Eminent domain: How it impacted Black communities & new efforts to reverse some of those decisions

WASHINGTON D.C. — You may have noticed it at around airports near schools, roads and parks.

It’s called eminent domain and a practice that allows local governments to seize private property and convert it for a public use.

But some of these eminent domain takeovers were racially motivated during segregation as early as the 1920s.

Some examples include Black owned beaches and even entire neighborhoods that were taken over to potentially build schools and parks but in the end, displaced many minority families.

“These beaches had no signs that read white only. No signs that read colored only. The only thing I can remember seeing [was] welcome,” said Vincent Leggett, founder and president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation.

That is how some remember Carr’s Beach in Annapolis, MD. It was a safe haven for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s.

“Just for the moment and just for the day those people each one of us was somebody important,” said Leggett.

It was a place that was more than just a summer destination for many.

“Had the opportunity to come here and be free - we could be ourselves,” said Bilal Omar who visited Carr’s beach often.

Historians say Carr’s Beach shutdown in the 1970s as desegregation opened up previously white only venues.

But other Black owned beaches, properties and even neighborhoods were taken away by the government.

“They use eminent domain as a means of basically pushing around populations,” Nathan Connolly, Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship at Johns Hopkins University.

Historian Nathan Connolly explains the process of eminent domain was used to seize Black owned property and remove those residents with the intentions of building public projects like schools or parks. But often those lots remained empty.

“In some cases, there was an over investment in a white public sphere, that would sometimes be too many schoolhouses or too many parks that were whites only,” said Connolly. “And that part of it was just basically a buffer between the white residents and the black populations.”

Connolly said the practice continues today, he said now it’s known as gentrification.

“Now, economic growth serves as its own kind of public good justification, and so gentrification or the possibility of gentrification is now reason enough to deploy eminent domain laws,” said Connolly.

But there are some efforts to preserve these sites. Now Carr’s beach is becoming a city park using local, state and federal dollars.

Some members of Congress are allocating money targeted for these kind of projects.

But as gentrification continues, Connolly wants more developers to include community members in the process for new projects.

“Meetings that are being held are at times when working people can actually attend those meetings. That at there are provisions in place to make sure that the zoning that’s done includes basically mixed income housing and inclusive zoning,” he said. “That there are guarantees for those who are displaced, being able to return to those communities.”

In Annapolis, Carr’s beach isn’t what it used to but now there’s hope for what it can be in the future.

“From this latitude and longitude young people can travel the seven seas of this world. They can climb the depths of the ocean from this latitude and longitude, and they can reach the heavens from here as well,” said Leggett.

Historians say the bipartisan infrastructure law also includes some solutions like the “Reconnecting Communities” program.

The Biden administration says the pilot program will help neighborhoods that had transportation projects like highways built through their communities.

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