“Envision the Razing of All These Structures”: Evidence of Forced Displacement and Dispossession

Today’s post was written by Jack Del Nunzio, archivist in Digitization Archival Services at the National Archives at College Park.

Content Warning: This post contains disturbing images and descriptions of anti-Black violence.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of recreation facilities, public roads, school systems, utilities, and housing in your hometown? In all likelihood, your small town—or even big city—was shaped by comprehensive planning under the Housing Act of 1954, signed by President Eisenhower. Section 701 in particular provided localities with unprecedented access to federal funding.[1] Through direct grants, the federal government spurred towns such as Salisbury on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to research existing land use, chart population trends, and implement community development programs.

b/w overhead photo of freeway system cutting through Dallas
Controlled-access Freeway with Frontage Roads, Dallas, Texas, House Document 249 (Local ID: 30-N-49-1461; NAID 234109783)
view of a man sitting on railing of a row house with smoke pipes in the background
“In Many Areas of the City Blacks Still Live in Substandard Housing. This is a Scene in ‘Little Korea,’ in South Birmingham, A Prime Example of this Continued Blight,” July 1972 (Local ID: 412-DA-3024; NAID 545511)

In the absence of historical context and critical analysis, the Final Grant Reports, 1951-1981 in RG 207 Entry A1 145 (NAID 616313) appear rather innocuous, even trite. While each locality sometimes adorned their grant reports with vibrant colors and professional photography, the documentation process was entirely standardized. Initial submissions included land use and environmental research, economic and population studies, zoning ordinances, and neighborhood analyses. These were followed by public comment and redevelopment recommendations. Localities then submitted a final budget and comprehensive plan to the federal government, followed by optional project completion reports.

A more scrupulous reading of these records—alongside an understanding of how power and silence operate in the archival record—reveals a far more nefarious program of displacement and dispossession. Indeed, a key provision of the 1954 Housing Act was to facilitate the “elimination and prevention of slums;” which, rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, confirmed Dr. King’s assessment that “the slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society.”[2]

Image 7                                 Image 8

Targeted for “razing” by the Salisbury-Wicomico Commission in 1962, the “Jersey-California area” or “old California area” refers to four historically Black neighborhoods in Salisbury, Maryland.[3] The neighborhoods were (and still are) known as Georgetown, California, Cuba, and Jersey to Black Salisburians. Community memory keepers sometimes refer to the four neighborhoods collectively as Georgetown. Georgetown consisted of businesses, schools, several churches, and residences; a thriving, successful Black community not unlike Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma.[4]           

b/w photo of man standing next to his building for a store
Bob Toulson (pictured far left), owner of Toulson’s Tailor Shop, poses for a photograph. The various construction phases for Route 13 from the 1930s-1960s led to the destruction of Toulson’s store and large sections of Black Georgetown. Toulson’s Tailor Shop in Salisbury’s Georgetown neighborhood on Church Street in the 1930’s. Adverts for Royal Crown and Chesterfields on the side of the building. Walter Thurston Photograph Collection (Identifier: 2016.096); Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.
b/w photo 3 kids sitting on rail of a car infront of a large 2 story house
James F. Stewart Funeral Home, located across the street from John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgetown. Koiner, Patrick. “James & Mary Stewart.” Archive for Racial & Cultural Healing Exhibit. Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center. June 19, 2023.
2 women in knee length coats stand on a neighborhood street
Audrey Jackson Matthews (left) and her sister (right). Matthews is one of the last surviving eyewitnesses to the lynching of Matthew Williams in 1931, and she lived through the decimation of Salisbury’s historically Black neighborhoods. Allison B. Stancil on behalf of Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture and Ian Post. “Georgetown Residential Area.” Clio: Your Guide to History. January 26, 2022.

