A Complicit History: Segregation and Silence in America's Fifth Largest City
I talked myself out of writing this more than a few times. Who wants to hear from me in the midst of this historic movement, when, as Dave Chapelle says, “the streets are talking for themselves?” Is any comment performative? Any anger an appropriation?
Quite honestly, I worried I’d say whatever I said in some ham-fisted way or, worse, say it ignorantly, exposing myself as unwittingly blind to the nuance and history of race in America. Yet reading and writing is how I make sense of the world, and right now there is so much that needs figuring out.
If there are things I missed or things I messed up or things to think about another way, just leave a comment below. Don’t talk yourself out of it. -LL
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
-Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask, 1913
As he stepped outside, Aubrey Carter knew something wasn’t right. He wanted to get his hat and coat and give himself a moment to consider what was happening, but the white man at his doorstep was insistent. He claimed to be with the sheriff’s office and “demanded that Carter accompany him” immediately. 
Carter was suspicious, but what choice did he really have? This was March of 1922, a time when “the perils of second-class citizenship for African-Americans in Phoenix” were a stark reality. Black Phoenicians didn’t get far by refusing the police. And should they stand defiant, risking life and limb to invoke such privileged extravagances as civil liberties—well, that would break the “strict etiquette of racial conduct” expected by “Phoenix’s ruling white elite.” 
Carter’s heart picked up as he shut the front door. His skin tingled, flushed with heat, hotter than the dry Arizona air that seemed, suddenly, to press in from all sides. He walked down the stoop and out onto the sidewalk, led by the man from the so-called sheriff’s office. Out in front of his home at 7th Avenue and Grant, he could see the top floors of a few Downtown buildings to the northeast, even Phoenix National Bank, where he had toiled as a janitor for the last seven years.
Two cars sat out on the street, both nearly full, with five additional men, all white and all waiting. Carter approached one of the cars and, at their direction, got in. He no sooner sat down than the men “poked a gun into [his] ribs and threw a coat over [his] head.”  If they really were sheriffs of any sort, it was now clear they meant to operate outside the boundaries of the law. That the men wouldn’t stop there, that they’d also betray the boundaries of the humane, the moral, and the just—these might have been the kind of terrors that filled Carter’s mind for the next hour as the car drove west into the desert. Or perhaps instead, as a church-going man, he prayed to his god as they bounced through the scrub brush.
What happened next deserves to be written in no words but the victim’s own. “They ordered me out of the car, then tied my hands and lashed me to the framework,” he would report later that same night to the legitimate sheriff’s office. “They flogged me and painted me.” 
By ‘painted,’ Aubrey Carter meant that the six men had marred his skin with “three Crimson K’s.”  The lashes left their own deep, red marks, too, but none carried the same sinister weight, same history, and same violence as those letters.
Before that terrible night was over, the men informed Carter of his supposed crime. He had shared an elevator with a white woman at the bank where he worked, and they didn’t like the way he had looked at her. They told him this like somehow it made any kind of sense, and then they told him one more thing, too. “Report to the police, the sheriff’s office and the newspapers and let them know that the Ku Klux Klan has been active.” 
KKK members announce the formation of their Phoenix chapter in 1921 with a cross-burning hike through South Mountain. The Arizona Republican simply reprinted the Klan’s announcement, adding no editorial comment
Phoenix Klan activity surged that spring of 1922. Around the same time, Dr. H. A. Hughes launched The Crank, one of multiple local KKK newsprints at the time. Hughes was an open racist and avowed prohibitionist with a flair for the dramatic. Demonstrating his commitment to teetotalling, he once commandeered a city water truck, “gathered up all the liquor he could find,” and sprayed it up and down the gutters of Central Avenue. 
Hardly forced into the shadows, the one-time candidate for Governor made his views on race well-known, and for that he earned quite an audience. “Hughes would sometimes host Klan speakers at his north-Phoenix home,” writes historian Sue Wilson Abbey. “As many as 500 people would gather on his lawn to hear them.” 
