies, foreign and domestic migrations, group demographic concentrations, and changes in intellectual paradigms
about race, ethnicity, and culture.8
Ideas about group differentness may have been enough to keep people away from others
they deemed inferior and categorically different, but when these ideas made their way into
the realm of federal, state, and local public policy, informal social and cultural practices of
exclusion and separation were formally codied. The implementation of Jim Crow laws in
the South following the Civil War and Reconstruction is a prime example. The color line
that dened white-black relations in the region, indelibly inuenced by the legacy of slavery, was drawn by beliefs about African American group differentness, especially beliefs about
racial, cultural, and intellectual inferiority. Long-standing southern customary practices of
separation of the races were augmented and systematically enforced through new laws in
the post-Reconstruction decades, while the new constitutional rights and freedoms granted
to African Americans were rolled back amid the new Jim Crow order of white supremacy.9
What happened when African Americans migrated in great numbers to cities in the West
and the North to escape Jim Crow and to plant roots in new urban places? Did Jim Crow
simply follow them to these new destinations and shape their lives as urbanites? When Chinese immigrants settled in large numbers in San Franciscos Chinatown, was their experience
tantamount to that of blacks in the Jim Crow South? When hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants and their children occupied the sprawling barrios of southwestern cities in
the rst half of the twentieth century, were their encounters conditioned by the same set of
ideas and policies that affected the nations largest racial minority in the South? Not all racial
hierarchies, policies, and practices of exclusion and separation were equal. Jim Crow had at
least two cousins: Jaime Crow, who put Mexicans and Mexican Americans in their place
in the Southwest, and James Crow, the more subtle and slightly more nished fellow who
shadowed African Americans everywhere outside the South.10
I refer to these Crow cousins as a way to understand how multiple color lines developed in
the twentieth-century United States and how they applied to diverse racialized groups in different regions of the nation over time. Jaime Crow constituted a structure of discrimination,

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exclusion, and separation in the Southwest that, unlike Jim Crow laws for blacks in the South,
was not based fundamentally on state or local legislation. Jaime Crow was anchored more by
social practice and cultural customs, though the institutional policies and practices he shaped
did arise to restrict opportunities and rights among Mexican Americans. The color line that
Jaime Crow drew separated the great majority of people of Mexican origin from whites; it was
a marker established as much by cultural, religious, and national-origin axes of differentness
as by skin color and ideas about inherent racial inferiority. By law, Mexican Americans were
Caucasian, but Jaime Crow made them nominally white. How Mexican Americans navigated
life in the expanding barrios of the Southwest provides examples of how a social structure related to Jim Crow affected the urban experiences of the regions largest minority.
The color line that Jaime Crow constructed to keep people of Mexican origin subordinated
was different from the omnipresent specter of Jim Crow that blacks faced daily in the South.
One of the primary reasons why millions of African Americans ed their homeland in the rst
Great Migration (during and immediately following World War I) and the second Great
Migration (19451970) was to escape humiliating, oppressive conditions. Life in the so-called
promised landespecially in the cities of the North and the Westheld out the possibilities
of greater relative freedom and greater opportunity for African American migrants. Gone were
the constant daily reminders of their unequal status: colored bathrooms, colored drinking
fountains, colored theater sections, and colored seating at the back of the bus. In the cities to
which African Americans migrated, they initially lived among European immigrants and other
poor working-class people, often in uneasy accommodation. Black urbanites headed to the
cities in growing numbers to build new lives and communities from New York to Detroit to
Los Angeles. Between the world wars, however, African American life became increasingly segregated, especially in the neighborhoods that had become less ethnically diverse. Cousin James
Crow increased the force of his grip on black urban communities with each passing decade of
the twentieth century. James Crow, closely related to but more subtle than Jim Crow, was a
less pervasive, less institutionalized, less codied, and less systematic form of discrimination
and inequality. Although in some states of the North and the West there were several racerelated laws to segregate African Americans, and even though urban blacks were the victims of
individual and collective acts of violence perpetrated by whites, James Crow was not based on
an interlocking southern-style web of local and state statutes reinforced by individual and
group terrorism. Even so, he was about racial discrimination and the creation of barriers
especially residential barriers that restricted African Americans to black urban neighborhoods
in increasing concentrations. What African Americans experienced in nearly every city they
inhabited by the 1930s and 1940s resembled what Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans had encountered in California cities in the second half of the nineteenth century: highly
racially segregated urban residential life.
Chinatown in a city such as San Francisco was a bordered neighborhood, bounded geographically by neighborhoods that restricted the Chinese to a certain area of the metropolis. The separation of Chinese from whites was a product of ideassome codiedabout
Chinese racial, cultural, and religious differentness and other inuences that colored twentiethcentury real estate practices and policies. Chinatown San Francisco was the rst racial borderhood in urban America. Why do I use the neologistic term borderhood? Why should I
not simply use conventional terminology such as ghetto or ethnic/racial enclave, orwhen
referring to specic groupsemploy terms such as Mexican American barrio, black ghetto,
or commonly used descriptors such as Japantown, Latin quarter, or Negro district? These

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11
On U.S.-Mexico borderlands historiography, see Pekka Hmlinen and Samuel Truett, On Borderlands,
Journal of American History, 98 (Sept. 2011), 38861; and Samuel Truett and Elliot Young, eds., Continental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History (Durham, N.C., 2004). On the use of the term hood in rap music
and hip-hop culture, see Murray Forman, The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Middletown, 2002), xviixx.

