“Oh, Susquehanna” and the geography of race

February 8th, 2009  |  Published in Defiance Ohio  |  2 Comments

In the Defiance, Ohio song Oh, Susquehanna, I always envisioned rivers and the Susquehanna, familiar to me from where I grew up, as a metaphor for organic connectedness and aknowledgement that our lives have implications on our neighbors.  The metaphor is imperfect since, when used for our means, rivers become not only connectors but barriers.  As I recently read in James W. Lowe’s Sundown Towns:

Unfortunately, open housing came too late, after suburbia was largely built.  Across the United States, whites had kept African Americans out of most suburbs throughout most of the twentieth century.  By 1968, suburbs were labeled racially.  Once in place, these reputations were self-sustaining.  Desegregating them was an uphill struggle, a mount that we are still climbing.  Like anyone else, African Americans don’t want to live in a place where they aren’t wanted, and one way to deduce that they aren’t wanted is to note that no African Americans live there.  Today, just a little steering by realtors suffices to keep sundown suburbs nearly all-white.  Here is an example from Pennsylvania.  Whites and blacks refer to the suburbs across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg as “the white shore.”  A man who grew up there wrote me:

I can tell you that there were (are?) sundown towns in Central Pennsylvania.  You were right about the “white shore.”  I have no objective proof at all.  However my mother grew up in Enola, and my uncle live in Camp Hill.  It was common knowledge that African-Americans would not be sold a house in those towns and those that surrounded them.  It was indeed a “white shore.”

By August 2002, when a new black employee moved to Harrisburg to take up her new job with the State of Pennsylvania, the pattern was in place.  “The realtor told me I could live on the west shore, but it’s really called ‘the white shore,’ so I’d probably be happier somewhere else.”  She bought in Harrisburg.  Such steering is illegal, but it goes on every day.