Urban Renewal and Public Housing in Florence
Florence’s first public housing units, like its neighborhoods, were segregated. In 1950, the city of Florence needed both new, modern housing and clearance of slum areas, but public housing took priority. That same year the Public Housing Administration approved a preliminary loan of $85,000 to the Florence Housing Authority for the construction of 250 public housing units. The Florence Housing Authority entered a loan and annual contribution contract with the Public Housing Authority and building sites were chosen for the segregated housing units. The white housing unit would be on 38 acres in East Florence, close to a large working-class white population, while the African American unit would be located on property “adjoining city limits” on Nance Street in West Florence. The 175 brick veneer units for white residents of Florence were built for $1,338,700, while the 75 units for African Americans were built at a cost of $573,000. The FHA even held a contest to name each unit and the winners were chosen in September of 1951. The white housing unit was named “Cherry Hill Homes,” while “Carver Homes” was chosen as the name for the African-American project. When construction was completed, there were 53 structures with 175 living units for whites, and 20 structures for 75 living units for African Americans at a total cost of more than $2,000,000. At the time Florence residents seemed to embrace the concept of modern housing at an affordable price, and the perpetuation of racial segregation through public housing and urban renewal projects had begun.
Also in 1951 the city of Florence contracted with Recreational Engineer Charles M. Graves from Atlanta Ga., to consult about the building of recreation centers in the city. Graves recommended that the city of Florence construct four recreation centers: 3 for whites, and 1 for African Americans. The latter, recommended Graves, should be “on a site as near as possible to the center of the Negro population, possibly near Handy Hill.” Graves added: “based on the population distribution with 25 percent Negro, there is need now for one Negro pool, approximately 50 by 100 feet.” The combination of segregated public housing projects (paid for with federal funds) located near segregated resources such as schools, playgrounds, and recreation centers (paid for with city funds) was an effective strategy used by the City of Florence over the next two decades.
Across the Tennessee River in Tuscumbia, the Tuscumbia Housing Authority oversaw the construction of two low-rent housing units in 1951. These consisted of 48 units for whites on McClain Avenue and 27 units for African Americans in Legion Woods in East Tuscumbia. The city of Sheffield slum clearance program more closely resembled Florence’s. Its objectives were to clear blighted buildings and build public housing for “non-whites” in South Sheffield. Soon Florence would undertake its own slum clearance and public housing project to contain its “non-white” residents.
The FHA’s Handy Hill project helped to cement racial segregation in the city of Florence for the next fifty years. In 1955 the Florence Housing Authority offered Florence lawyer Karl Tyree a job as its’ executive director. The first project that he undertook was a residential re-use of the West Florence community at the time one of the first residential re-use projects in the nation. When it was completed in 1958 the Handy Hill project brought paved streets, utilities, public and private housing, a school, and a recreation center to West Florence. Prior to 1958 the Handy Hill project area in West Florence consisted of 26 acres with 85 substandard dwellings. Only 2 houses had plumbing and there were no paved streets, sewers, or utilities. Two-thirds of families who lived in the area received public assistance; all were low-income. Property values ranged from between $1,500 and $2,50, with some as low as $800. The West Florence community clearly suffered from the detrimental effects of living in Jim Crow Alabama, where opportunities for economic achievement were rare for African Americans. Confined to small, dilapidated houses in two sections of the city, African Americans did not share the same opportunities that were open to whites in Florence.
As the city expanded its public housing program, three units were built in West Florence before 1970. One unit was built outside of West Florence. During this time period, two African American schools and a recreation center were built in the neighborhood, as well as 78 brand new houses in the Handy Heights subdivision. After integration, both schools in West Florence closed and students were bused to white neighborhoods to attend school, Florence’s solution to its own desegregation quagmire. After the schools shut down, the city opened a landfill in West Florence, which operated from 1972 to 1988. Residents are left to deal with the effects of 1.5 million tons of garbage in their backyards, and methane gas that migrates into their basements. When the city removed resources from West Florence (in the forms of schools and street connectivity to downtown), it replaced them with more public housing and a landfill.
The city originally attempted to contain its African American population in West Florence. African Americans could live in only a few neighborhoods during the 50s and 60s, and with desegregation of the schools looming, Florence officials attempted to contain African Americans to one section of town. Furthermore, the subdivisions in Florence that were built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were largely closed to African Americans. Subdivisions like McFarland Heights, Forest Hills, Edgemont, and Hickory Hills had no black residents as of 1968. In this way, urban renewal and public housing were used as tools to perpetuate residential racial segregation. The segregation continues in 2017.
“Public Housing Administration Approves $85,000 for 250 Low Income Housing Units,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), January 6, 1950.
“Government Okehs 250 Family Dwelling Units for Florence,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, January 19, 1951.
“Florence, Athens Housing Projects to Begin at Once,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, June 29, 1951.
The overwhelming response to name the African American housing unit included the name Handy, as West Florence was often referred to as “Handy’s Hill,” birthplace of W.C. Handy. The name could not but used, however, because Mr. Handy was still alive.
Suitable Names Contest on For Housing Projects,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, August 15, 1951.
“Recreational Engineer Describes Grave Lack of Facilities in City of Florence,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P 1, September 20, 1951.
“Housing Board Lets Contract Tuscumbia Unit,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), P1, June 12, 1951.
“Sheffield Slum Clearance Plans Re-Certified,” The Florence Times (Florence, AL), December 9th, 1958.
Tyree, Fredericka Maxwell, Tyree Collection: Biography, 5. This is an unpublished biography found in the University of North Alabama’s Special Collections Room. It was written by Florence Housing Authority director Karl Tyree’s wife.