Teaching a Public History of Public Housing
At Richmond's George Wythe High School, students are studying something close to home: public housing. A Title I school, nearly all students are black and many come from low-income families. By examining housing and ongoing segregation, teacher Libby Germer hopes students will gain the knowledge and passion to confront inequality. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn more: If you are a former tenant of Hillside Court or know someone who was and would like to share your memories with George Wythe High School students, contact Libby Germer, History Teacher at George Wythe High School: [email protected] and 804-780-5037 in Room 212.
It’s final period at George Wythe High School and Libby Germer welcomes students into her Honors Government class.
Libby Germer: Hi, how are you today?
The class has spent months exploring the history of public housing and today, they’re drawing parallels to public schools.
Germer (teaching): Let’s start by thinking about our own school, George Wythe High School. Tell your neighbor right now when you think George Wythe High School was built and who attended school here.
Germer: Every year when I start the school year I think I want my students to be critical consumers of mass culture, I want my kids to not just know the stereotypes and the biases but also be able to look at the deeper stories, the untold stories, other people’s history.
George Wythe is a Title I school, getting federal funding for its large population of low-income students. The study body is about 95% Black and Latino; nearly 80% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch; and many live in subsidized housing. Studying “A Public History of Public Housing” would be accessible to them, says Germer.
Germer: I knew that talking about public history would at least incite their curiosity and it would allow every kid to come to the table with some knowledge, some experience.
Germer designed the curriculum as part of the Yale Initiative Fellowship, which supports teachers working in low-income communities. She spent months gathering materials and digging into archives. While doing research at the Library of Virginia, a collection of photos from 1953 caught Germer’s attention. They showed very similar ribbon cuttings at two new public housing complexes in Richmond. But there was a striking difference: all the new tenants at Creighton Court were black, while those at Hillside Court were white.
Germer: To see those little towheaded, blond girls in dresses running around the streets of Hillside Court, it is really surprising and it totally surprised me and everybody I’ve talked to.
Using data from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, Germer learned Hillside Court was majority white until 1968.
Germer: And that’s when this huge shift happens, it’s from 1968 to 1979 that the population basically flipped. It went from 91% white in 1968 to [about] 96% black residents in 1979, so that’s the thrust, the big movement that we call white flight happened in that 10 year span.
Lawrence Ramos: I could never imagine it was made for white people...
Lawrence Ramos and other students were surprised by the early photos of Hillside, showing white families gathered for the ribbon cutting and standing next to shiny new appliances. Hillside now is a much different place.
Students: It is predominantly filled with African Americans and there’s a lot of violence… It’s totally different because now when you go to Hillside there’s a bunch of fights… Of course there’s going to be a lot of violence and crime because they’re trying to get money to pay their bills.
Students also know Hillside is more than than a symbol of generational poverty. It’s a place where tenants organized against violence and fought unfair eviction policies in the 1990s. It’s a place where families overcome struggles and celebrate achievements, just like anywhere else. And it’s a place where a popular boxing program has created alternatives for kids. All these things are visible, says Ramos, if you look for them.
Ramos: It’s a good side to Hillside too, they have more things at Hillside that people do not know about. People don’t try to go around and try to ask, “Ok, well, do you have any programs?” People don’t try to learn and figure out what else goes on there.
Germer (teaching): So when we last spoke about public schooling and how it really shadows or mirrors what’s been happening with public housing in our city, we left off really with 1997...
Germer and her students have looked at national public housing, like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. They’ve made comparisons to what happened locally, including the black community's reaction to the first public housing complex in the city, Gilpin Court. They’ve studied the impact of the Fair Housing Act, redlining and restrictive covenants and talked about how these policies have contributed to the racial wealth gap.
Ladasia Harris: In this class we actually talk about things, we don’t just skim the surface.
Senior Ladasia Harris says she’s learned a lot about public housing, but Mrs. Germer’s class has given her other skills too.
Harris: We actually talk about how we feel about it and she helps us with decision-making skills. Thinking before we actually act, this class helped me with that. Rather than acting on impulse, I actually think and analyze things before I act on them.
Students have also thought about how to improve affordable housing. Some suggest that public housing leases should have time limits, others want social workers to be more involved in helping tenants get out of public housing. Mixed-income communities could also help, says Harris.
Harris: If you’re living beside someone who’s had a house before, they know everything that needs to be done, lawn work, just general things, you can learn from that. It will keep the community looking well because you’ll follow example. You see them keeping their yard nice, you’re like, maybe I should do that too. Just small things someone can teach you rather than having someone do it for you, you actually learn it.
Germer and her students want to enhance their study of public housing history in Richmond by conducting oral histories with former residents of Hillside Court, people who lived there between 1950s and the ‘90s
Germer: Anyone who lived there in between those dates, we would love to get to know better and to have an opportunity to interview.
Students have a whole list of questions: what was it like to move into Hillside when it was brand new? They’re curious about favorite memories and challenges people overcame; they want to know what it was like for children living there.
Harris: I would also ask them, if they’re living somewhere better, how did Hillside help you get to where you are today?
So far, they haven't had luck finding former residents to interview. They’ve put up flyers in the city, but Germer speculates many early tenants relocated to the counties. Still, they’re hoping to make these connections and end the class with a community service project at Hillside Court. Students Regena Walker and Alex Cephas are already inspired to use what they’ve learned for good.
Regena Walker: I know how hard it can be to get out because making money is not an easy thing to do, getting an education is not easy to do. So I would try to help them by giving them words of encouragement, like “You can do it.” A lot of people don’t have that in the projects, they’re by themselves with their kids, they don’t have that support mechanism. So I would try to be there for somebody else, [I would say] you can get out of that situation, you can be better and you can do it.
Alex Cephas: It just takes one person to help push somebody to do something else. And it’s a group of us, so we can push a lot of people to do other things that will help anybody.
Germer: I want them to be leaders. I want the students of today to be our city’s leaders in the next generation.
Libby Germer hopes the class shows students how to connect housing, poverty and school achievement. She wants them to take notice when federal, state and local leaders make policies that affect schools and housing. It’s a justice issue, says Germer, that these students may have a role in reshaping in the years to come.
Germer: I really want them to go to college and I want them to come back to Richmond because they choose it, it’s an incredible place to live. I want them to be school teachers here and lawyers here and doctors in Richmond City and not to be afraid of public housing or its residents but I also want them to speak truth to power and when they see injustice in public policy to name it.
For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News