(Still) Redlining in Richmond After All These Years

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”― William Faulkner

There is little nuance to be found among the assessment surveys and the residential security map of Richmond, Virginia, produced for the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1937: in them race is everywhere and everywhere a determining factor. In the late 1930s the HOLC, working with local realtors and lenders, completed assessment surveys and produced security maps for over 200 American cities.  
HOLC security map of Richmond
The Residential Security Map for Richmond

The assessment surveys and map produced for Richmond, (click here: which this site allows you) to explore in detail, clearly convey the centrality of race in the politics and on the landscape of the Southern city.  The HOLC emerged from the Great Depression. At the urging of President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1933 Congress had created the agency to help stem the urban foreclosure crisis. Over a three-year period, the agency refinanced over one million homes, providing homeowners with low-interest loans with substantially longer repayment periods than had previously been typical.

In the 1920s most mortgages were five- to ten-year balloon mortgages where homeowners had to refinance their loans regularly and often repeatedly. HOLC mortgages were instead fully amortized, typically over a period of about twenty years.1

With the HOLC holding hundreds of thousands of long-term mortgages that would not be paid off until the late 1940s or 1950s, in 1935 the parent organization of the HOLC, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, launched a City Survey Program to gauge trends in housing values in American cities, charging the HOLC to execute the program.

Working with local realtors and lenders, the HOLC amassed data about different neighborhoods and areas in American cities. They would record information about the terrain, about the type and age of buildings, about sales and rental demand, about the "threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population," among other factors. Using this data, each area was assigned one of four grades. 

"A" areas were "'hot spots' ... where good mortgage lenders ... are willing to make their maximum loans." "B" areas were not as desirable but "still good." "C" areas had reached "the transition period" where they were in decline due to factors such as "age, obsolecence, and change of style" and "infiltration of a lower grade population." Finally, "D" areas had fully declined and were "characterized by detrimental influence in a pronounced degree." Residential security maps were then produced to map these grades across the urban landscape, "graphically reflect[ing] the trend of desirability in neighborhoods from a residential view-point," with A, B, C, and D neighborhoods colored green, blue, yellow, and red, respectively, on maps for each city.2
The HOLC's descriptions of the grades evidence their adoption of a life-cycle model of neighborhood change. According to this model or theory, neighborhoods inexorably declined as housing stock decayed and housing styles went out of fashion, lowering values to the point that a "lower grade population" began "infiltrating" the neighborhood.

This was bad enough when those infiltrators were working-class or foreign-born whites. Their presence compromised the neighborhood's social homogeneity and accelerated the decline of both housing values and neighborhood desirability. The movement of African Americans into a neighborhood was far worse according to this model, precipitating the final demise of its desirability and "residential security." Thus while HOLC grades were assigned by weighing a variety of factors, including the age of houses and the fashionability of particular architectural styles, it is clear that race trumped all others, certainly in Richmond and, by all indications, in other American cities as well.

Each and every African American area in Richmond was assigned a grade of D marking it as a fully declined area. Of the dozen D areas in Richmond, only two were not African American neighborhoods, and one of those almost entirely "inaccessible," unsettled, and undeveloped.3

The assessment surveys convey the prime importance of race in determining grades. On the assessment surveys, "negro" functioned as a synecdoche conveying all that was needed to know about an area and its inhabitants. For instance, for item 5A "Inhabitants: Type" on the assessment surveys, surveyors were asked "What is the general type of occupation, i.e. executives, business men, retired professional, clerical, skilled mechanic or factory workers, laborers etc?"

For the most part, the assessors for Richmond followed these instructions for A, B, and C neighborhoods by recording occupations and trades, often with great specificity: "representative business men," "minor executives—salaried employees," "retired men and railway officials," "mill laborers in paper and rayon mills," etc. However, African American D neighborhoods were a different matter. None of the surveys for these areas specified occupations or trades. Six of ten of these surveys instead listed "negro"; the other four listed nothing. In an omission and substitution that recalls a long history where African Americans' race was closely linked to, almost synonymous with, their status as laborers commanded by whites—whether that be the relationship between black slave and white master or between black sharecropper and white landowner—on these assessment surveys African Americans' race became a proxy for their labor.4

Race was specified in this category for only one other neighborhood. For South Richmond, the only settled D neighborhood inhabited by whites, the occupation was listed as "Laboring whites." There was such a sharp break between A, B, and C white neighborhoods and D African American areas that the race of the inhabitants of the former did not need to be specified at all. Only when whites lived in a D neighborhood did their race need to be explicitly mentioned. Interestingly, it is not entirely clear if even this small neighborhood should be considered as the single white D neighborhood.

It was assigned the area number of 11, while another area just to the south with African Americans reportedly accounting for 95% of the residents was not given a discrete number but instead was designated as area D11.5. If those two areas are not considered as wholly distinct from one another but as two sub-areas of a single area, then the determining, overriding significance of race is even more marked. In that case every white neighborhood was assigned grades of either A, B, or C and every neighborhood where African Americans lived was assigned the lowest grade of D.

