An engrossing look at the history of racist real-estate practices in Chicago, and the activists who fought for justice.
Satter (History/Rutgers Univ.; Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920, 1999) views this issue through the personal lens of family history. Her father was a civil-rights attorney who represented many black families against exploitative real-estate contracts in the 1950s and ’60s. Taking advantage of the fact that few banks would give mortgages to African-Americans, owners pushed a scheme called “contract selling,” which was basically a high-interest installment plan with exorbitant monthly payments. The houses were often in disrepair and grossly overpriced; initial down payments were massive. One late monthly payment allowed the owner to void the contract, evict the tenants and start the process anew with another family. Even if they managed to stay afloat financially, black families often had to contend with hostile, even violent, white neighbors. Satter writes of one chilling case in 1957, when a mob of 200 teenagers gathered outside an African-American homeowner’s house, chanting, “We want blood.” When they sought redress in the courts, plaintiffs often met opposition from openly racist judges. Subsequent chapters depict the campaigns for social justice that arose from these practices. The author profiles Chicago activists like community organizer Saul Alinsky, who organized pickets against landlords, and movements such as the Contract Buyers League, which in the late ’60s and early ’70s spearheaded payment strikes and successfully challenged the legality of Illinois’s eviction law. Much of the book’s second half chronicles serpentine courtroom struggles; it’s a testament to Satter’s skill that these sections are among the most riveting and at times read like a legal thriller. Many of the problems and injustices she writes about still exist today, and she does an excellent job of documenting and explaining them for the lay reader.
Comprehensive and compulsively readable.