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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Bureau of Public Roads - Transition

During the first 50 years of its existence, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and its predecessor agencies dating to 1893 had been involved primarily with rural roads. From the start, it cooperated with State and local officials throughout the country, including the Jim Crow southern States. Following creation of the Federal-aid highway program in 1916, the agency's partnership with State highway officials became part of its statutory mandate. Moreover, the State highway agencies had the primary role of project selection and development, subject to Federal oversight.

What did officials and employees of BPR think about the civil rights of African-Americans? Did they share the common views of the State of their origins? How did their views affect their work? Was the long career of the low level technician, William Grant, discussed earlier, an exception? Was the agency's early support of chain gangs, often shown in photographs to consist of African-Americans, evidence of racism, practicality, or indifference? To what extent did racism affect the program in the South, and how did BPR officials feel about it if so?

We cannot answer these questions.

As early as the 1939 report to Congress called Toll Roads and Free Roads, BPR leaders were clearly thinking about taking their primarily rural program into urban areas that were experiencing the greatest problems of congestion, decay, and loss of tax base. That report and Interregional Highways in 1944 described a rural interregional highway network that included an extensive urban component that would, the author's thought, revitalize the Nation's cities.

Neither report discussed African-Americans, but by this point, their migration to cities outside the South had been underway for 2 decades. When the reports talked about building expressways to replace aging, decaying buildings housing the "humblest citizens," they were referring to the homes of African-Americans as well as immigrants and poor white residents. African-Americans, whatever their economic level, had been subject to Jim Crow residential restrictions in the South and de facto restrictions in other parts of the country. As Carl Rowan explained, their life was centered on streets in their part of town, with the streets often in the least desirable areas - for example, near the railroad tracks, downwind from polluting industrial stacks and smells, most likely to flood, and last to get electricity and indoor plumbing.

Where city statutes did not mandate racial segregation, real estate interests played on racial fears to churn neighborhoods for profit. If they could find one white owner willing to sell to an African-American, the "blockbuster" realtors would flood the neighborhood with salesmen to warn other white owners that the value of their home was about to be destroyed by an invasion. Entire areas could be churned from white to black in less than a decade, leaving the "humblest citizens" who had escaped their decaying housing only to find themselves once again living in a segregated neighborhood with limited power to secure city services.

Herbert S. Fairbank, the BPR official who was the primary author of Toll Roads and Free Roads and Interregional Highways, was a lifelong resident of Baltimore. Journalist Antero Pietila described blockbusting and other race-based tactics in Fairbank's hometown in Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee, 2010). Long before the Interstate System entered Baltimore, real estate interests, with official city support and in line with policies of the Federal Housing Administration, determined where African-Americans and Jews lived, creating restricted neighborhoods that forced whites into city suburbs, and finally out of the city to suburban homes on former farms.

In the reports, Fairbank described how Baltimore could be restored through the new model for urban transportation facilities. He had good reason to understand the pattern of development in his hometown, but he did not mention African-Americans.

Professor Raymond A Mohl, in his report on "The Interstate and the Cities," noted the omission:

Highway builders rarely mentioned African Americans specifically in their discussions about clearing out blight and slums. In fact, when these ideas first began to receive currency in the late 1930s the nation's largest cities had not yet received the full force of the massive wartime and postwar migration of southern blacks. But that changed dramatically in the 1940s and after. By that time, when the highwaymen talked about clearing out central-city blight, everyone knew what they meant. The intent, the goal, was clear to most, even if it was rarely stated directly. Their intentions were clear from their statements, actions, and policies - and the visible consequences of the highways they built are the best evidence of their intended goals. [Mohl, Raymond A., The Interstate and the Cities: Highways, Housing, and the Freeway Revolt, Poverty and Race Research Action Council, 2002, p. 29]

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944, which authorized designation of a 40,000-mile National System of Interstate Highways, also moved the Federal-aid highway program into urban areas. The legislation authorized $125 million for projects on Federal-aid highways in urban areas. BPR would now have a statutory role in shaping the Nation's cities.

