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NAACP report on Pittsfield’s history of redlining shows generations of discrimination in housing practices

A 1936 map of Pittsfield with visible redlining in the West and East sides
Berkshire NAACP

A new report from the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP details the history of redlining in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and how systemic discrimination shaped the city through today.

The term “redlining” refers to the color-coded maps of banks and loan institutions that determine how financially hazardous a community is to investment. The practice has historically disadvantaged minority groups, presenting further barriers to homeownership, intensifying economic isolation, and deepening segregation.

“Redlining in Pittsfield looks much the same as it does elsewhere in our country: a constellation of private decisions and public policy that relegated Black Americans to second class status,” said Berkshire NAACP Housing Committee Chair Kamaar Taliaferro.

Wednesday night, the Berkshire NAACP presented the findings of a year-long examination into how redlining has shaped Pittsfield, home to the county’s largest community of people of color.

Education committee co-chair Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed shared an account from Reverend Samuel Harrison, a Black abolitionist born into enslavement who served as a Union Army chaplain in the Civil War. He described his efforts to buy a house – now a historic site – in Pittsfield in the 19th century.

“In the fall of 1858, we moved into a house, which we could call our own, I suppose," read Jones-Sneed. "I was in debt, about $150 to three persons, $50 each. I laid the matter before a friend. He thought that the money could be secured from the Berkshire County Savings Bank by placing a mortgage on the property, which I did. But afterwards, I found that I had made a financial blunder. It was $300 instead of $150. I had to pay 7% interest and I gave my note for $150 to the builder. I aim to discharge the mortgage, which the savings banks held. I paid not far from $100 of interest. I was housed comfortably in my own shanty after years of anxiety and toil, and I may say a prayer.”

The struggles Harrison faced in securing financial backing were merely a prelude to the experience of generations of Black Pittsfielders to come. Redlining would both consolidate where Black people could live in the city and complicate the means of securing homeownership for the community.

“What you notice in the first map, in the 1900 map, is that Black homeownership, while the majority of Black homeowners were already in the West Side of Pittsfield, there was some significant representation across both the East and West Sides of the city," said Tessa Kelly, an architect who grew up in Pittsfield. “As we gradually move forward, as we go to the 1910 map, you'll see that two adjacent wards begin to increase their percentages of representation of Black homeowners, Ward 6 and 7, the two red wards shown in the 1910 map. As we get to the 1920 map, you'll see the representation on the East Side of the city almost disappears completely for Black homeownership. And all Black homeowners are essentially now in the southwestern quadrant of the city. As we get to 1930, you'll see the concentration move even further, just into the West Side. And then finally in the 1940 map, you'll see that the city of Pittsfield decides to redraw ward boundaries, and the newly delineated Ward 6 encapsulates a supermajority of Black homeowners throughout the city of Pittsfield.”

By the 1960s, the concentration of the city’s Black population and its reliance on renting due to redlining left the community in a vulnerable state.

“This made their homes and communities easy targets for urban renewal, and given the lack of ownership, left the Black community in Pittsfield with few means of effective resistance,” said Taliaferro.

Kelly used maps of Pittsfield to show how in the 1960s, urban renewal transformed the West Side, cementing the city’s segregation.

“What once was a series of small businesses that actually turned the corner down North Street, down Columbus Ave, leading into the West Side, that connection becomes erased and severed," she said. "And then the black line that you see going vertically up the map is what we now know as Center Street, which effectively also cuts off the West Side from the direct connection that it once had with North Street. So these two moves together sever and separate the West Side from downtown Pittsfield.”

The cumulative impact of decades of redlining continues to cast a shadow over the city.

“Yesterday's decisions in Pittsfield haunt us today," said Taliaferro. “Homeownership rates for Blacks in Pittsfield are 7 percentage points lower than they were in 1950, 13 percentage points higher today for white citizens than they were in 1950. In the county, mortgage applications for Blacks represent only a quarter of our share of the population. The average lifespan in the West Side is 9 years less than those in southeast Pittsfield’s more exclusive neighborhoods. The median income for Blacks in the West Side is less than 40% of the median income in the city, and unsurprisingly, poverty has quadrupled in the West Side between 2000 and 2018.”

Today, Black people make up around 5% of Pittsfield’s roughly 44,000 residents. Despite these extraordinary challenges, Taliaferro stresses that the community displayed remarkable resiliency.

“They organized," he said. "The NAACP flourished in the early 1960s. Faith leaders of all denominations and community organizers became involved in implementing various Great Society era anti-poverty initiatives in the city. The first Black person was elected in Pittsfield to our school committee board in 1967. And some of the courageous efforts from that period in time succeeded in shaping the city that we see today: The Early Childhood Development Program was founded. The NAACP secured scattered-site public housing on Columbus Avenue, more dignified housing for those with low incomes than the isolated low income project that came from urban renewal.”

WAMC has requested comment on the report’s findings from Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

You can hear the full NAACP report on redlining in Pittsfield here:

Berkshire NAACP Redlining 4-6-22.mp3

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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