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A Pulitzer: Fighting Housing Injustices

The road to the Pulitzer started in 1983 when Judge William Wayne Justice, who was in charge of the Eastern District of Texas, ordered 25 residents from an all-black housing project to trade apartments with 25 residents from an all-white complex in the small town of Clarksville. The decision ignited a national controversy. Some called it the worst kind of social engineering. Craig Flournoy, then a young reporter with the Dallas Morning News, wondered what had prompted the judge to issue such a radical ruling.

He dug into the court files and learned that two Black women, Virginia Wyatt and Lucille Young, had spent five years on the waiting list of the Clarksville Housing Authority. They’d been repeatedly passed over while white applicants received housing assistance. Officials at the Clarksville Housing Authority repeatedly ignored their requests for help.

The situation in Clarksville represented a blatant violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in all federally assisted programs. Officials in Clarksville did not try to hide the fact that they segregated tenants by race. After researching the court records, Flournoy drove to Clarksville to view the reality of the situation. He discovered “separate” housing meant “unequal” conditions.  The all-white complex had air conditioning units, but the all-black complex did not.  The all-white complex had a game room, but the all-black complex did not.  The all-white complex was in a safe neighborhood, but the all-black complex was not.

“What [the government] had been doing was illegal,” Flournoy said.  Even the landlords had admitted it to Flournoy. “’We segregate tenants’,” the landlords told him. “’We don’t believe blacks and whites should live together, blacks are inferior to whites’,” they told Flournoy. 

Flournoy’s editors were ready to run with this story.  They thought the East Texas findings were fascinating. However, Flournoy was not ready. He thought there was more to the story.  He questioned if separate and unequal housing was found only in East Texas. Could this, he asked, be a national problem?

The editors pondered that question too and agreed to let Flournoy expand his investigation. They quickly realized investigating cities across the nation would be too much for one person. They gave Flournoy a partner, George Rodrigue. He traveled to different cities east of the Mississippi while Flournoy traveled to cities west of the Mississippi.

Together, they eventually visited 47 cities and towns and, in the process, found “separate and unequal” conditions across the country.  Still, there was something that was even more surprising: the greatest disparity in the treatment of black and white tenants could be found in the cities thought to be more racially tolerant. “Their conditions were starkly unequal,” Flournoy said.

There were other surprises. The public believes most public housing residents are black. But Flournoy said the majority of the more than 10 million residents of federally assisted housing are white.

One of the worst cases Flournoy saw was in Los Angeles. He first visited the Nickerson Gardens family housing project. It is located in Watts, a crime-ridden neighborhood that’s also known as the area where the Rodney King riots started.Pulitzer Awards This complex housed 1,000 families and elderly residents.  It was normal to see drug dealers hanging out at street corners. There was no safe place for children to play.  And the large, wrought-iron fence surrounding the complex that was supposed to provide security for the residents had spikes on top that pointed toward the inside of the complex, effectively trapping the residents.

Why would officials build the fencing in such a way, Flournoy asked Willie Lewis, a janitor and longtime resident. “They think we are animals,” Lewis replied. “So they are fencing us in.”

Later, Flournoy visited Angelus Plaza, an all-white complex that only housed 100 elderly residents and a few families.  This complex was known for its safety. Across the street was a six-story community center where Angelus Plaza residents could enjoy a 10,000-book library, pottery kilns, free medical health care, and interest-free loans.  It provided many advantages the Nickerson complex did not have. One of the residents Flournoy interviewed, Joe Rybecki, said that when he and his wife moved into the complex, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

After digging into records at the Los Angeles Housing Authority and visiting nearly two dozen complexes, Flournoy found pervasive segregation and three levels of unequal conditions: whites received the best federally subsidized housing. Next were the Latinos, and blacks received the worst apartments.

In 1985, the Dallas Morning News published “Separate and Unequal,” an eight-part series in which Flournoy and Rodrigue documented their findings. In 1986, they were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, the first Pulitzer ever awarded to the newspaper. While Flournoy was happy to receive the award, he remained focused on fixing the social injustices he’d found. Judge Justice issued a sweeping order to desegregate and equalize conditions in East Texas, but “separate and unequal” conditions persisted across the country.

The experience taught Flournoy a valuable lesson—to bring about change, focus on the local story. Two years after his Pulitzer, Flournoy published a series that focused on a single federally subsidized complex in Dallas. That series helped 150 poor, black families escape the slums and move to good housing in safe neighborhoods. Flournoy considers this his greatest achievement.

Cities Outside of Texas Cities in Texas
Boston, Massachusetts Clarksville, Texas
Quincy, Massachusetts Crocket, Texas
Holyoke, Massachusetts Pittsburg, Texas
Sommerville, Massachusetts Winnsboro, Texas
New Bedford, Massachusetts Cleveland, Texas
Providence, Rhode Island Gilmer, Texas
Huntington, New York Gladewater, Texas
Islip, New York Malakoff, Texas
Yonkers, New York Omaha, Texas
Brooklyn, New York Port Arthur, Texas
Hoboken, New Jersey Talco, Texas
Winder, Georgia Tererkana, Texas
Wrightsville, Georgia Trinidad, Texas
Fitzgerald, Georgia
Moultrie, Georgia
Adel, Georgia
McRae, Georgia
Atlanta/Fulton County, Georgia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Charlottesville, Virginia
Chicago, Illinois
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Toledo, Ohio
Birmingham, Michigan
Detroit, Michigan
Bakersfield, California
Los Angeles, California
Sacramento, California
San Francisco, California
Topeka, Kansas
Marshall, Missouri
Omaha, Nebraska
Lawton, Oklahoma
Seattle, Washington