While working with the State highway agencies to identify urban projects, the Public Roads Administration (PRA, as BPR was known in the 1940s) was also working with them to identify routes to be included in the Interstate System. On August 2, 1947, PRA and its parent organization, the Federal Works Agency, announced Interstate designation for 37,681 miles of the Nation's principal highways, including 2,882 miles of thoroughfares to carry the Interstates through urban areas. To fill out the 40,000‑mile Interstate System, the PRA reserved 2,319 miles for additional urban circumferential and distributing routes that would be designated later.

Those designations would occur in September 1955, after PRA/BPR and State highway officials had worked closely with city officials to determine the best locations. Designating the Urban Interstates, on this Web site, described the coordination process ( http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/fairbank.cfm).

By then, as Professor Mohl explained, racial issues had grown:

The expressway era coincided with a massive migration of rural southern blacks to urban America. More than five million African Americans made that pilgrimage in the three decades after 1940. Many northern and Midwestern cities already had sizable black populations, but those numbers rose rapidly during the war years and after. Between 1940 and 1960, for instance, the black population of New York increased by 137 percent, Philadelphia by 111 percent, Washington by 120 percent, Chicago by 193 percent, Cleveland by 197 percent, Newark by 200 percent, Detroit by 223 percent, Denver by 286 percent, Los Angeles by 425 percent, Oakland by 882 percent. The black populations of southern cities also rose substantially between 1940 and 1960. At a time when strict residential segregation prevailed everywhere, rising black population meant more intense overcrowding and consequent physical deterioration in the contained inner-city black ghettos. [Revolt, p. 29]

From the start, the concept behind the urban Interstates had been to displace the "humblest citizens" to make room for an inner belt around the central business district. The inner belt would connect via radial "spokes" to an outer beltway that provided a bypass as well as a connector among the radials. The result would be an economic renaissance for the cities. This visionary concept, embraced by many urban planners and city officials at the time, turned out to have a different impact once construction began, as Professor Mohl described:

Working within federal traffic engineering guidelines, but with few other constraints, highway builders at the state and local levels routed the new urban expressways in directions of their own choosing. Local agendas often dictated such decisions. In most cities, the result was to drive the interstates through black and poor neighborhoods. Urban blacks were heavily concentrated in areas with the oldest and most dilapidated housing, where land acquisition costs were relatively low, and where organized political opposition was weakest. Displaying a "two-birds-with-one stone" mentality, cities and states sought to route interstate expressways through slum neighborhoods, using federal highway money to reclaim downtown urban real estate. Inner-city slums could be cleared, blacks removed to more distant second-ghetto areas, central business districts redeveloped, and transportation woes solved all at the same time - and mostly at federal expense. [Revolt, p. 28]

As Professor Mohl explained, BPR officials understood how State and local officials were implementing the visionary concepts - but that was what the concept had been in the first place.

While the country was coming to grips with the urban Interstates, BPR was facing a transition of its own. Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, BPR moved into the Civil Rights era.

As the 1960s began, BPR was a largely white agency, with an entirely white male leadership. Numbers of African-American employees are not known, but the nature of the agency is clear from photographs in the agency's newsletter, The News in Public Roads (and after April 1967, Federal Highway Administration News and finally FHWA News ). The newsletter published many photographs of officials moving to new jobs, leadership and regional meetings, award presentations, retirees, and graduating classes of engineers, realty specialists, and urban planners. At the start of the decade, all depicted a white male organization. If an African-American appears in a photograph, it is in a support position such as secretary.

The transition to diversity would take a decade.

Since 1949, BPR had been part of the Department of Commerce, now headed under President Kennedy by former Governor Luther H. Hodges of North Carolina. Born in Virginia in 1898, Hodges moved with his family to North Carolina at the age of 2. After college, he worked for Carolina Cotton and Woolen Mills in Leaksville until moving into politics. He was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1952, and became Governor in November 1954 when Governor William B. Umstead died after a long illness that had incapacitated him almost since his inauguration. Governor Hodges won election to a full 4-year term in 1956.

