Highway expansion in the 1950s and 60s decimated Black neighborhoods, nationwide

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Miami’s Overtown neighborhood wasn’t just a bustling and vibrant Black community, it thrived so well that it was known as the “Harlem of the South.” Famous Black musicians in those days who suffered the indignity of not being able to stay at the very same Miami Beach hotels where they performed would often come across the bay to both do later shows and stay the night in Overtown. But with the development of the interstate highway system, officials decided to run Interstate 95 right through Overtown, decimating the neighborhood. And this certainly wasn’t just in Miami. Black neighborhoods were destroyed across the country during the construction of highways during this time, including in Newark, Detroit, Nashville, Los Angeles, Columbus, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Syracuse, Montgomery, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Oakland.

From the Poverty & Race Research Action Council:
Highway promoters and builders envisioned the new interstate expressways as a means of
clearing slum housing and blighted urban areas. These plans actually date to the late 1930s,
but they were not fully implemented until the late 1950s and 1960s. Massive amounts of
urban housing were destroyed in the process of building the urban sections of the interstate
system. By the 1960s, federal highway construction was demolishing 37,000 urban housing
units each year; urban renewal and redevelopment programs were destroying an equal
number of mostly-low-income housing units annually. The amount of disruption, a report of
the U.S. House Committee on Public Works conceded in 1965, was astoundingly large. As
planning scholar Alan A. Altshuler has noted, by the mid-1960s, when interstate construction
was well underway, it was generally believed that the new highway system would “displace a
million people from their homes before it [was] completed.” A large proportion of those
dislocated were African Americans, and in most cities the expressways were routinely routed
through black neighborhoods.

And Reuters reported:
Some black neighborhoods were targeted even when more logical routes were available, research by the late urban historian Raymond Mohl shows. According to his findings:
*In Miami, Interstate 95 was routed through Overtown, a Black neighborhood known as the “Harlem of the South,” rather than a nearby abandoned rail corridor.
*In Nashville, Interstate 40 took a noticeable swerve, bisecting the Black community of North Nashville.
*In Montgomery, Alabama, the state highway director, a high-level officer of the Ku Klux Klan, routed Interstate 85 through a neighborhood where many Black civil rights leaders lived, rather than choosing an alternate route on vacant land.
*In New Orleans and Kansas City, officials re-routed freeways from white neighborhoods to integrated or predominantly Black areas.

As with much history, this all very much shapes what you can see with your own eyes today. It is not accidental that these neighborhoods are often lacking banks, safe playgrounds, restaurants, and grocery stores. Deliberate actions by the government and other powerful entities – or, more accurately, the people making decisions on behalf of the government and other powerful entities – divested whole communities at a time. The legacy of these unjust and indefensible actions lives on, and we must still actively work against not just the actions themselves, but the mindsets that brought them about. And that “we,” there, is all of us.