How did city planners play a role in using new school construction to create residential segregation, especially in southern cities that once had substantially mixed-race housing patterns? Because of the close connection between school location and the housing market, school site selection preserved residential segregation long after the courts declared racial zoning unconstitutional, often with devastating consequences for inner-city neighborhoods. One Saint Xavier University (SXU) professor’s research investigates the implications of racial zoning in southern cities from the 1920s to the present. Dr. Karen Benjamin, associate professor of history, was recently awarded a $43,917 grant from the Spencer Foundation to fund her research and allow her to travel to three southern states to complete her research.
“This project developed out of my dissertation research on the intersection between segregationist policies and curriculum reform in southern cities during the 1920s,” said Dr. Benjamin. “While reading through manuscript collections at Duke University, I found a letter written by an African-American woman accusing the Raleigh school board of attempting to segregate African-American residents through school site selection. This serendipitous discovery led to an article in the Journal of Urban History (2012) that analyzes the role that the Raleigh school board played in creating residential segregation in that city.”
Her research project entitled, “City Planners and the use of School Sites to Impose Racial Zoning on Southern Cities before WWII,” explores the close collaboration between city planners and school boards before 1930 and its effects on the field of residential segregation. Through her research grant, Dr. Benjamin will travel to Dallas, Austin, Birmingham and Raleigh to collect data.
“This study examines how city planners encouraged the location of modern schools in new residential developments to facilitate the population shift of white residents to racially restricted suburbs,” said Dr. Benjamin. “Simultaneously, modern schools built “deep” within areas set aside for African-American development facilitated the population shift of African-American residents to emerging ghettos. Thus, school site selection allowed planners to impose unofficial racial zones long after the courts affirmed their illegality. These efforts led to increased residential segregation well before federal housing policies began subsidizing white America’s flight to the suburbs and concentrating public housing in the urban core.”
Aside from her duties as a professor, Dr. Benjamin is also the social science education coordinator and the director of African-American studies. Many of her courses and programs have been centered on race and its meaning in society. Additionally, Dr. Benjamin received SXU’s Excellence in Teaching Award earlier this year.
“An active research agenda also helps me develop new courses with high impact learning opportunities such as U.S. Urban and Suburban History, Ghetto Formation in Twentieth-Century Chicago, and Southern Slavery, Southern Freedom,” said Dr. Benjamin. “In these courses, my scholarship helps me teach from a fresh perspective and provide a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Most importantly, it allow me to model what it means to be a scholar. I know my research in the coming year will continue to strengthen the courses I am currently teaching and enable me to develop new courses that interest students.”