NYT lauds Beryl Satter's objectivity in writing about her own family's history

Historians in the News

Historians who write about close friends or relatives do so at their peril. Personal engagement, so essential to the memoir, can confound historical judgment and scholarly detachment, especially when family honor hangs in the balance. Beryl Satter, the chairwoman of the history department at Rutgers University in Newark and the proud daughter of one of the central characters in “Family Properties,” has taken the hard road to glory in her study of race and housing discrimination in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s. Yet somehow she has managed to stay on course, using her considerable investigative skills and unwavering sense of fairness to write a revealing and instructive book.

She begins with the complicated story of her father, Mark Satter, a Jewish lawyer and landlord who represented “scores of African-Americans who had been grossly overcharged for the houses they had bought.” His legal and real estate interests centered in Lawndale, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago that became overwhelmingly black by the late ’50s. Lawndale, like many other urban black enclaves, was the scene of widespread and systemic economic exploitation, exacerbated by the Federal Housing Administration’s practice of redlining predominantly black neighborhoods, which effectively eliminated mortgage insurance within their boundaries.

In cities like Chicago, redlining forced a vast majority of black homeowners and tenants into the vulnerable world of “contract selling,” in which unscrupulous speculators dictated onerous terms that often led to default and social pathology, simultaneously reinforcing black stereotypes and white racism. The “lack of equal access to credit,” the author explains, had profound ramifications: “fabulous enrichment for speculative contract sellers and their investors, debt peonage or impoverishment for many black contract buyers and an almost guaranteed decay of the communities in which such sales were concentrated.” Once we recognize the full impact of contract selling, she insists, it becomes clear that “the reason for the decline of so many black urban neighborhoods into slums was not the absence of resources but rather the riches that could be drawn from the seemingly poor vein of aged and decrepit housing and hard-pressed but hard-working and ambitious African-Americans.”...

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