Established as part of the nation-wide post-WWII housing rush, the neighborhood of Pleasantville was built on a barren piece of prairie near the port of the city of Houston. Developers wanted to offer housing and home ownership to Black families in the area, something largely unavailable due to racist policies of segregation and redlining.
At the end of WWII, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) sought to ease the sudden housing crunch by subsidizing newly constructed homes and apartments across the country. At the time, Melvin Silverman, a local developer and fixture of Houston’s Jewish community, owned a “barren piece of land” in an industrial area near the Houston Ship Channel. Together with his cousin, Bernard Paul, Silverman took advantage of the FHA’s programs to address the specific need for quality housing among Black citizens at a time when segregation and redlining made such a thing nearly impossible. The first parts of the neighborhood were constructed quickly: rental apartments as well as washaterias, fenced-in play areas, and a small commercial strip. But the real plan for Pleasantville, crafted in partnership with local Black community leaders Judson Robinson Sr. and his wife Josie Robinson, was not merely housing for Black families but a high quality neighborhood that could be home to a thriving Black community. Homeownership was a central part of this plan.
The existence of Pleasantville, a middle-class Black neighborhood built in the era of segregation that would quickly become a center of Black civic engagement, is remarkable not only because of the community leaders whose organizing made it what it became, but also because it could easily have never been built at all. The land on which Pleasantville was built had been designated as a combination of “hazardous” and “declining” on the color coded “residential security” maps created by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). HOLC ratings were overwhelmingly determined by each area’s racial demographics, and banks relied on them to indicate who should and should not be given loans. This practice, known as redlining for the red color used to designate “hazardous” areas on the maps, meant banks would not offer loans or mortgages for properties in the red zones. Neighborhoods with large or growing populations of racialized groups were zoned red, regardless of other factors. In combination with racial segregation, redlining effectively prevented many Black Americans from becoming homeowners. The practice of redlining has been identified as one of the single most important structural factors in reproducing racial disparities in wealth still in evidence today.
Listen to Geneva Sharp, one of Pleasantville’s first residents, and her son Cleophus Sharp describe the first years of the growing neighborhood and the importance of Pleasantville as a Black community.
To watch this video with transcript, click here.