By the mid- to late-1920s, after a grand jury investigation and a series of electoral losses, the Phoenix KKK waned in relevance, but not before a litany of state and local leaders were eventually outed as Klan members, including Arizona Secretary of State Ernest Hall, Phoenix Mayor Willis Plunkett, Maricopa County Sheriff J. G. Montgomery, Maricopa County Attorney R. E. L. Shepherd, and retired Superior Court Judge Frank Baxter, who was apparently so beloved by his fellow white supremacists that when “[he] died in Yuma in 1924, between forty and fifty robed Klansmen accompanied his casket to the grave site.” 
The thing is, prejudice didn’t follow men like Hughes and Baxter to the grave just because a few bigots stopped paying dues, dressing up, and burning crosses on South Mountain. Deemed uncouth, it mutated from its more overt form into something deeply insidious, abandoning backyard revivals and marches down Main Street to double down on the quiet infiltration of ruling institutions. With these in hand, public policy could be used to leverage the oppression of some as a means to advantage others. It was an adaptation that didn’t require the vocal affirmation of a card-carrying majority. Indeed, it needed only their silent acceptance.
Matthew C. Whitaker explores this oppressive status quo in his article The Rise of Black Phoenix: African-American Migration, Settlement and Community Development in Maricopa County, Arizona 1868-1930. Describing Phoenix by the time of the Great Depression, Whitaker writes of a “predominantly white power structure which practiced racism to maintain white supremacy.” 
“Whites took steps to thwart the limited progress blacks had made,” he says. “And to systematically usher in mechanisms which would ensure the continued marginalization of a growing, more vocal African-American population.” 
Reading that one night, up late and avoiding sleep, I couldn’t help but notice that Whitaker calls racism a “practice,” as if to imply an intentional series of actions, something affirmed by repetition and habit. If it takes practice to maintain, I thought, perhaps it also takes practice—persistent and deliberate practice—to destroy.
Five months before The Arizona Republican dispassionately reported the brazen hate crime against Aubrey Carter, it had had other things to say about the KKK. Despite being “in receipt of a communication… demanding that there be an investigation of [Phoenix’s recently established] Ku Klux Klan,” the paper’s editors chose to turn a blind eye. 
“Whether the local Ku Klux Klan is big enough or important enough among the other branches of the organization to have a ‘kleagle’ of its own we can’t say,” they wrote. “But they have them elsewhere, so why not here?… The local Ku Klux Klan organization is apparently a peaceable and law-abiding one… In the meantime, to all inquiries concerning the Ku Klux Klan or how to proceed to join it, we must confess ignorance.” 
The white men who would someday kidnap Aubrey Carter at gunpoint deserved a preemptive repudiation, not an equivocation, but equivocation is what they heard, complete with a wink-wink feign of ignorance. Their silence was a signal, a white flare burning bright against the desert’s night sky. Whether by intent or neglect—it matters little in matters of life and death—the Republican, the boosters who controlled it, and the powerful who read it at the time, were each of them complicit, not just in the hate crime against Aubrey Carter, but in the perpetuation of a system that asked some to live in fear so that others could live in comfort. They were the “white moderate” that so “gravely disappointed” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner,” he writes. “But the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season.”
The Color of Phoenix
“In the Negro section are some very good homes, considering their occupancy by colored people.” - Eight White Men circa late-1930s
In 1922, it would have come as no surprise that Aubrey Carter lived near 7th Avenue and Grant. He wouldn’t have had much choice otherwise. Phoenix was as segregated as nearly any city in the Jim Crow South, with hardly a Black citizen allowed to live north of Van Buren.  Race-restrictive deed covenants were rampant, quite literally the law of the land. Their stark language limited a wide range of minority communities from owning or renting a home alongside White Phoenicians. According to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, “proponents of such restrictions were convinced that racial exclusion would enhance their property values and that such deeds were mere private agreements that would not run afoul of constitutional prohibitions on racially discriminatory state action.” 