It is critical that we understand the final destruction of Salisbury’s Black neighborhoods in 1962 as part of a historical process that cannot be divorced from past struggle. Thirty years prior, in 1931, a young twenty-three-year old Black man named Matthew Williams was lynched—under fabricated premises—by a white mob on the grounds of the downtown courthouse.[5] His lifeless body was then dragged through Georgetown, burned, and dismembered “so all the colored people could see him.”[6] Jeannie Jones, a descendant of Matthew Williams, remembers him as a tenderhearted, well-dressed, aspiring young businessman who worked multiple jobs. Williams had lived with and financially supported his aunt in Georgetown after his parents died.[7]

The 1916 Salisbury Sanborn Insurance Map depicts the Broad Street and East Church Street portions of Georgetown. Pictured are several Black residences and businesses, as well as the flatiron building. Also featured is John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church, frequented by Matthew Williams and his family. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Salisbury, Wicomico County, Maryland. Sanborn Map Company, April 1916. Library of Congress

Lynching was commonplace on the Eastern Shore—indeed, nationwide—from the 1870s-1950s. Supported by law enforcement, business interests, the press, and government institutions, anti-Black violence was employed to terrorize, dehumanize, disenfranchise, and economically subordinate burgeoning Black communities. Post-lynching investigations were rare; when they did occur, all-white juries acquitted the perpetrators. Even so, African Americans were not acquiescent. Black journalists, lawyers, and civil rights organizations persistently challenged the lynching regime. They centered the oral testimonies of victims, survivors, and descendants; supported the families of victims; filed lawsuits against perpetrators; and petitioned for anti-lynching legislation. Nonetheless, white-dominated legal and archival systems conferred preference and narrative authority to the lynchers and their allies. Lynching, together with restrictive voting laws, doomed America’s first true attempt at multiracial democracy—eroding the fleeting power that African Americans had earned during Reconstruction.

In 1922, before the lynching of Matthew Williams and the establishment of the Salisbury-Wicomico Commission, Black Salisburians petitioned local representatives for additional funding to support segregated schools. Letter from the Salisbury Community League to L. Thomas Parker, Representative for Wicomico County in the Maryland General Assembly, January 26, 1922; L. Thomas Parker Collection (Identifier: 2008.089); Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.

Most importantly, lynching served as a precursor to the mass displacement, dispossession, and incarceration of Black communities from the 1950s-1980s. How do we know this? In the aftermath of the lynching of Matthew Williams, the Salisbury-Wicomico Commission Comprehensive Plan deployed the same threadbare lies about Black criminality, lecherousness, and idleness to rationalize the destruction of Georgetowners. In fact, lynchers authored the comprehensive plan. The Chairman of the Salisbury-Wicomico Commission, Fred A. Grier, Jr., was a key perpetrator of the  lynching.[8] As Chief of the Salisbury Fire Department, Grier provided the rope that was used to murder Williams in 1931.[9] Just thirty years later, in 1962, Grier originated and signed off on the paperwork that would destroy what remained of Matthew Williams’ community.

Led by Grier, the all-white Salisbury-Wicomico Commission leveraged federal funding from Section 701 to raze Black residences, memory centers, churches, businesses, and schools. Georgetown was replaced by Routes 13 and 50, a city-owned parking lot, and recreation facilities—primarily for use by white Salisburians.[10] Black Georgetowners were excluded from the comprehensive planning process. They received no warning before nor compensation after their forced displacement. Section 701 of the 1954 Housing Act loosely stipulated that displaced persons should be rehoused or reimbursed. Due to systemic racism, convoluted federal guidance, and an absence of federal enforcement, few localities offered substantial aid to targeted populations.[11] Salisbury, alongside numerous American towns and cities, “physically dismantle[d]” their most vulnerable communities with “impunity.”[12]

On the left, a 1928 aerial photograph of the largely intact Black Georgetown neighborhood. On the right, a circa 1960s aerial photograph shows the erasure of Georgetown; replaced by Routes 13 and 50, as well as city-owned parking lots and office buildings, according to the comprehensive plan developed by the Salisbury-Wicomico Commission with funding from the federal government. “Ariel [sic] view of Salisbury, Maryland looking north, 1928,” George White Collection (Identifier: 2015.121); “Aerial of Salisbury,” Orlando Wootten Photograph Collection (Identifier: 1995.005); Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.
A photograph of Lot #10 (also known as Salisbury Park and Flea), a city-owned parking lot (with office buildings in the background) that replaced Georgetown. Allison B. Stancil on behalf of Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture and Ian Post, “Georgetown Residential Area,” Clio: Your Guide to History, January 26, 2022

