How Redlining Blocked Car Ownership in Black Pittsburgh
God, they look good. People perched on their heels, ties hanging just so, shoes shined. And their cars! Windows sparkling, metal gleaming, shutter-release ready. Teenie Harris’s photographs make it seem absolutely righteous to own a car—or at least stand next to one and have your picture taken.
What the images don’t show is the difficulty the people in those photos may have gone through in getting loans for those cars, the insurance papers they may have lacked, and the maps that showed the places they shouldn’t drive to—the places they weren’t welcome.
I’ve spent hours looking at Teenie Harris photos. As a Pittsburgh transplant, everything about those images is at once familiar and foreign—they’ve served as a window into the world I was stepping into and the legacy that, by virtue of my brown skin, I was inheriting.
Some of my favorite pictures are the ones where cars are a character as much as the people. There is the iconic portrait of a woman perched on the hood of a sedan overlooking a hill full of pumping smokestacks. There are the everyday life pictures—two young girls inflating a car tire. A group of hunters with guns and deer carcasses. A bride and groom in the backseat of a car. I love those pictures.
I love them as much as I can. Admittedly, I am a reluctant driver. I’m not a fan of car culture and its negative impact on our cities and neighborhoods. But Harris’s photographs of cars tell a more profound story. They reveal a certain kind of truth, not only about the people we see in the frame, but about the experiences they had. In Harris’s images of automobiles, which span from the 1930s through the 1960s, it’s evident that owning a car meant something. It was status, almost a form of noble mobility. It was a source of pride.
But if you were black, owning a car didn’t exactly come easy. Many car dealerships wouldn’t make car loans to blacks. It was similar to the redlining of mortgages in low-income neighborhoods, but for automobile loans. It was a common practice, one that Kenneth Hawthorne knows firsthand and remembers well.
Hawthorne’s family owned and operated an Esso service station at the corner of Morgan Street and Wylie Avenue in the Hill District. The station opened in 1946 and closed in 1980. In those years cars rolled in, Hawthorne heard stories, and cars rolled out.
“They all came to us, we knew them all, because we gave the best car wash in town,” he said. “We resembled a bigger service station and it was where you could go to get top service in the black community.”
Hawthorne, 81, is now retired and living in Florida. But working at his family’s service station proved to be a formative experience in his life. It’s where he began his career as a mechanic before joining Gulf Oil and eventually rising to the position of vice president in 1977.
When he was growing up though, only the richest men could afford cars. Those were doctors, lawyers, engineers—and men who did illegal things, like run numbers. When a regular man wanted a car, he wouldn’t be able to get one on the lot. Oftentimes it was financed by those numbers men, and at extraordinarily high interest rates.
“There was institutional segregation accepted in those days,” Hawthorne said. “People just accepted that banks weren’t going to consider them.”
The discrimination he refers to, where it was difficult to finance a car or get insurance, isn’t well documented, but there are references to it here and there. But then again, why should it be? This was the Jim Crow era. If a working class family had to pay a little extra for a car, it was upsetting, but it wasn’t a tragedy on par with some of the atrocities that regularly occurred. It wasn’t urgent. It wasn’t a matter of life or death.
And maybe because it wasn’t urgent, it was never addressed. Over time things have changed. It’s become unacceptable—and illegal—to deny someone a car loan because of the color of their skin. But it hasn’t somehow become unacceptable to charge them more. If you’re black and trying to buy a car, you may get an unfair price. And it’s not just anecdotal. Over the last few decades, this has been floating in the discourse.
There have been studies by lawyers, economists, and sociologists that find that time and time again, from Minnesota to Illinois to New Jersey, this is a problem that persists. Just last year, a lawsuit with these allegations made headlines in Seattle. And it’s evidenced by House Bill 1737, legislation introduced just last year, nearly 70 years after some of Kenneth Hawthorne’s memories start.
This bill, created in response to regulatory instructions issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013, was designed to combat the history of black and Latino customers paying more for car loans.
“Consumers should not have to pay more for a car loan simply based on their race,” said Richard Cordley, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
That this type of discrimination still exists today is shocking: You have to tell people not to do that? But again, just this past year has been full of racial discourse and distress.
Of course what Kenneth Hawthorne describes is his experience, which is how racism works and how it persists. As a way to work around the discriminatory auto loan practices of the time, Hawthorne’s father would purchase cars from the Gordon and Jacobson car dealership in Homestead. Since he had a good relationship with the white owners, they would arrange financing for him and he would then sell them forward in the black community.
Kenneth Hawthorne’s friend, Laurence Moncrief, who also grew up in the Hill, doesn’t remember any trouble when he bought a car. Nor does he recall his father telling him anything when he purchased one.
In some ways, the lack of formal narrative that accompany the photographs in the Teenie Harris Archive adds to their mystique. As I said, I’ve spent hours staring at so many of these pictures. Some of them are fully captioned, complete with dates, names, and brief stories, while others remain open to interpretation or offer a truncated version of history. I sometimes find myself fixating on particular details, such as hairstyles of the period or trying to identify trees in the background, wondering if they somehow survived urban renewal. I look for buildings that may still be standing and wonder who lives there now. Until I started working on this essay, I had admired the cars in Harris’s photographs, but never thought about what it meant to own one. What sacrifice or loss of dignity may have been involved in the process. That the pride in car ownership came at a price that people, even today, may still be paying.
The exhibition Teenie Harris Photographs: Cars is on view in the museum’s Lobby Gallery from April 30, 2015 to January 18, 2016.