A Pulitzer: Fighting Housing Injustices
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
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. 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
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
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 || |