Today, all that remains of Georgetown’s original built environment is the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church, once frequented by Williams and his family. Scattered and reeling from intergenerational dispossession, Black Salisburians are yet to fully recover.[13] Matthew Williams’ descendant community, however, has a proud tradition of resistance sustained today by organizations such as the Wicomico Truth and Reconciliation Initiative and the Fenix Youth Project. On a statewide basis, the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MLTRC) is the first government body in the nation tasked with researching cases of lynching and submitting policy recommendations to the Maryland General Assembly.

The Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center, formerly John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is the last original structure from the Georgetown neighborhood. “Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center, front,” Preservation Maryland, February 15, 2013 Flickr

The Final Grant Reports, 1951-1981 (NAID 616313) in RG 207 Entry A1 145 traces how federal, state, and local governments targeted historically marginalized—predominantly African American, immigrant, and indigenous—communities by strengthening existing segregation, hastening redlining and gentrification, and enacting further violence through forced displacement and dispossession. The persecution of nonwhite communities can be explicit in the records. Planners in Pueblo, Colorado, for example, underscored that “businesses and industries…[are] in search of lebensraum.”[14] Lebensraum (“living space”) is a genocidal concept popularized by the Nazi state to realize its vision of colonizing Jewish and Slavic regions of eastern Europe as well as Africa and other overseas territories.[15] In designing their early racial laws, the Nazis were directly inspired by anti-indigenous Manifest Destiny, anti-Black Jim Crow, and anti-immigrant policies from nineteenth and early twentieth century America.[16] Some comprehensive planners in post-World War II America conspicuously admired Nazi efforts to economically exploit and racially purify their surroundings. 

[Report #] 7604 – Purposeful Planning, Pueblo Metropolitan Region, Colorado, 1965. (NAID 616313)

Displacement schemes can also be covert in the records—euphemized with implicit language such as “urban renewal,” “blight,” and “relocation.” Through Section 701, comprehensive planners worked in tandem with the federal government to formalize a common vocabulary that described and justified their methods.  It was widely understood by predominantly white planning commissions that seemingly neutral designations such as “slums,” “dilapidation,” and “urban decay” were interchangeable with Blackness—thus marking these areas and their inhabitants for devastation.

A planning publication from Flint, Michigan displays the distribution of residents in the city by race (left), followed by a map visualizing the disproportionate displacement of Black residents due to expressway construction (right). [Report #] 17412 – Diagnostic Survey, St. John Street, Flint, Michigan (NAID: 5775155)

To be clear: not all grant projects were nefarious. Through Section 701, the federal government funded innovative research on environmental sustainability and education programs; updated antiquated zoning ordinances; resolved long-neglected problems such as flooding, fire hazards, lack of sewage and water treatment, and accident-prone intersections; and subsidized numerous affordable housing complexes to combat rising rents and income inequality. But by and large, historians agree that federal policies implemented by the Housing and Home Finance Agency and its successor the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the twentieth century overwhelmingly benefitted white communities while neglecting—and persecuting—nonwhite communities.[17]

Black Salisburians still resist further encroachment by the City of Salisbury and the Maryland State Highway Administration to this day. Home to descendants (and some survivors), Kirkwood and Jersey Heights are the last vestiges of Salisbury’s original Georgetown, California, Cuba, and Jersey neighborhoods. At the urging of the descendant community, the city of Salisbury recently formed an advisory committee and promised to issue a formal apology for past lynchings. “Bypass Could Doom a Black Community,” The Daily Times, May 9, 1993,

The National Archives has an opportunity to reaffirm its recent commitment to equity through these and similar records series. This series not only establishes an inextricable link between past harm and present inequalities; it also illustrates, in no uncertain terms, how the federal government contributed to the displacement and dispossession of marginalized communities on an alarming scale. It is our hope that these holdings stimulate conversation about equitable digitization and interpretation practices, inform novel scholarship, and inspire reparative policy.