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terms are useful in labeling certain residential areas in U.S. cities at certain points in time,
but their use obscures a broader comparative understanding of the historical forces that
shaped racial and ethnic residential formations in the twentieth-century United States
because the terms tend to isolate and homogenize group experiences.
The hybrid term borderhood borrows from the literature that describes and conceptualizes
borderlands: geographical areas where social, cultural, and political forces shape the lives of
various groups within bounded or bordered spaces. It also borrows from the term hood, used
in popular cultural discourses over the past generation in reference to African American innercity neighborhoodsmany characterized by legacies of impoverishment, residential segregation, and isolation from mainstream society. Urban borderhoods were typically among the
poorest residential areas of any city, and the nations largest immigrant groups and domestic
racial minorities were drawn to them for economic reasons but also because family, kin, and
other socially and culturally signicant people settled there. These were urban spaces often
bordered by neighborhoods of working-class or middle-class native-born whites and that
were located in or near the most undesirable residential areas close to industrial plants or
other workplaces where unskilled or semiskilled work was available. Borderhoods were the
places where adjustments to urban life played out for tens of millions of Americans; they were
areas where multicultural ways of life ourished. They housed a multitude of peoplesome
who spent their entire lives conned to borderhoods, and others who, if circumstances permitted, left them behind at the rst opportunity.11
Several types of urban borderhoods formed during the rst half of the twentieth century.
They were all greatly inuenced by ideologies of group differentness; even so, some far more
than others were products of policies and practices of racial exclusion. Multiethnic/transitory
borderhoods were areas constantly in ux as immigrants and native-born working-class people (white and nonwhite) moved in and out. These multiethnic borderhoods were also
always in transition because of changing urban land-use patterns affected by the expansion
and relocation of industry and retail districts and by the practices of real estate owners. The
new southern and eastern European immigrants and African American migrants to northern cities occupied these multiethnic urban borderhoods in the early decades of the twentieth
century. Mexican and Asian immigrants in the West also initially lived in multiethnic borderhoods.
Between the 1920s and the 1950s most multiethnic borderhoods changed signicantly.
As European immigrants and their children achieved modest upward economic mobility and
dispersed to newer and better housing in working- and middle-class areas, the once-multiethnic
borderhoods increasingly became racial borderhoods. A similar process occurred among Mexicans, Asians, and blacks in cities of the Southwest. When European immigrants and their offspring gained the means to move beyond the multiethnic borderhoods to neighborhoods
dened more by class than by ethnicity, they were free to do so. This was not the case for
most residents of racial borderhoods; their options to reside where they pleased grew more
restricted with each passing decade (albeit with some variation by group, locality, and region).
These urban residential areas increasingly developed into color-line borderhooods, with

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12
For examples of red lining, see Records of the Home Owners Loan Corporation 19331951, 195.3
(National Archives, Washington, D.C.); and Records of the Federal Housing Administration 19301970, 31,
ibid.

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growing concentrations of people of color. In the decades before and after World War II,
racial minoritiesespecially blackswere more densely packed into and restricted to what
emerged in urban and suburban areas as persistent color-line borderhoods. Most were centralcity color-line borderhoods, usually located in or near downtown and often adjacent to industrial sites. Metropolitan color-line borderhoods were located in areas outside of the downtown,
sometimes scattered across the urban region. The availability of inexpensive land and cheap
housing, the absence of racially restrictive real estate practices, and employment opportunities
outside the urban core shaped metropolitan borderhoods in different regions of the nation.
The geographical boundaries of racial borderhoods solidied as institutional policies and
practices reinforced the social distance between whites and nonwhites. The ubiquitous use of
racially restrictive real estate covenants in urban housing markets by the 1920s and 1930s went
hand in hand with New Deal federal home mortgage policies that introduced red lining of
urban areas deemed too risky for investment by the government. The Home Owners Loan
Corporation and later the Federal Housing Administration sent evaluators across metropolitan
areas throughout the nation to assess the investment risks for possible government-sponsored
loans. They established ratings using various colors marked on maps indicating areas of low to
high risk. Neighborhoods with substantial numbers of poor people and people of color were
typically outlined in red. Combined with white homeowners associations banning of people
of color, and whites use of harassment and intimidation to contain racial minorities in particular residential areas and restrict them from certain commercial and retail establishments, a web
of limitations by race dened the social reality of people who inhabited the racial borderhoods
of the United States. Primarily poor people with few resources and few political advocates,
these residents were easy prey for landlords who made matters worse by charging excessive
rents while simultaneously fueling overcrowding by stufng more and more renters into subdivided spaces. Nearly every case study of urban settlement patterns among European immigrants and communities of color mention overcrowding caused by greedy landlords. The
problem was exacerbated by homeowners associations and realtors who prevented certain
groups from living in less congested adjacent neighborhoods.12
Adaptation to life in the nations segregated racial borderhoods took many forms, but for
most it involved making the best of difcult situations. Most residents of racial borderhoods
understood their status as minorities in cities with large white majorities; they knew through
experience or by word of mouth which jobs were open or closed to them; they knew where
they could and could not freely move about in the city and which streets or contested neighborhoods to avoid. Some accepted their situation and safely navigated social and geographical
boundaries within and outside the borderhoods, usually careful not to provoke conict or
attract unwanted attention. Others resented the inequality they experienced and attempted
to breach the racial divides that surrounded them.
Wei Bat Liu, a resident of San Franciscos Chinatown in the early 1900s, knew the
safety that this racial borderhood provided, and he was regularly reminded about its racialized geographical boundaries. In those days, he recalled, reecting on his youth in Chinatown, the boundaries were from Kearny to Powell, and from California to Broadway. If
you ever passed them and went out there, the white kids would throw stones at you. One
time I remember going out and one boy started running after me, then a whole gang of

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13
On Wei Bat Lius experience, see Victor G. Nee and Brett de Bary Nee, Longtime Californ: A Documentary
Study of an American Chinatown (1972; Stanford, 1986), 6061. For Ed Petersons letter, see Thomas A. Guglielmo,
White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 18901945 (New York, 2003), 3. For the Mexican
American teenagers comments, see Ruth D. Tuck, Not with the Fist: Mexican-Americans in a Southwest City (1946;
New York, 1974), 2034.
14
Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 19001954 (Lawrence,
1993), 16869; Nee and Nee, Longtime Californ, 61.