Restrictive covenants were a technical end-around the decision in Buchanan v. Warley, a 1917 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down explicitly race-restricted zoning ordinances in Louisville, Kentucky. In a unanimous vote, the Justices found Louisville’s “attempt to prevent the alienation of the property in question to a person of color was not a legitimate exercise of the police power of the state, and is in direct violation of the fundamental law enacted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution preventing state interference with property rights except by due process of law.”  As a matter of contract between two private parties, however, the restrictions flourished, “spread[ing] throughout the country in the 1920s.”  Eventually, these restrictions found their way to Phoenix.
Alison King recently used her popular platform Modern Phoenix to call attention to an example of the racist language that still haunts properties across the Phoenix-area, including homes designed by mid-century architect Ralph Haver.
Brentwood, the now historic neighborhood my family calls home, shares this complicit origin story. Racist covenants were written straight into its subdivision and, more shamelessly, its exclamatory newspaper advertising circa 1928. Among its chief attractions were an ABUNDANCE OF PURE WATER!, NO CITY TAXES TO PAY!, and MANY OTHER WORTHY FEATURES!. Those worthy features included race restrictions, which apparently rated right up there with rumors of a “proposed new Bayless [grocery] store within one block.”  The neighborhood’s fine print spoke loudly.
Ever progressive, some new housing tracts carved out specialized exceptions to their racialized covenants, allowing minorities the rarified privilege of living in the home of a White property owner if they worked as servants or domestic employees. Gene Montemore, an Arizona real estate broker turned amateur archivist, compiled twelve different examples of local deed restriction language from 1948, including at least two that accommodated the desire to employ live-in help, if not the humanity of the help themselves. Each example is worth reading.
Public education was another tool for segregating Phoenix. Not far from Carter’s home would soon be built Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary, a school for Black children named after one of 19th-century America’s most successful Black poets. In 1909, Governor Joseph Kibbey had vetoed his territorial legislatures’ “proposal [to allow] Arizona school districts, when they deemed it advisable, to segregate students of African ancestry from students of other racial backgrounds.”  The legislature promptly rode roughshod over Kibbey’s appeal to fairness, calling for and winning a vote to override his veto.
With a green light from the state, the Phoenix School Board took it upon themselves to deem segregation advisable and moved forward with plans to build its first “school for colored children on Madison Street between Fifth and Sixth streets.”  Phoenix schools remain highly segregated, worse now than they were even thirty years ago.
These early experiments in state-sanctioned segregation were ruthlessly effective forms of social control. They hijacked public policy and drew boundaries around various city quarters, boundaries that would go on to be formalized in federal maps and reinforced for generations by the almighty power of finance. And so the Invisible-But-Of-Course-Very-White-Hand of the Market put its finger on the scale of the American economy, tipping the balance toward itself.
Paul Krugman, in a recent New York Times column, says it this way. “The core story of U.S. politics over the past four decades is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.” My only edit, humbly submitted, might alter Krugman’s copy to read something more like this: “The core story of U.S. politics since its founding is that wealthy elites weaponized white racism to gain political power, which they used to pursue policies that enriched the already wealthy at workers’ expense.”
Hardly any policies were weaponized so profoundly and so ruthlessly as those affecting mortgages and homeownership. In response to the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration launched a series of government bodies to oversee data collection, mapping, and the creation of mortgage tools that would backstop a foreclosure-ridden housing market and drastically expand middle-class homeownership. These bodies included the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which “purchased existing mortgages that were subject to imminent foreclosure and then issued new mortgages with repayment schedules of up to fifteen years (later extended to twenty-five,” and the Federal Housing Administration, which “insured bank mortgages that covered 80 percent of purchase prices, had terms of twenty years, and were fully amortized.” 
To underwrite these new mortgage offerings, the federal government embarked on an ambitious project in the mid- to late-1930s: map and analyze the underlying mortgage risk for neighborhoods across the U.S. Among other factors, the maps infamously emphasized each neighborhood’s racial composition. They highlighted minority communities in red, citing them as an outsized risk. As a result, countless loans were steered away from these areas and into White neighborhoods, leaving generations without the wealth-building benefit of home-ownership. This federally-empowered practice, known as redlining, has lived on in de facto forms over the years, long after it was struck down by the Fair Housing Act. Work to overturn its oppressive local legacy continues to this day.
