Homes Before Highways Commission

by Andy Townsend

Urban renewal in Indianapolis had been ongoing for decades when, in 1966, a Congressman from Indiana submitted legislation before the U.S. Congress intended to provide relief for those displaced by the construction of the interstate system.  The bill not only called for a fair price for their property, but compensation that would allow them to relocate into a situation similar to what they were forced to abandon in the name of “progress.”  Andrew Jacobs Jr. entitled his bill “Homes Before Highways.”  Jacobs was a rising star in the U.S. Congress and a strong Civil Rights advocate.  The bill he championed was intended to alleviate some of the hardships faced by those obliged to relocate due to urban development projects such as the construction of the interstate highway system and the expansion of IUPUI.  Among other things it “would prohibit the acquisition of land or construction of public works until adequate and comparable replacement homes and churches are available to the displaced.” The city largely chose minority neighborhoods to develop because they were the most “blighted” and their property the cheapest to acquire.  However, decades of segregation restricted where the “displaced” could relocate.

Community activist Mozel Sanders proposed a "selective buying campaign" to repsond to highway displacement inequalities. He is shown here in an April 1967 picket of stores that did not hire African Americans, part of a long tradition of "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns.

Community activist Mozel Sanders proposed a “selective buying campaign” to repsond to highway displacement inequalities. He is shown here in an April 1967 picket of stores that did not hire African Americans, part of a long tradition of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns.

Those supporting Jacob’s bill, including Marion County Democratic chairman James Beatty, Rev. Andrew Brown, and Rev. Mozel Sanders, established a community organization in its name.  Their goals are expressed in a 1966 article in the Indianapolis Recorder: “to protect the rights of elderly and undereducated Negroes who are, it has been charged, being exploited by shady real estate dealers and fly-by-night landlords and coerced by university and highway officials.”  Homes Before Highways was a grassroots movement whose members believed that marginalized people were paying a disproportionate share on behalf of the majority.

The Homes Before Highways Commission protested in several ways.  In 1966, for instance, the group’s resistance to an elevated highway wall was reflected in a “selective buying campaign” against downtown businesses that would continue until “the establishment in the downtown area recognizes that when they wall themselves in, they also wall their customers out.” The assertive style of the HBHC was somewhat uncommon for African Americans in Indianapolis, who generally believed they could better achieve their goals from working within the system (an argument outlined in Richard Pierce’s Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970).

The HBHC made its boldest move in September, 1966 when it threatened to enlist Martin Luther King, Jr in an Indianapolis demonstration against highway displacement.  Disillusioned by empty promises from city and state officials, it and another organization, Community Action Against Poverty, announced that King would lead a march in the Circle City on their behalf.  Mozel Sanders announced that Dr. King supported their movement and would be available to lead the march with 24 hours notice. King’s presence would bring national attention to the cause.

Sanders met several times with Indiana Governor Roger D. Branigin.  In September Sanders outlined a three-point program “through which persons being dislocated by the interstate system or the university expansion would be paid replacement costs instead of the so called `fair market price’ now being offered by highway and university representatives.”  Saunders suggested that “the relocation costs should also be borne by the appropriate agency instead of the final burden being placed upon a person being forced out of his home through no fault of his own.”  The governor promised to look into the matter and agreed to support future legislation to address the group’s concerns.  Two weeks later, not satisfied that Governor Branigin was sincere, Sanders announced that the King march would proceed.  He pointed to the fact that the governor had, “refused to halt land buying.”  King may have been committed to such a march in Indianapolis, but it never happened.

During its short existence, the HBHC certainly ruffled some feathers with its methods.  Charles Hardy, the director of IU’s real estate office in Indianapolis between 1962 and 1972, characterized the HBHC as an assemblage of people often desperate for a meeting place, who wanted to generate publicity to make the Indiana Highway Department look bad; he suggested in 1989 that they had no significant impact (compare Ralph Gray’s analysis of the IUPUI displacement).  Fearing that the members’ tactics were too antagonistic, supporter and Senator Patrick E. Chavis Jr. advised the HBHC to restrain its protests.  In an interview with the Indianapolis Star on February 22, 1967 Chavis said “there were those last summer that attempted to take the law into their own hands by picketing and demonstrating. . . . Thank God I had the wisdom to advise them this was not the way to do things.”

By 1972 Interstate 65 was extended through much of Indianapolis' near-Northside, with the north split junction of Interstates 65 and 70 (upper right) still under construction. See the 1978 image of the same space below.

By 1972 Interstate 65 was extended through much of Indianapolis’ near-Northside, with the north split junction of Interstates 65 and 70 (upper right) still under construction. See the 1978 image of the same space below.

As 1966 winded down, the HBHC winded down also, but its legacy continued.  On March 12th 1967 the Indianapolis Star credited the HBHC with being at least partly responsible for the passing of House Bill 1347, which increased relocation payments to $5,000 over “fair market value” as well as “relocation assistance including loans of up to $2,500, for persons or businesses displaced by interstate highway construction or university construction.”  The passage of this bill represented a significant achievement for the HBHC, but the group accused both the Highway Department and Indiana University of attempting to remove residents before the law went into effect July 1, 1967.

By 1978 the north split junction of Interstates 65 and 70 near downtown Indianapolis had been completed.

By 1978 the north split junction of Interstates 65 and 70 near downtown Indianapolis had been completed.

This examination of the Homes Before Highways Commission relies heavily on period newspaper articles.  Based on those accounts, the size and impact of the HBHC is unclear.  Following its legislative successes in 1967, it essentially disappeared in print and appears to have been a less prominent public voice.  Nevertheless, the HBHC was able to effect legislation that significantly helped a host of people facing urban renewal displacement.

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