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others rushed out, too. We were afraid of them, and there were more of them than of us, so
we would come right back [to Chinatown]. Angry[?], he asked himself, Well, maybe in
those days when we were young, we were not so angry. Just tired of it. About forty years later
and in a different city, Ed Peterson, an African American resident in Chicagos South Side
borderhoodthe so-called black beltwas also just tired of it. Commenting on the divergent socioeconomic paths of blacks and of European immigrant families in Chicago (groups
that had once co-resided in the citys multiethnic borderhoods), he reected on his situation
and that of other African Americans in the Midwest metropolis in a letter he wrote to the Chicago Defender in January 1942: The white immigrant nds his way to the top social ranks,
though at one time he was a pal of the colored youths who might have lived in his neighborhood. Friends in childhood, in maturity the white one lives in the quiet, healthful suburbs,
while the colored one lives in the dusty, dirty restricted neighborhood and can never leave
it. A few years later, in 1946, a similar refrain of resentment was uttered by a Mexican American teenager, a second-generation resident of the segregated racial borderhood in Riverside,
California, about thirty miles east of Los Angeles. Asked how he thought white Riversiders
viewed the barrio, he said: Sure, maybe its picturesque to Anglo slumming parties who can
live anywhere they want to. Maybe theyd feel differently if they tried it here for a while. I
dont want to lose touch with my family, but, if I make any wages at all, Im sure going to get
out of this sink-hole.13
This young Mexican American from Riverside, Peterson of Chicago, and Liu of San Francisco were among the hundreds of thousands of people of color who lived in the nations
racial borderhoods during the rst half of the twentieth century and who resented the humiliation that residential segregation caused. Most knew it was very difcult to rent or purchase a
home or apartment outside the boundaries of their respective borderhoods, but they routinely
ventured out to other parts of their cities as consumers or workers, or for recreation. Even in
those locations, however, they were often reminded of the racial boundaries that shadowed
them. Whether in Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Detroit, Phoenix, or San Francisco, people
of color learned to cope with James Crow and Jaime Crow. As they strolled through the
downtown shopping districts in many of these cities they might encounter a sign in a store
window indicating White Trade Only, but more often than not people of color knew or had
heard which retail establishments, restaurants, and movie theaters were off limits, and they
simply avoided them. We know where we couldnt go; the places we couldnt go, [so] we just
kept out of them, recalled a black woman in San Francisco after being denied service in a
city restaurant in the 1940s. Wei Bat Liu had learned this difcult lesson in the City by the
Bay many decades earlier when he attempted to rent an apartment on a street that bordered
Chinatown. I had trouble nding a good place in Chinatown, he claimed. It was so crowded,
everyone sleeping in double-decker beds . . . so I went up just one block to Powell Street and
asked in three places there, only to discover that no one ever heard of Chinese living on
Powell Street before. So we went down to Chinatown, where all my cousins lived in one
room. No bathroom, no kitchen.14

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December 2013

Crossing the Color Line

15
On the Hyde Park Improvement Protective Club, see Alan H. Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro
Ghetto, 18901920 (Chicago, 1967), 22.
16
Collective action by white neighbors, vigilantes, and other pressure groups formed to oppose, intimidate, and
drive out new black homeowners was not uncommon. See, for example, Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley, 2003), 1016; Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes
Shape: Black Cleveland, 18701930 (Urbana, 1976), 16771; and Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban
Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996), 20229.
17
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990; New York, 1992), 16069. On the
widespread use of racially restrictive covenants in the 1940s, see Report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, folder E, box 68, John Anson Ford Papers (Huntington Library Archives, San Marino, Calif.). Andrew Weise,
Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 2004), 94109.

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Liu navely attempted to cross the color line in search of better housing outside the racial borderhood, but social custom and accepted norms about race and housing thwarted his efforts.
In cities across the nation over the next three decades other factors reinforced residential
boundaries between whites and nonwhites. When people of color sought to move outside
those ever-tightening boundaries, they often encountered white homeowners associations
bent on keeping nonwhites from their neighborhoods. Deed restrictions and the unavailability of mortgage nancing added to a culture of exclusion. During the rst decade of the twentieth century an African American family seeking relief from the increasingly overcrowded
borderhoods of South Chicago purchased a home in the Hyde Park area of the city, a neighborhood where black servants and maids were allowed to rent apartments near the homes of
their white employers. The family had assumed this particular neighborhood was open to
blacks until they encountered the Hyde Park Improvement Protective Club in 1908. The
club devised ways to preserve the homogeneity of their neighborhood: threatening to boycott
any realtor willing to sell property to African Americans and any business that served blacks;
offering to purchase the houses of existing black homeowners; and offering bonuses to black
renters if they moved. Fearing a Negro invasion from the South Side borderhoods, the
club issued a manifesto to real estate agents and landlords: Negro residents of Hyde Park
must conne themselves to the so-called districts and The districts that are now white must
remain white. An unsuspecting black family moved to an all-white street; club representatives
immediately tried to persuade them to leave. The next day vandals broke into the familys
home and shattered all of the windows; the family moved the following day.15
In city after city homeowners associations formed to contain people of color within racial
borderhoods; they were aided by realtor associations and by policies enacted at the local,
state, and federal levels. When homeowners did not formally band together, some engaged in
informal individual or collective vigilante action against those who attempted to penetrate
their neighborhoods. Intimidation, harassment, and violencethough not the ruledid occur
in contested neighborhoods, nonetheless. Such behaviors were used mostly to keep blacks
out, and they were usually effective. Incidences of home bombings and threats of violence
were enough to keep most black families from attempting to enter white sections of cities.16
With effects that were more widespread than the actions of homeowners associations, racially restrictive covenants and new subdivision restrictions blanketed urban housing markets
everywhere between the world wars. In Los Angeles, for example, between the 1920s and
the 1940s, 80 to 95 percent of municipalities in the region were covered by housing
restrictions based on race. These limitations became daily facts of residential life in urban
and suburban America well into the postWorld War II decades.17

