Black and White and Green
Racial change in 1970s Springfield
May 8, 1981
The demographic trends confirmed by the 1980 Census that are noted here have continued to reshape the City of Springfield and its suburban hinterland. The African American population of the city proper as of 2019 was 20 percent of the whole, more than double what it was in 1980.
Census reports are like the Bible, in that one can cite them to prove almost any proposition. The U.S. Census Bureau has released part of its final data from the 1980 counts for Springfield and Sangamon County. (So far that data deals only with basic population for the county and its political subdivisions; more detailed data on income, housing, and the rest is expected by autumn.) By and large, the census confirmed trends which have been evident in the capital for years, most notably the outward migration from the central city into the urban fringe; urbanized Springfield grew by less than one percent while the rest of the county grew by roughly 39 percent.
Some of these numbers, however, were surprising. For example, the State Journal-Register trumpeted one of the new findings in a recent story titled "County black population up 45 percent." The number of black people counted in metropolitan Springfield in 1970 was 7,756; in 1980 that number had jumped to 11,277. Since the city's white population shrank by two percent during the decade, the share of the city's population that is black went up too, from 6.1 percent to 8.9 percent.
Springfield has experienced an expansion of black population once before in its history. (I have disregarded the years before 1870, when the black population was so small that the arrival of a single family of five constituted a population boom.) Between 1870 and 1880, black population rose by 64 percent, to 6.7 percent of the city's total population. After 1890 the black population continued to grow (although not showing so marked an increase) so that by 1900 black people made up 7.2 percent of the population. Not until 1980 did the percentage of blacks reach so high again.
Seventy-three years ago, a black man named Harvey moved to Springfield from Kentucky, expecting to find what he called "an ideal Negro locality in the home of the Great Emancipator." He left three weeks later, at the urgent invitation of white mobs who besieged his house during the race riots of 1908. Given this heritage, it is difficult to see Springfield as a mecca for black people.
Of course, it is possible that the 45 percent increase never really happened at all. Local black leaders note that blacks in Springfield were probably under-counted in 1970, a failure the census worked hard to rectify in 1980, The result was not more black people, just more black people counted.
But were 3,521 new black people merely conjured up by the computers? I doubt it. Two other trends boosted black population during the '70s. One of these was the fact that black babies were being born more often than white ones. Statistics on file at the Illinois Department of Public Health reveal that the birth rate for nonwhites in Sangamon County (a category which for all intents and purposes means blacks) during the 1970s ranged from two to three times higher than the birth rate for whites.
Birth rates are seldom discussed in polite society, except as they relate to the production of grandchildren. The white middle class, which has kids the way it has cars—it buys very few in a lifetime, but expects those to last—avoid it for the same reason they avoid discussing nuclear warfare, because both pose a threat of annihilation by natural forces too overwhelming to resist. Historically-minded nonwhites, on the other hand, don't like to give whites ideas (there is a body of opinion that views free abortions for the poor as a form of black genocide) although Sanjay Gandhi salvaged Europeans' reputations somewhat by proving that one needn't be white to be a reproductive fascist.
High birth rates are not a function of race, however. Poor blacks tend to have a lot of babies, true, but middle-class blacks do not. High birth rates are better attributed to economics or ignorance. Or religious scruple; when school gets out every day, Whittier Avenue in Blessed Sacrament parish in the white near west side looks like an ants' nest. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that black kids are being born faster than white kids, and that a significant part of that 45 percent increase thus may reasonably be attributed to natural increase.
A second factor in Springfield's black population growth is the in-migration of black professionals, bureaucrats, and academics. A Sangamon State University professor ventured the guess in the SJR that some of that 45 percent increase took the form of black professionals hired during the 1970s. There is some truth to that; Springfield is the state's bureaucratic capital in addition to political one, and public agencies during the '70s strove mightily to prove that the Peter Principle could be applied to black people as well as white. The need by agencies to meet affirmative action quotas created what can only be called a black market for white-collar blacks.
The growth of this black middle class in the last ten years is significant socially if not demographically. In its article, the SJR marveled that six census tracts showed a black population increase of 100 percent or more since 1970. More telling is the fact that five of these tracts are located on the affluent west and south sides of the city. In Tract 10, which includes subdivisions with names like Country Club Acres and where a grass catcher is always considered the perfect gift, two black people lived in 1970 in what must have been an awful solitude; their main problem was not people burning crosses on their lawns but their neighbors constantly mistaking them for gardeners. But by 1980 the neighborhood was home to 282 black residents. Those 282 people amount to only 3.7 percent of the neighborhood, to be sure, and in all six of these tracts the number of black people is fewer than 1,000. Still, these shifts mark a step forward.
However, the census also confirmed that most of Springfield's black population is still headquartered on the east side. Roughly three-fourths of the city's African Americans live in one foursquare-mile area, and five east-side census tracts actually grew more black during the '70s, going from 45 percent black to 51 percent.
Whether this concentration deserves the title "ghetto," however, is debatable. Even in the most heavily black census tract blacks make up only 68 percent of the total population. There is an understandable resentment by some blacks to the habit some whites have of labeling any neighborhood with more than five black families in it as a ghetto; indeed, the question implied in the SJR's piece is, "Why haven't more blacks left the east side?" Howard Veal, who runs the local Urban League, was quoted in that piece, and he reminded us many blacks stay on the east side because that's the neighborhood they want to live in. Whites have long been flattered to think that blacks want to live where they live, when in fact most blacks simply want to live the way whites live.
But this concentration of black families is not entirely a matter of choice. Whites who can afford it have been moving out, and some affluent blacks too, leaving poor blacks behind. The dispersal of the black middle class into previously white bastions at the same time that the majority of blacks is being stranded in central city enclaves seems contradictory. The SJR report concluded fussily that the data is "inconclusive" to show whether housing in Springfield is segregated.
Nonsense. Money transcends race as a factor in housing, just as it transcends education and class and religious prejudice. Business greed has been worth a hundred fair housing boards in opening up Springfield neighborhoods. In the process, this private enrichment has done a public good, because once-nervous whites have learned that their objections were not to color after all, but to class.
It is a valuable lesson. Springfield's housing market is segregated, all right, but not by race. It is segregated by money. If poor blacks live in a ghetto, it's because they are poor, not because they are black. One can't dismiss race as a factor in housing patterns, of course; all other things being equal, race is still a disqualifying factor to many landlords, real estate brokers, and bankers. But in a competitive housing market, all other things are not equal. The census numbers can't explain why so many blacks remain poor. But they can prove that if you have money in Springfield, you can buy anything—a house, social position, votes, even racial tolerance. ●