The importance of race is suggested as much by what was not recorded as by what was. Just as the trades and occupations of African Americans were omitted, so too were descriptions of the land they occupied. For item 2 "Description of Terrain," assessors dutifully recorded descriptions of the physical terrain for all but two, or 94%, of the 36 white A, B, and C neighborhoods. Only two of the twelve assessment surveys, or 17%, for D neighborhoods included descriptions of the terrain. The race of the inhabitants of the land made the terrain of that land irrelevant, one is tempted to conclude, when those inhabitants were black.

detail of security map
Small and awkward C areas were defined as buffers separating white "good" B neighborhoods from African American "undesirable" D neighborhoods
While this omission of descriptions of the terrain of African American neighborhoods is suggestive, the importance of race is much more explicit and clear in other parts of the assessment surveys. Race was such a determining factor in these assessments that proximity to African American areas could and did decrease a neighborhood's grade. Area C4 (today known as the Byrd Park neighborhood), for instance, was reduced from a B to a C grade because of its proximity to the African American neighborhood of Randolph (D8).

"This area is yellow," the assessor explained, "largely because the school for white children is in the negro area, D-8, and because the negroes of D-8 pass back and forth for access to the William Byrd Park which lies to the west. For this reason losses on properties are being taken."

Similarly, a small, narrow, awkwardly shaped area was carved out of the Ginter Park neighborhood (B13), separating the majority of that neighborhood from the African American neighborhood of Washington Park (D2). The area was assigned a grade of C because, though inhabited by "Respectable people," their "homes are too near negro area D2."

A tiny sliver of a C area two blocks long and one and a half wide was defined to separate the white B neighborhood of Barton Heights (B14) from the African American Area D1 located to the south. While for the most part the assessment surveys were free of racist language (though clearly not of racist attitudes), one derogatory racist epithet does appear among the HOLC's assessment surveys: the state of repair for buildings in neighborhood D11.5 is listed as "Bad for whites; Fair for darkies."

If there is not much nuance (at least in terms of race) to be found in these assessment sheets, fortunately the same cannot be said about scholarly analyses of the HOLC and its security maps. Some historians, perhaps most notably Kenneth Jackson, have argued that the HOLC assessments and security maps contributed to or even initiated the practice of redlining.

Redlining refers to the practice of denying services, particularly banking and mortgage services, to particular neighborhoods, sometimes by literally drawing a red line on a map to separate areas where loans would be made from areas where they would not. Redlining practices evidence racial discrimination more than accurate assessments of the relative security of such investments.

More recent scholarship, particularly work by Amy E. Hillier, has questioned the argument that the HOLC security maps themselves substantially contributed to subsequent redlining practices.

Race was a determining factor in HOLC security grades; redlining practices were pervasive. But, Hillier argues, the former did not cause the latter. The HOLC security maps, she argues, were not widely available and thus could not have exercised the widespread impact that some historians have claimed. Redlining practices were caused by many agents much more than the HOLC and its maps, particularly discriminatory practices by legions of private lenders and realtors both before and after the creation of the HOLC maps and the policies of the Federal Housing Administration.

For Hillier, the HOLC maps reflected rather than caused redlining practices.5

The work of Hillier is a useful reminder not to overstate the importance of the HOLC assessments and security maps. Her work as well as that of other scholars deepens our understanding of federal housing policies and private mortgage practices by considering other evidence in addition to the HOLC maps, evidence such as actual mortgages that were made by the HOLC before the creation of the maps and by private firms after their production.

Importantly, Hillier, Jackson, and others find that most HOLC mortgages were given to homeowners in neighborhoods that would receive C and D grades, suggesting that the HOLC did not redline itself.6 Though this site does not present evidence beyond the assessment surveys and the security map for Richmond, it does seek to present a variety of different views of the data amassed by the HOLC and its local agents. Three views are presented for each factor or discrete item of data collected on the surveys. One view plots assessment survey values on a map of the city, enabling you to investigate different aspects of Richmond in the 1930s from a spatial perspective.

Another presents four simple lists, one for each grade, of the values recorded on the assessment surveys, enabling you to get a quick overview of all the values for that factor across all neighborhoods and areas. A final view aggregates identical or nearly identical values together in an effort to reveal patterns amid the survey data. While the issue of race runs throughout the assessment surveys, the maps and other pages on this site will allow you to explore information about Richmond unrelated or not directly related to race such as, for example,the considerable disparities in wealth and income in Richmond in the 1930s and the relative age of neighborhoods and buildings in the city at that particular moment in time. We hope that this site helps you investigate a number of aspects of the history of Richmond in the 1930s and that it contributes to conversations about race and history in our city.
Robert K. Nelson
  1. The innovative nature of HOLC mortgages is described in Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 196-197. [back]
  2. The origins of the City Survey Program and the methods used to collect assessment data and assign grades are most thoroughly analyzed in Amy E. Hillier, "Residential Security Maps and Neighborhood Appraisals: The Home Owners' Loan Corporation and the Case of Philadelphia," Social Science History 29 (Summer 2005): 2007-33. The explanation of grades comes from the HOLC City Survey for Richmond. That survey is from Records of the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) 1933-51, Record Group 195.3, Records of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, National Archives. [back]
  3. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 198; Hillier, "Residential Security Maps," 225-227. An analysis of the HOLC assessment surveys for Richmond appears in Christopher Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race (Knoxville, Tenn.: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 142-145.[back]
  4. For an insightful and provocative analyses of the relationship between and conflation of blacknes and labor in American history, see Barbara Jeanne Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America," New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990), 95-118. [back]
  5. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 197, 203; Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond, 144; Hillier, "Redlining and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation," Journal of Urban History 29 (May 2003): 394-420; Kristen B. Crossney and David W. Bartelt, "Residential Security, Risk, and Race: The Home Owners' Loan Corporation and Mortgage Access in Two Cities," Urban Geography 26 (2005): 730-732. [back]
  6. Hillier, "Redlining and the Home Owners' Loan Corporation," 397-398; Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 202; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 274. [back]