Navigating Segregated Life in Americas Racial Borderhoods, 1910s1950s

655

Passing the Color Line


The color line was real, and crossing it was difcult and sometimes dangerous for people of color.
Those who could not cross the line made an attempt to pass under it. Pretending to be and passing as white is a little-known phenomenon, but it was an option for those with skin pigmentation and phenotypes that allowed the attempt. There were different ways to pass, and it was
easier for some groups. Among African Americans and Mexican Americans, passing occurred
probably far more often than is documented, but it was nearly impossible for Asian Americans
to slip under the color line for obvious reasons. For Rose Lpez, passing opportunistically and
temporarilyfooling our white folkswas fun. There were those who passed because they
wanted a taste of how the white people lived and worked. But there were others who decided
to pass permanently and by so doing rejected their families, friends, and identities as people of
color. Among Mexican Americans there were some who were able to whiten themselves
18
On Adolph Sorias experience, see Shana Bernstein, Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in TwentiethCentury Los Angeles (New York, 2011), 118. On Benjamn Camarillos attempt to build a dream home in Lynwood, California, see Benjamn T. Camarillo interview by Albert M. Camarillo, March 3, 1971, audiotape (in Camarillos possession), side 1, tape 1. On Easby Wilsons experience, see Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, 23133.

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Adolph Soria, a former World War II paratrooper, had saved enough money for a down
payment and was earning sufcient wages to afford a monthly mortgage payment for a
home in Los Angeles in 1948. This former military man obviously believed he had earned
the right to a piece of the American dream until he encountered a salesman for the new suburban home he wished to purchase: We dont do business with Mexicans, buddy, the
realtor stated bluntly, This is a restricted community. In 1957 Benjamn Camarillo, a Mexican American father of seven and a hardworking man who had climbed the occupational
ladder from construction dayworker in the 1920s to a unionized cement nisher in the 1950s,
ventured into Lynwood, a suburb of central Los Angeles, to inquire about a lot where he envisioned building a dream home for his family. He walked up to the real estate agent and
asked, in broken English, about the lot. The agent matter-of-factly yet politely replied: I am
sorry sir, but we dont sell property to Mexicans here in Lynwood. Easby Wilson, a black auto
worker in Detroit, was doing ne economically working the day shift at a Dodge plant. He
lived in the notoriously deteriorated Paradise Valley borderhood of black Detroit. Working with
a realtor who assured him that the resistance to blacks settling in white neighborhoods was a
thing of the past, Wilson bought a home in 1955 in a primarily white neighborhood where
other Dodge employees lived. It was a nice, modest suburban tract house three miles from
the plant. He could not have anticipated the level of resistance he and his family encountered.
The realtor had not told him that just two years before the area had been the scene of enormous conict over the so-called Negro invasion. The Wilsons experienced hell for ve months
before they surrendered: on the night the escrow closed vandals broke into the house, plugged
the sinks, turned on all the faucets, and sprayed black paint everywhere; hostile neighbors
assembled and crowds grew to hundreds, carrying picket signs that read You better go
back to where you belong. Over the next few nights, the violence continued, with groups
throwing bricks through windows and doors. The police were called in but stayed in their
cars while more vandalism occurred. Before leaving the neighborhood, Mrs. Wilson stated:
I dont know if it is worthwhile. I believe in Democracy; I believe in what my husband fought
for in World War II. They fought for the peace and I wonder if its worthwhile. I have a
question in my mind: Where is the peace they fought forwhere is it?18

656

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December 2013

19
On how urban middle-class Mexican Americans distanced themselves from their poor, working-class peers,
see Richard A. Garca, Rise of the Mexican American Middle Class: San Antonio, 19291941 (College Station, 1991);
Mario T. Garca, Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 18801920 (New Haven, 1981), 13334; and Gabriela
F. Arredondo, Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity, and Nation, 191639 (Urbana, 2008), 13839.
20
For descriptions of how Mexican Americans t into existing racial categories, see Neil Foley, Partly Colored or
Other White: Mexican Americans and Their Problems with the Color Line, in Beyond Black and White: Race, Ethnicity,
and Gender in the U.S. South and Southwest, ed. Stephanie Cole and Alison M. Parker (College Station, 2004), 12344;
and Laura E. Gmez, Manifest Destinies: The Making of Mexican American Race (New York, 2007), 8387. On Mexicans
who preferred to use the label Spanish to conceal their Mexican identity, see, for example, Manuel Gamio, Mexican
Immigration to the United States: A Study of Human Migration and Adjustment (1930; New York, 1971), 54; Leo Grebler,
Joan W. Moore, and Ralph C. Guzman, The Mexican American People: The Nations Second Largest Minority (New York,
1970), 322; and Geraldo L. Cadava, Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland (Cambridge,
Mass., 2013), 104. W. H. Fitchmiller, President of the Santa Monica Realty Board, to Harry Allen, President of the California Real Estate Association, March 1, 1927, General folder, box 2: Ofce Files, 19141927, Survey of Race Relations
Records (Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Calif.). On the exodus of white homeowners from Compton, California, see Bernice Woods interview by Albert M. Camarillo, July 10, 2010, digital audio le (in Camarillos possession).