The original HOLC maps and their appendices are available for review via Mapping Inequality, an archival and research project housed at the University of Richmond. Phoenix’s residential areas were rated across four main risk categories: A-Best, B-Still Desirable, C-Definitely Declining, and D-Hazardous.
In the 1920s and 30s, perhaps no neighborhood exemplified racial segregation better than Encanto-Palmcroft, a White enclave sporting stringent race restrictions that the HOLC “considered the best and most exclusive residential district in Phoenix.” Encanto remained exclusively White until Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, Black community leaders and prominent civil activists, purchased a home there in 1953. As it was at the time still subject to race-restricted covenants, the Ragsdales “bypassed the restrictions by having a White friend purchase a northside house for [them] at 1606 West Thomas Road. The deal was still in escrow when [their] friend transferred [them] the title.” 
Acquiring the title to an Encanto home, however important and symbolic, proved to be one of the easier steps toward integration. Winning the hardened hearts of the neighbors was another task entirely. “As Ragsdale later recalled,” writes historian Bradford Luckingham. “He and his family lived in the house for seventeen years and the neighborhood never accepted them.” 
Another source goes on to describe a time when “one morning the family awoke to find the word ‘n—r’ spray-painted on their white block home in ‘two-foot high black letters.’” In a show of courage and defiance, “the Ragsdales left the racial epithet on the wall for the neighbors to see.” 
Encanto-Palmcroft is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places by virtue of its architectural character, which includes “prominent examples of Spanish Colonial Revival, Pueblo Revival, and Regency Revival styles.” Today, if you were to take its 152-page National Register nomination and ctrl + f search for the word ‘race,’ you would find eleven entries, ten of which center on the discussions of terraces and one of which is Grace Tyrrell, owner of 1611 N. 11th Ave. The word segregation does not appear at all, and both Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale go unmentioned.
In contrast, the HOLC drew a bright red warning around Eastlake Park, a historically minority neighborhood that continues to serve as a center point for Black culture in Phoenix. Led by eight local real estate “experts,” the maps described Eastlake as a “Negro section [with] some very good homes, considering their occupancy by colored people.” One wonders what was the state of these experts’ homes, considering their occupancy by seemingly well-practiced racists.
To this day, Encanto-Palmcroft remains a White-dominated neighborhood with homeownership outcomes far outstripping Eastlake Park. 68.1% of Encanto homes were owner-occupied in 2018, compared to only 13.9% in Eastlake. 
Encanto-Palmcroft also remains a wealthy area, its economic privilege and political power secured by generations of compounding return. Just 2.7% of the families in the census block groups that roughly comprise Encanto live below the poverty line. In contrast, 39.5% of Eastlake’s families live in poverty. And so a hallowed, hundred-year tradition continues.
Simply put, American cities like Phoenix were built on state-enabled racial violence, be it through beatings or bankruptcy, force or finance. To live in them then and to live in them now is to participate in a system of well-documented oppression, where the sins of the past are still written into the very deeds of our stolen land. Where Aubrey Carter was helpless to tell the difference between white sheriffs and white supremacists. Where Blacks are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of Whites. Where Black wealth trails White wealth by 10x. Where the gap between Black and White homeownership has widened since 1900.
It’s that living history, that persistence of structural disadvantage, that brought writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates to make the case for reparations (“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”), urban planners like Jay Pitter to call for an end to anti-Black urbanism (“… anti-Blackness is profoundly spatialized and clearly tethered to land use, amenity use, public space enforcement, safe streets, mobility and housing. The public realm and built environment are not simply a backdrop to the current civil unrest; urbanism has contributed to the racial inequities inciting it."), and commentators like Gabe Klein to demand that we reckon with our racist urban past (“Building just, healthy and inclusive cities requires far more than protected bike lanes and alfresco dining. We cannot fulfill plans for safer, cleaner, more sustainable cities without addressing the racialized history of redlining and the modern segregation that allows inequality to thrive. We must understand our past and commit to fix it systemically. We can no longer perpetuate wrongs through inaction.).”
