The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

26 February 2004

The shadow of Jim Crow

The Oklahoman has an interesting exhibit this week: photos of five Oklahoma City segregation ordinances, enacted from 1916 through 1934. From the vantage point of the 21st century, these seem downright medieval, but while all of them have been stricken from the books, there are reminders of their existence in the distribution of the city's population even today.

From Ordinance Number 1824, March 1916:

[I]t shall be unlawful for any white person to use as a residence, or place of abode or to establish and maintain as a place of assembly any house, building or structure in any block, as same is hereinafter defined, on which seventy-five percent or more of such houses, buildings or structures are occupied as residences, place of abode or public assembly by colored people, and twenty-five percent or less of such houses, buildings or structures are occupied as residence, place of abode or public assembly by white people.

[I]t shall be unlawful for any colored person to use as a residence or place of abode, or to establish and maintain as a place of assembly any house, building or structure in any block, as same is hereinafter defined, on which seventy-five percent or more of such houses, buildings or structures are occupied as residences, place of abode or public assembly by white people, and twenty-five percent or less of such houses, buildings or structures are occupied as residence, place of abode or public assembly by colored people.

Sure enough, a later paragraph defines "block," just in case there might be any doubts.

This ordinance was modified by the next ordinance, to make allowance for servants and such, and to define "white" and "colored" blocks more specifically. By the Thirties, the arbitrary 75-percent figure had been modified to an arbitrary 51-percent figure; eventually, all the rules were thrown out. Still, as late as 1970, Oklahoma City was considered 90 percent segregated — the Bureau of the Census compiles a Housing Segregation Index — improving to 68 percent in 2000. Zero is probably unattainable, given human nature; still, progress is being made. And as a practical matter, most present-day segregation tends to be economic rather than racial; someone making $12,000 a year would find it difficult to buy into my neighborhood, simply because of the prevailing prices, and I certainly can't afford something in the higher-lux areas a mile and a half from me.

I don't pretend for a moment that people in Oklahoma City, or in the United States in general, live in perfect racial harmony. But the stark reminders of what used to be should make us feel slightly better about what is.

Posted at 5:56 PM to City Scene