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culturally and linguisticallyespecially if they had ascended to middle-class status where


money whitenedand they passed themselves off as higher class: a higher class of Mexicans different from the masses of lower class.19
In every Mexican American community, past and present, from San Antonio to Chicago
to Los Angeles are those labeled los hueros (light-skinned Mexicans) and those labeled los
prietos (dark-skinned Mexicans). The great range of skin color found among Mexican Americans is the result of mestisaje (racial mixing)a process that unfolded over 350 years in Mesoamerica between Spanish, indigenous, and African-origin peoples. Once in the United States,
any light-skinned Mexicans who could shed their Spanish accent and leave behind their cultural baggage had an opportunity to pass temporarily or permanently. Some did, and they
successfully blended into white society. Light-colored skin did not shield them from discrimination but could provide options that dark-skinned Mexicans did not have. Other
hueros opted to whiten themselves by discarding the label Mexican, with all of its historically pejorative associations, and call themselves Spanish, a label that gave them a more European, whiter veneer. Los prietos did not have this option, and if they tried to pass as white,
they did not fool many people. Los hueros could pass under Jaime Crows system easily and
often, and that ability brought privileges and opportunities. They were more likely than their
darker-skinned counterparts to land retail jobs that entailed servicing white clientele. They
were more successful in purchasing homes outside racial borderhoods because they were less
conspicuous among white neighbors or they were more acceptable to realtors. Such was
the case in Santa Monica, as reported by the president of the local realtor board. We are fortunate in Santa Monica with deed restricted property, he claimed, but there are times when
brokers go beyond the bonds of decency in the selling of property to objectionable nationalities, as well as races . . . while there are isolated cases where the Mexican or Colored people have got in, it has not worked a hardship. Personally, he concluded, I place the Latin
races in exactly the same category as the color line. A realtor in Compton in the late 1940s
reacted similarly to an African American man who could pass as white, selling him a home in
an area of the city where a few other middle-class black families had recently broken the color
line. It did not take white neighbors long after the family moved in to see that the light-skinned
man was not white and that his wife and children were clearly black. Resentment toward and
harassment of the family ensued and was soon followed by panic selling among white homeowners who left early on in the racial demographic transition of the neighborhood.20
Blacks who could pass in the city had better employment opportunities as long as they
successfully concealed their racial background. After feeding her children and sending them

Navigating Segregated Life in Americas Racial Borderhoods, 1910s1950s

657

Sidestepping the Color Line and Bridging Interracial Cultural Divides


Despite the risks, most adults of color who passed color lines, either temporarily or permanently, did so for practical reasons. Better employment opportunities, better housing, and
21
Cheryl I. Harris, Whiteness as Property, Harvard Law Review, 106 (June 1993), 1711. Hughes, Fooling
Our White Folks, 38, 41. On the dimensions of racial passing among African Americans from the nineteenth
century through the mid-twentieth century, see Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge, Mass., forthcoming).
22
W. L. White, Lost Boundaries (New York, 1947), 32.

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off to school in Chicagos South Side borderhood, an African American mother rode the bus
with primarily black passengers to her job in the city center. Reecting on her grandmothers employment at that time, Cheryl Harris recalled that No one at her job ever asked if
she was Black; the question was unthinkable. By virtue of the employment practices of the
ne establishment in which she worked, Harris concluded, she could not have been.
Langston Hughes observed in New York City and in other urban areas how light-skinned
blacks passed as white employees on a daily basis: Every large Negro section has many residents who pass for whites by day but come home to their various Harlems at night. He
claimed to know dozens of colored whites in downtown ofces or shops who masqueraded
as white during the day but at night they are colored again. Most colored folks think that
as long as white folks remain foolish, prejudiced and racially selsh, he concluded, they
deserve to be fooled. Nine-to-ve passing was part of the phenomenon of temporarily passing
under the color line to secure better employment and higher wages or, at other times, to enjoy
leisure activities closed to nonwhites.21
While some African Americans passed into the world of white work only during the day,
others decided professional opportunities could be achieved only by going all the waypassing
permanently into white society. Such was the experience of Albert Johnson, a Chicago physician
who was far less concerned about fooling whites than about living among them as an equal.
Growing up in highly segregated Chicago, Johnson was among the fortunate few blacks to
attend the University of Chicago, and upon graduation in 1924 he was admitted to Rush Medical College in the city (as one of two African Americans admitted each year as part of the colleges racial quota). Married to a black woman who could also pass as white, Johnson soon
encountered the medical professions mirroring of the nations racial divide. To complete his
degree and start his medical practice in 1928 Johnson was required to intern at a hospital; he
soon learned that most did not accept black doctors. Unwilling to apply to the few hospitals that
served blacks exclusively, Johnson took a chance on an interview at the Maine General Hospital
in Portland. They did not ask about his race, and he did not tell. After completing his internship, Johnson moved to the small town of Gorham and nearby Keene, New Hampshire, where
he and his wife raised their children. They lived for many years in rural New Hampshire as the
respected family of the white doctor. The racial secret that Johnson and his wife kept from their
children nally came to an end on the eve of World War II when Dr. Johnson applied to the
U.S. Navy as a commissioned ofcer but was rejected. The navys intensive background check
revealed that he had registered at the University of Chicago as white, but that he had colored
blood in his veins. This piece of information alone was enough to end any hope Johnson had
of serving in the navy as a medical ofcer. Rejected and frustrated, he decided to reveal his racial
identity to his children, friends, and patients in Gorham and Keene. He continued to serve as the
trusted local physician for many years despite whites knowledge that he was actually black.22