It’s that world we must practice changing, especially those of us who have benefitted from its violence for so long.
To-morrow, or The Post-Script Confession
He did not wake until one day there gleamed
Thro’ his dark consciousness a light that racked
His being till he rose, alert to act.
But lo! What he had dreamed, the while he dreamed,
Another, wedding action unto thought,
Into the living, pulsing world had brought.
-Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Dreamer, 1906
I was out front, standing in my lawn, doing the things you do when you’re out front and standing in a lawn, as a man walked up and said hello. Behind me was a house built in 1928, a house only somebody who looks like me could have owned back then. Decades ago, an interstate cut through about a block and a half south, paving over homes that people of color settled only after those race restrictions expired and Whites of means fled further north.
We had moved back from Florida, my wife and I and two cats. We packed up our apartment and went west, manifesting a new destiny or whatever you call it. A few months in and we’d already met a handful of neighbors through chance interactions or the traditional front porch handshake. Everybody seemed friendly. Outside the occasional siren or the hum of the highway, it was a quiet little corner of the city.
The man stood on the sidewalk. We made the smallest of talk. He said he had lived in the area for quite a while, enough to see it go through ups and downs. He was jovial and smiled and seemed like the so-called salt of the earth.
He said it was a nice neighborhood, but that it wasn’t always that way, that for a few years it had a lot of crime.
And then, standing out there in broad damn daylight, he said the part I’ll never forget. “It’s just nice to see more white people move-in, ya know?”
I wish I could tell you I lept into action, like a punch-a-nazi meme IRL. Armed with everything I purport to know about systemic racism and structural disadvantage, I wish I could tell you I remember calling him out, when no one but me was there to know, on behalf of all those who’ve been mistreated and wronged for so long.
But I can’t tell you that. I can’t even really tell you what happened from there, because the memory gets hazy, buried by a mind that would rather avoid the shame. All I know is I didn’t say what I should have said. I probably chuckled nervously and shifted my weight and avoided eye contact, maybe searched for a polite but quick way to end our conversation.
It’s easy to look back at history and say I wouldn’t have stood for its injustices at the time, easy to fire off a self-righteous Twitter thread, or type out a newsletter.
It’s harder to stand in the lawn out in front of a house, look a man square in the eye, and tell him why he’s wrong. But that’s really where it matters, maybe the place it matters most, one White neighbor telling the other that it’s time to be better.
I was silent that day. Hopefully next time I will speak up.
 Arizona Republican (Phoenix), March 22, 1922. p 9.
 Matthew C. Whitaker, “The Rise of Black Phoenix: African-American Migration, Settlement and Community Development in Maricopa County, Arizona 1868-1930,” The Journal of Negro History. Summer 2000. pp 206, 204.
 Republican (n 1)
 Sue Wilson Abbey, “The KKK in Arizona, 1921-1925,” The Journal of Arizona History. Spring 1973. p 17.
 ibid, 15.
 Matthew C. Whitaker, “The Rise of Black Phoenix: African-American Migration, Settlement and Community Development in Maricopa County, Arizona 1868-1930.” The Journal of Negro History. Summer 2000. pp 207, 208.
 ibid, 202
 Arizona Republican (Phoenix), October 4, 1921. p 6.
 Jon Talton, “Phoenix 101: Minorities,” Rogue Columnist. November 2009.
 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law, Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2017. pp 77-78.
 Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60 (1917)
 Rothstein (n 15), 78.
 Arizona Republican (Phoenix), November 11, 1928.
 Bradford Luckingham, Minorities in Phoenix: A Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1922. University of Arizona Press. 1994. pp 133-134.
 Rothstein (n 15), 63-64
 Luckingham (n 19), 164
 Alton Hornsby, Black America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 1. Greenwood. 2011. p 52.
 All Census data accessed via Maricopa Association of Governments GIS maps at https://geo.azmag.gov/maps/azdemographics/.
**Phoenix HOLC maps via Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers at https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/