Sent by Roy Wilkins, assistant head of the NAACP, to Robert Weaver, a high-ranking black appointee at the Department of the Interior, the letter describes Wilkins receiving “a telephone message a few days ago from a young white friend of ours in Brooklyn who said he was employed in some capacity with the Federal Housing Administration.” The white staffer was, in effect, a whistleblower looking to hasten the illegality of Jim Crow housing. He revealed, by Wilkins’s telling, that “Unofficially, the FHA is making as one of its requirements for guaranteeing mortgages that the builders insert…[a]deed…clause prohibiting sale, rental, or occupancy by persons of African descent.” In subsequent correspondence, even Robert Weaver, with his top-tier connections in Washington, would admit to having no knowledge of what the FHA was doing.
No doubt wishing to protect his source’s identity, Wilkins does not give his contact’s name. Nor does he send the letter to Weaver’s work address, fearing interception. Instead, he uses the correspondence to begin rallying activists to attack the practices about which isolated black buyers had long been complaining. In short order, Thurgood Marshall, Walter White, and other activists pressured Washington to make public the FHA’s Underwriting Manual and its discriminatory guidelines. By the end of 1938, the black press, as this passage from the Los Angeles Sentinel captures, had geared up for a national fight: “Americans who have been protesting Hitler’s despicable plan to herd German Jews into ghettoes will be surprised to learn that their own government has been busily planning ghettos for American Negroes through the Federal Housing Authority [sic].”
Federal redlining has, today, become a signature piece of almost any discussion of racial discrimination and the wealth gap in modern America. But prior to a leak from a white ally in Brooklyn, the practice could be dismissed as mere rumor among a jilted class of African Americans homebuyers. Wilkins’s whistleblower insisted “that we would not be able to get anything except denials if we approached this matter directly through official channels.” That proved true for another thirty years. Following decades of organizing, litigation, and the losses of countless lives, the federal government finally made explicit housing segregation illegal with the 1968 Fair Housing Act. One well placed phone call, placed a generation earlier, made a huge difference.