658

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December 2013

23
On Harlem venues that brought whites and nonwhites together during and after the Great Depression, see David
Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York, 1981), 1057, 20911. On similar venues in Los Angeles, see
Sides, L.A. City Limits, 47; and Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley,
2005), 293. On similar venues in Chicago, see Chicagos Jazz Age Melting Pot: Hot Jazz, Boogie Woogie, and Blues,
April 14, 2011, Riverwalk Jazz: Jazznotes Blog, http://riverwalkjazz.org/2011/04/14/chicagos-jazz-age-melting-pot-hot
-jazz-boogie-woogie-and-blues/. Dorothy West, Amateur Night in Harlem, Dec. 1, 1938, American Life Histories:
Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 19361940, http://www.loc.gov/item/wpalh001719.

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an escape from the often-stiing environment of the racial borderhoods were afforded to those
who could pass into white society. For tens of thousands of young people of color in the
decades before and after World War II, however, sidestepping color lines rather than passing
them was both possible and desirable. Popular culture was the vehicle by which African American, Asian American, and Latino youth navigated life, occasionally moving outside their racial
borderhoods into multiracial settings, sometimes without their parents knowledge and sometimes despite it. From the Jazz Age to the swing era and into the early years of rock n roll,
youth of all races and ethnicities sidestepped color lines in the pursuit of good times: music,
dancing, and romance across forbidden boundaries. Between the 1920s and the 1950s in
most large cities in the United States jazz clubs, dance ballrooms, and live band concerts drew
millions of youth across color lines and into the same venues. The racial norms of society were
sidestepped once youth took to the dance oors where interracial couples ailed their arms
and legs to the Charleston, later to the jitter bug, and later yet to the sounds of rock n roll.
The jazz clubs in Harlem, on the South Side and the North Side of Chicago, and in central Los
Angeles were among the rst venues to bring whites, rst-generation European Americans,
blacks, Latinos, and Asians together in multiracial settings, but these spaces were usually located
within the racial borderhoods. During the 1920s the so-called Harlem Renaissance opened doors
for black literary, artistic, and musical talents that were becoming increasingly appreciated by a
growing white clientele. Illegal liquor during prohibition and African Americaninspired jazz
music attracted whites to nightclubs in large cities across the nation. Many of these clubs were
racially restricted, but others allowed the intermingling of white and black customers; these were
the precursors to the various venues that brought whites and nonwhites together during and
after the Great Depression. By the 1930s other establishments in Harlem, such as the well-known
Apollo Theater, promoted black entertainers and mixed-raced audiences. Dorothy West, a young
woman who frequented the Apollo Theater in the late 1930s, recalled that on the popular amateur night the boxes are lled with sightseeing whites led in tow by swaggering blacks, and
the oor is chocolate liberally sprinkled with white sauce. From New York City to Los Angeles
the racial borderhoods attracted whites seeking entertainment in the colored districts.23
Ofcials in some cities moved to ban these multiracial venues but in doing so merely pushed
musicians and their diverse followers to venues outside the central cities. Such was the case in
Los Angeles in the 1940s when rock n roll concert halls and dance halls sprouted up in outlying areas of the county with fewer restrictions governing attendance by underage people.
The renowned band leader Johnny Otis recalled: If it were all Asian and Hispanic and Black,
they [the city ofcials] wouldnt care, but there were whites there, theyre mixing with the
Blacks and what not. Otis and other early rock n roll band leaders preferred the El Monte
American Legion Stadium, located in the San Gabriel Valley thirteen miles east of downtown
Los Angeles. We used to play a lot at the El Monte Legion Stadium, a lead singer for a band
recalled, and the audiences were a good cross section of whites, Chicanos, and blacks. . . . I
dont think kids today even think in those terms: its common to see racially mixed groups
now. . . . But that was the beginning of rock n roll and they were all into the music, so they

Navigating Segregated Life in Americas Racial Borderhoods, 1910s1950s

659

didnt care that the group and the audience was mixed. The popular concert promoter and
disc jockey Art Laboe, a regular at the El Monte venue, recalled that White kids from Beverly
Hills, black kids from Compton, and local Chicano kids used to come out to our shows every
weekend.24

Enforcing the Color Line

24
Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 19001970
(Chapel Hill, 2001), 199; George Lipsitz, Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (Minneapolis, 2010),
6263. On how young people of various ethnic groups and races comingled in multiethnic borderhoods in California, see Allison Varzally, Making a Non-white America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 19251955 (Berkeley, 2008); and Mark Wild, Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles
(Berkeley, 2005).
25
On the physical boundaries in Dallas, see Shirley Achor, Mexican Americans in a Dallas Barrio (Tucson,
1978), 2023, 51. On those boundaries in Phoenix, see Bradford Luckingham, Minorities in Phoenix: A Prole of
Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 18601992 (Tucson, 1994), 3941, 135,
15051. On those boundaries in Detroit, see Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis, 64, 71.

