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The suit was sent back. Clyde Ross did not go to the church program. It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle. He thought about fighting. Clyde Ross grew. He was drafted into the Army. The draft officials offered him an exemption if he stayed home and worked. He preferred to take his chances with war. He was stationed in California.
He found that he could go into stores without being bothered. He could walk the streets without being harassed. He could go into a restaurant and receive service. Ross was shipped off to Guam.
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He fought in World War II to save the world from tyranny. But when he returned to Clarksdale, he found that tyranny had followed him home. This was , eight years before Mississippi lynched Emmett Till and tossed his broken body into the Tallahatchie River. The Great Migration, a mass exodus of 6 million African Americans that spanned most of the 20th century, was now in its second wave. The black pilgrims did not journey north simply seeking better wages and work, or bright lights and big adventures.
Cold Winter's Kill
They were fleeing the acquisitive warlords of the South. They were seeking the protection of the law. Clyde Ross was among them. He made a stable wage. He married. He had children. His paycheck was his own. No Klansmen stripped him of the vote.
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When he walked down the street, he did not have to move because a white man was walking past. He did not have to take off his hat or avert his gaze.
His journey from peonage to full citizenship seemed near-complete. Only one item was missing—a home, that final badge of entry into the sacred order of the American middle class of the Eisenhower years. The community was anchored by the sprawling Sears, Roebuck headquarters. But out in the tall grass, highwaymen, nefarious as any Clarksdale kleptocrat, were lying in wait.
Three months after Clyde Ross moved into his house, the boiler blew out. His payments were made to the seller, not the bank. And Ross had not signed a normal mortgage. In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross would acquire no equity in the meantime.
The men who peddled contracts in North Lawndale would sell homes at inflated prices and then evict families who could not pay—taking their down payment and their monthly installments as profit. Ross had tried to get a legitimate mortgage in another neighborhood, but was told by a loan officer that there was no financing available. The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the s through the s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal.
Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In , Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross.
The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.
The devastating effects are cogently outlined by Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M.
In Chicago and across the country, whites looking to achieve the American dream could rely on a legitimate credit system backed by the government. Blacks were herded into the sights of unscrupulous lenders who took them for money and for sport.
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The kill was profitable. During this period, according to one estimate, 85 percent of all black home buyers who bought in Chicago bought on contract. Clyde Ross still lives there. He still owns his home. He is 91, and the emblems of survival are all around him—awards for service in his community, pictures of his children in cap and gown. But when I asked him about his home in North Lawndale, I heard only anarchy.
He was sitting at his dining-room table. His glasses were as thick as his Clarksdale drawl. So how dumb am I? I just left this mess. I just left no laws. And no regard. And then I come here and get cheated wide open. You could fall through the cracks easy fighting these white people. And no law. But fight Clyde Ross did. Contract sellers used every tool at their disposal to pilfer from their clients.
They scared white residents into selling low. They presented themselves as real-estate brokers, when in fact they were the owners.
A Hidden Life
They guided their clients to lawyers who were in on the scheme. The Contract Buyers League fought back. They refused to pay their installments, instead holding monthly payments in an escrow account. Ross and the Contract Buyers League were no longer appealing to the government simply for equality.