Relevant Links

NARA Catalog Landing for RG 207; Entry A1 145; Final Grant Reports, 1951-1981

Background on Housing Act of 1954

Background on Section 701

Language of 1954 Housing Act and Section 701

PBS Exploring Hate Article on Matthew Williams

Wicomico Truth and Reconciliation Initiative & Salisbury Lynching Task Force

Maryland State Archives Landing on Matthew Williams

Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center

Black Salisbury Virtual Walking Tour

Maryland Lyncing Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MLTRC)

MLTRC Wicomico County Public Hearing (October 2022)

Maryland Lynching Memorial Project

Equal Justice Initiative

Recommended Reading

Chavis, Charles L. The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

Duyer, Linda. Round the Pond: Georgetown of Salisbury, Maryland. Self-published, 2009.

Ifill, Sherrilyn. On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Norton, 2018.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

Williams, Kidada E. “Reconsidering the Lynching Archive,” Review of The End of American Lynching by Ashraf H. A. Rushdy; Vigilantes and Lynch Mobs: Narratives of Community and Nation by Lisa Arellano. Reviews in American History 41, no. 3 (2013): 501–506. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43663455

Williams, Kidada E. They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

The author is immensely grateful to Sheri Hill (RZA-1) for her early encouragement, as well as Alicia Henneberry and Amanda Scott (RZA-2) for their advice and expert copy editing.

[1] Housing Act of 1954: An Act to Aid in the Provision and Improvement of Housing, the Elimination and Prevention of Slums, and the Conservation and Development of Urban Communities, Public Law 560, U.S. Statutes at Large 68 (August 2, 1954): 590-648.

[2] Housing Act of 1954, 590; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement” (Speech, Washington, D.C, September 1, 1967), American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/topics/equity-diversity-inclusion/martin-luther-king-jr-challenge

[3] [Report #] 10793 – Salisbury-Wicomico Region, Existing Land Use and Physical Conditions; page 47, page 10.

[4] Linda Duyer, Round the Pond: Georgetown of Salisbury, Maryland (Self-published, 2009), 50.

[5] Charles L. Chavis, The Silent Shore: The Lynching of Matthew Williams and the Politics of Racism in the Free State (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021), 46-51.

[6] “Eye Witness to Lynching Tells How Mob Acted,” The Afro-American, December 12, 1931, http://mdhistory.msa.maryland.gov/msaref10/msa_s1048_1_and_10/pdf/sc5458_000051_002352.pdf

[7] Maryland General Assembly, Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Wicomico County Public Hearing, Descendant Testimony, October 22, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oBpbA4EeyE

[8] Chavis, The Silent Shore, 194, 223

[9] Chavis, The Silent Shore, 120, 141, 158

[10] Allison B. Stancil on behalf of Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture and Ian Post, “Georgetown Residential Area,” Clio: Your Guide to History, January 26, 2022, https://theclio.com/entry/142901

[11] Housing Act of 1954, 596-600, 624, 630-631.

[12] Sherrilyn Ifill, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007), XVI.

[13] Meg Ryan, “Salisbury Activists Get Real on Inequality, Race Relations in City,” The Daily Times, February 18, 2019, https://www.delmarvanow.com/in-depth/news/local/maryland/2019/02/18/black-history-month-salisbury-activists-race-relations-diversity-inequality/2766584002/

[14] [Report #] 7604 – Purposeful Planning, Pueblo Metropolitan Region, Colorado, 1965 (NAID: 5765118, Page 18, Box 603); Final Grant Reports, 1951–1981; General Records of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1931–2003; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

[15] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Lebensraum,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lebensraum

[16] James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 13-16.

[17] Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Norton, 2018), 13-14.

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