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The Interstate System: A Monument to White Supremacy

Near the junction of the 400 to Buckhead, the 401 highway divides and splits during afternoon rush-hour traffic which slows and builds up so that vehicles and cars back-up as they head home and out of Downtown Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

The Metropole is the blog of the Urban History Association and it is spending this month running a series of essays on the legacy of the interstate highway system. Something that is well-known among historians but less well-known to the general public is how the building of these roads directly targeted Black communities around the nation. Just an example, in Atlanta, I-75 was driven right through Auburn Avenue, the heart of the Black community, still dividing it today, and I-20 went straight through the heart of the Black middle class neighborhood where Martin Luther King grew up (and destroyed his house). These were intentional choices. This is the subject of the second of the Metropole essays, by Rebecca Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot.

In cities across the United States, as racist public monuments are being removed, many people have pointed out that the Interstate Highways are also monuments to America’s racist legacy. However, Interstate Highways differ from public statuary; we can’t simply tear them all down. They are a backbone of the American transportation system at the same time that they bring consequences that no statue ever could: higher asthma rates, impaired lung function, more air pollution, noise pollution, increased risk of premature death, and neighborhood instability. It is time to reckon with America’s racist legacy of Interstate Highway planning and engineering for a new era of peace and reconciliation.

The interstate highway construction era began with a small number of limited access roads built in the 1930s. In 1939 the Bureau of Public Roads recommended a few interstate highways, and by the early 1940s some of those highways were under construction, such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles, which displaced many Mexican American neighborhoods, and the Congress Street Expressway in Chicago, which displaced some 13,000 Mexican American, African American, Italian American, and Jewish Chicagoans and 400 businesses. A report to Congress in 1944, Interregional Highways, recommended expansion of highway construction and a comprehensive system of interstate highways throughout the country. Congress responded with Highway Acts in 1944, 1952, and 1954. However, those Acts were limited in scope and funding, indicating that Congress was not yet serious about developing a comprehensive interstate highway system. In 1955 the push for a much more comprehensive system came with the publication of the report, General Location of a National System of Interstate Highways. Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act and Highway Revenue Act in 1956, marking the first major step toward construction of what we know today as the Interstate Highway System.

While some highway routing through white neighborhoods was unavoidable, state and local highway engineers found it politically desirable to avoid as many white neighborhoods as possible. African Americans and other people of color lacked political power, and in many places were actively and violently targeted, so routing highways through their neighborhoods became not just a byproduct of highway routing, but a goal of it. This was described as the removal of urban blight, a condition validated through other planning documents and tools of oppression such as red lining.

In some places, especially the South, state highway directors and local public officials were active in and affiliated with white supremacist organizations. Some African American neighborhoods were targeted for interstate highway construction by these white supremacist public officials because of the civil rights activism within the community, including for school integration and voting. The municipalities were complicit and aided through zoning and comprehensive planning. The states were complicit and aided through route planning and design. The federal government was complicit and aided through funding, route approvals, and other federal programs such as Urban Renewal.

Perhaps nowhere is as emblematic of the effect of white supremacy in highway routing as Montgomery, Alabama, where Sam Englehart, planter and ginner from Shorter, cut his teeth in racist policy-making when he invented “gerrymandering” as a strategy to disenfranchise the African American voters of Tuskegee. Englehart was also the head of the Alabama White Citizen’s Council, a hate group. After he was promoted to Director of the Alabama Highway Department, he rerouted the freeway extension of I-65 to destroy the African American neighborhood and business district of West Montgomery, in which Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and others lived, and re-routed I-85 to separate the HBCU Alabama State University (ASU) from its residential neighborhood of distinguished African American merchants, doctors, faculty, and civil rights intelligentsia. Engelhardt intended specifically to target the home of Ralph David Abernathy, African American civil rights leader and Baptist minister, as Abernathy wrote to President Kennedy:

As a historian highly dedicated to exposing and attacking the racist history of the past and present, I am both supportive of efforts to remember this history and also curious how far Americans will actually go in these discussions of our racist past. Because racism is still seen as something those people do rather than a condition of white life that includes every single part of our society and leaves none of us not guilty, a lot of people are going to be fine with tearing down Confederate monuments but are going to freak out at the renaming of schools in San Francisco. And while no one is saying to tear out the interstate highways today, how much do people want to hear these stories. There’s all sorts of things that could be done, such as putting up signage at rest areas about the racist history of that particular highway. Granted, those rest stops are going to be outside the cities, but still. You could put up signs as well on the freeways noting the old neighborhoods these destroyed.

In any case, our road system has massive racist impacts in its construction that continue to resonate today. What are we going to do about this? Retzlaff and Zanzot have thoughts:

Similar stories played out throughout the country. In Atlanta, I-75/85 was built adjacent to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood; in Detroit the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods were demolished to make way for I-75; I-95 displaced some 10,000 people in the Overton neighborhood in Miami, and in New York Robert Moses became famous for building highways that displaced an estimated quarter-million New Yorkers. The Bronx is burning was not a metaphor. Although there is much less research on rural interstate construction, some rural African American areas, such as Alabama’s Black Belt, were left out of the interstate highway system entirely, along with the access to services and economic development that highways bring.

Today we ask the transportation and urban planning professions, the same professions responsible for designing and routing the Interstates, to be on the side of truth and justice and join community activists to call for peace and reconciliation for the neighborhoods that continue to be harmed by the slow, enduring violence of planning and engineering of interstate highways. Dr. Fullilove and others offer strategies for rebuilding communities and restoring joy in our inner-city neighborhoods that start with truth telling, inclusivity of access, and ending cycles of disinvestment. In the twenty-first century these approaches are taking new root in Montgomery and in other cities across the country.

Much of this work was led by community members who directly carried forward the creative resilience of their ancestors, making new institutions possible through effective partnerships. Let’s not cloak the truth of the professions’ history in the weak language of racial disparity, but begin the post-pandemic era with a new era of peace and reconciliation for the enduring harms of interstate highways.

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