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During those decades when youth of all races were sidestepping color lines and searching
beyond racial borderhoods to meet in multiracial spaces, there were others working to reinforce
and protect the color boundaries from within and outside the borderhoods. They were among
the informal groups that guarded racialized space in the urban and suburban United States.
Together with formal organizations such as real estate boards and homeowners associations
they patrolled color-marked boundaries. These boundaries were established across metropolitan regions to separate white and nonwhite residential areas, and though racial geographical
markers shifted over time as contested neighborhoods were altered, the boundaries served as
real and representational borders. Streets and avenues typically served as the corridors that set
white and nonwhite areas apart, but other man-made or natural barriers that kept the races separated geographically were also common. In Dallas, for example, a ood plain for levees was
the physical buffer that separated a large population of African Americans and Mexican Americans from the white majority in the city. In Phoenix it was a railroad maintenance yard and an
adjoining industrial area that marked the color line between the white North Side and the
black and brown South Side. In Detroit a suburban home developer actually built a wall to
cordon off blacks in the Eight Mile Wyoming neighborhood from new suburban tracts
restricted to whites. In city after city white residents acted to protect their neighborhoods from
the encroachment of nonwhites. There is also evidence in many cities of people of color organizing to prevent white incursions into their racial borderhoods.25
During the 1950s and 1960s in the southeast areas of Los Angelesincluding Huntington Park, South Gate, Lynwood, and Compton, which anked the color-line borderhoods
of African Americans in the South Central and Watts areasAlameda Street and the adjoining tracks of the Pacic Electric Railway constituted the physical color line. Although the
big red cars (as they were popularly known) carried a mix of whites, blacks, Mexicans, and
other riders to work and play every day, in the evening most people of color returned to their
segregated communities. For decades the so-called Alameda corridor was simply understood
as the boundary between races, but when tensions ared and when demographic changes
affected certain cities, boundaries were reinforced and protected. In 1962, for example, when
the western half of Compton was rapidly becoming black, and as whites ed in large numbers
to avoid living among black homeowners from South Central Los Angeles and to seek better
schools and neighborhoods, local whites referred to the racial buffer zone of Alameda Street

660

The Journal of American History

December 2013

26
David Franklin, Compton: A Community in Transition; A Needs and Resource Study of the Compton Area (Los
Angeles, 1962), 2223, 42. On the police protection activities in South Gate, see Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue
Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 19201965 (Chicago, 2002), 301, 324.
27
Andrew J. Diamond, Mean Streets: Chicago Youths and the Everyday Struggle for Empowerment in the Multiracial City, 19081969 (Berkeley, 2009), 59; Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Eric Schneider, and Andrew Diamond, Gangs
in the PostWorld War II North American City: A Forum, Journal of Urban History, 28 (July 2002), 65863.

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and the electric railway tracks as Comptons Maginot line. This boundary between white
Compton on the east side and black and brown Compton on the west side held for only a
few years until the riot in nearby Watts in August 1965 provoked a white exodus from the city.
That rebellion also provoked action by the police in South Gate, just to the north of Compton,
to protect its borders from imagined hordes of black marauders. Across Alameda Street and
the tracks from Wattsa border that locals called the wallwhite policeman armed with
shotguns and tear gas positioned themselves at the major streets connecting Watts to South
Gate and, according to a local reporter, chased cars with Negroes in them back across Alameda. Backing up the police in South Gate were cars lled with white vigilantes patrolling
city streets. Similar police strategies to keep African Americans out of white communities
were used in the neighboring cities of Lynwood, Compton, and Huntington Park.26
Police were not the only organized groups protecting neighborhood boundaries and residents on both sides of the color lines. Youth groups, clubs, and gangssome organized and
others far less soplayed a similar though extralegal role in defending racialized turf. The rise
of street or neighborhood gangs in American cities dates from the mass immigration of Europeans in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Other immigrant groups followed this pattern as the rst and second generations adapted to the urban milieu and sought
out members of their own groups and age cohorts for fellowship and, often, antisocial behavior. It is no surprise that clubs, mostly for young males, comprising Irish Americans, or
Italian Americans, or Polish Americans banded together with their fellow ethnics for fun, mischief, and dangerous activityespecially during years of transition when they defended their
neighborhoods against the incursions of other groups. By the 1940s and 1950s, however,
ethnic-specic youth clubs and gangs began to give way to street youth who dened themselves as white, rst and foremost, rather than as ethnics, typically in opposition to the threat
of nonwhite groups. Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Chinese American, and African American
youth also formed gangs, to protect neighborhood turf from others of their own kind but
also often in response to the presence of white youth gangs. While some members of these
groups were sidestepping the color line to enter multiracial and multiethnic spaces, many
other members of white and nonwhite youth gangs were intent on protecting the boundaries of their borderhoods.27
From Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles, the pattern repeated before, during, and
after World War II, especially in residential areas experiencing demographic shifts. Incidences
of race-inspired conict could sometimes spontaneously mushroom into larger riots. For
example, in postWorld War II Chicago, white youth from transitioning neighborhoods
adjacent to the African American South Side set re to the homes of black families who had
penetrated the fringe of white neighborhoods. These and related acts of violence across the
city against blacks largely stemmed from reactions to black movement in or near areas identied as white turf. Sporadic acts of violence could produce more sustained violence involving hundreds of people. In Los Angeles in 1943, during the so-called zoot suit riots, a ght
between a few white servicemen on shore leave and Mexican American youth dressed in the
amboyant zoot suits of the era instigated the largest race riot in the western United States

Navigating Segregated Life in Americas Racial Borderhoods, 1910s1950s

661

28
Diamond, Mean Streets, 15865. On postwar housing riots and for a discussion of the variations in gangs by ethnicity and race, see Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 19401960 (New York,
1983), 6699, 20513. Eduardo Obregn Pagn, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.
(Chapel Hill, 2003), 17782.
29
John Lpez interview by Albert M. Camarillo, Aug. 9, 2003, audiotape (in Camarillos possession), side 2,
tape 1.

