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). Continue reading