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up to that timea ve-night clash involving hundreds of servicemen who sought out, beat,
and stripped young Mexican American males in downtown and in East Los Angeles. In response, Mexican American gang members and other youth banded together to stop the
white military personnel from advancing farther into their neighborhoods.28
In cities across the nation affected by racial demographic change during the postwar decades,
the rise of white and nonwhite gangs was commonplace. Though many of the conicts developed into substantial racial incidents requiring the intervention of law enforcement agencies,
most of the intergang conicts involved stghts and brawls, sometimes with knives. Unlike
the interracial gang violence of the late twentieth century, gang encounters during these years
generally did not involve use of rearms. Gang knife ghts that ended in death, such as that
dramatized in the play and motion picture West Side Story, involving Puerto Rican and white
ethnic youth in New York City, were far less common than confrontations that ended with
punches thrown and noses bloodied. Perhaps as typical were the cat-and-mouse maneuvers
between groups of white and nonwhite youth as they attempted to stay below the radar of
local police while still being able to tell stories of besting the opposition. Such a story occurred
in Compton around 1941 when a group of Mexican American teenagersneither hard-core
gang members nor angelsfrom the segregated borderhood in the city wandered across one of
the streets known to form a boundary between the barrio and the white neighborhoods on the
other side. The group confronted a white boy and then quickly retreated back to the safety of
the barrio. Within a short time, a car loaded with a group of white youth entered the barrio
searching for the Mexicans who had manhandled their friend. After spotting the car cruising
slowly through the streets, one of the Mexican American youth instructed his friend to show
himself to the white occupants of the car to draw them into the open and out of their vehicle.
The bait worked. The white kids emerged with bats in hand, hurling obscenities at the Mexican
American teens who ran into one of the barrio alleys hoping the white youth would follow.
They did. Knowing well the pathways of the alley, with its overgrown weeds and shrubs, and
familiar with the quickest exits to the main street through neighbors yards, the Mexican American youth eluded their pursuers and circled back to the white groups car. By the time the white
youth returned to the street, they stood in silencesome were in tearslooking at the car,
turned upside down; it had been ipped by the tricky Mexican American boys of the NorthCentral Compton borderhood. The police were called to the scene, but rather than searching for
the Mexican American teens responsible the ofcers admonished the white boys for not knowing better than to enter the Mexican section of the city.29
Most Mexican American teens in southern California were savvy about the racial boundaries
that divided white and nonwhite areas, but elsewhere in the Southwestparticularly in Texas
peers often did not know better, growing up in towns and cities where they were numerically
dominant and where the signs of Jaime Crow and Jim Crow were not as obvious. The Mexican
American baseball players from Bowie High School, located in the El Segundo barrio of El
Pasoarguably one of the poorest and most unhealthy neighborhoods in the nationcertainly
knew that the majority Mexican-origin population lived apart from whites, most of whom
lived across the interstate highway on the other side of the desert city. They understood not to

662

The Journal of American History

December 2013

Alexander Wolff, The Barrio Boys, Sports Illustrated, June 27, 2011, pp. 6469, esp. 67.
Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948); Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 241; Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.
3601. Albert M. Camarillo, Blacks, Latinos, and the New Racial Frontier in American Cities of Color: Californias
Emerging Minority-Majority Cities, in African American Urban History since World War II, ed. Kusmer and Trotter,
3959.
30
31

Downloaded from http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/ at San Jose State University on July 3, 2016

enter white neighborhoods, but when these nave teens traveled beyond El Paso for the rst
time as members of a team that eventually captured the rst Texas state baseball championship
series in 1949a feat few believed this ragtag group of poor Mexican boys could achieve
they were caught off guard by the hatred of whites toward Mexicans. On the way to the state
championship tournament in Austin, the team stopped in Lubbock to rest. They passed a
storefront sign that read No Dogs or Mexicans, and while searching for a public drinking
fountain one of the players came upon other signs: the rst marking a fountain for Colored
and the other marking a fountain for White. Andy Morales, a dark-skinned Mexican American, recounted decades later: Me being brown, I didnt know which was for me. I asked a
husky Anglo guy which one I was supposed to use. When the man uttered, I dont give a
s, young Morales took his words as a signal to drink from the white fountain. He was
lucky no one saw this breach of racial custom. While at the Austin tournament, white visiting
teams stayed at local hotels, but the Bowie High School coach knew that these hotels were race
restricted, so his players slept on cots under the University of Texas football stadium. Between
games, some of the boys went to the local movie theater and were told in no uncertain terms,
Mexicans sit upstairs. But after the lm started, the theater darkened, and the usher was
otherwise occupied, they sneaked into the white seats in the orchestra section.30 Though they
did not intend to fool the white folks, the barrio boys from El Paso certainly learned quickly
how to navigate segregated life in the era of Jaime Crow.
In the postWorld War II decades a growing number of working-class and middle-class Mexican Americans, African Americans, and other people of color began to penetrate the oncerestricted neighborhoods across the metropolitan United States. They were among the tens of
thousands who dared to live outside the racial borderhoods as the structures that supported Jim,
Jaime, and James Crow were whittled away piecemeal beginning in the late 1940s. The legal
barriers those Crow cousins had built that restricted millions of people to urban racial borderhoods began to crumble. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 (which
made restrictive covenants legally unenforceable), the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and, nally, Title
VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act) outlawed discrimination in the sale,
rental, and nancing of real estate based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The era
of restricted racial borderhoods was coming to a close by the late 1960s, ushering in the demographic transformation of cities and their metropolitan suburbs in the decades that followed.
Even so, the phenomenon of residential segregation by race and ethnicity, despite laws that protect against the most onerous forms of discrimination, has continued in different guises since
the 1970s. Today, most of the nations largest cities and metropolitan suburbs are populated by
majorities of racial minorities. The contemporary histories of these cities and suburbs of color
are deeply rooted in the broader historical context of the formation of urban racial borderhoods
during the rst half of the twentieth century.31