Based on his experience as a businessman rather than a politician, Governor Hodges gained a reputation as a moderate on civil rights issues who was focused more on promoting industrialization and education than encouraging racist elements in the State at a time of growing racial tension. Writer D. G. Martin said of Governor Hodges:

Hodges led the state during the early stages of its adjustment to the desegregation directive of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. Today, fifty years later, some critics fault Hodges for moving too slow to integrate the state's public schools. Back then, however, the majority of white North Carolinians probably thought he was too "soft" for not resisting the Supreme Court. While other southern states developed plans to close schools, Hodges committed to keeping them open in North Carolina. His success in keeping the schools "on a businesslike basis" may actually be one of his most important achievements. [Martin, D. G., "Our Governors - How Quickly We Forget," Chatham Journal, June 20, 1005]

The Governor understood that promoting economic development meant taking a moderate view on racial issues if he wanted to attract northern businesses to the "new South." Now, Secretary Hodges was part of an Administration that saw expanding civil rights as an important goal-political as well as moral.

On March 6, 1961, less than 3 weeks after taking office, President Kennedy approved Executive Order 10925 on "Establishing the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity." Vice President Johnson was designated Chairman of the Committee, which included Secretary Hodges among its members.

Section 301 of the order required that in all government contracting, agencies were to include provisions prohibiting contractors from discriminating against any employee or applicant for employment based on race, creed, color, or national origin. Contractors were to notify each labor union or worker representative with which the company had a collective bargaining agreement or other contract or understanding of this commitment. This provision applied only to Federal contracts, such as those BPR administered on behalf of the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, not to Federal-aid contracts that were awarded by State highway agencies.

On March 31, Secretary Hodges emphasized the goals of the Executive order:

I want to make it emphatically clear that this Department of Commerce, so long as I shall be privileged to serve as Secretary, will share that dedication.

A year later, on March 16, 1962, Hyman H. Bookbinder, Special Assistant to the Secretary, wrote a memo to Commerce Department officials who participated in the Regional Conferences on Equal Employment Opportunity. He said:

As a result of a year-end study which was made at the request of the Vice President, there has been revealed to us a situation in which we can have little pride. While there has been some measurable progress in the picture here in Washington, D.C., the pattern of employment in all Commerce Department activities outside of Washington is quite disturbing. There are so few Negro employees in Grades 5 or over in these out-of-Washington activities that it is hardly worth mentioning at all.

While acknowledging that discrimination may not have been the reason for the shortage, Bookbinder said, "it is still a fact which is difficult to explain that there so very, very few -and in some activities none whatsoever - Negro employees." Secretary Hodges had directed Bookbinder to "obtain a more determined effort" to correct the situation.

Accordingly, BPR's Deputy Employment Policy Officer, C. F. Barker, announced a survey on June 11, 1963. He asked BPR's field leaders to furnish "(a) the total office employment and (b) a listing showing the position title and grade of each Negro employee" for every major office within a State.

The results are not known, but a perhaps the results of the field review are implied by a headquarters photograph in The News in Public Roads for January 1963. It accompanied an article reporting that BPR's Automatic Data Processing Division had installed a new medium-scale computer, the IBM 1410. The photograph depicted four white male officials, including Deputy Federal Highway Administrator D. Grant Mickle, watching as Miss Wilma Dodge, who was white, typed on the control console. Mr. Edward Lloyd, an African-American digital computer systems operator, is shown watching the computer in the background. ["Automatic Data Processing Division Installs New, Large Computer," The News in Public Roads, January 1963, p. 10]

(Barker requested similar information in December 1963, but again the results are not known.)

Executive Order 11114, which President Kennedy approved on June 22, 1963, extended equal employment opportunity to federally assisted contracts. Federal Highway Administrator Rex M. Whitton informed field officials of the change on July 2, 1963. Whitton, who was from the same section of Missouri as former President Truman, had risen through the State's highway agency before being chosen for the national post.

In January 1964, Whitton directed Joseph M. O'Connor, a former FBI agent now serving as Director of Audits and Investigations, to assume responsibility for administering the nondiscrimination program for all Federal-aid and direct Federal contract work, including Federal supply service contracts.

In late July, Secretary Hodges sent a message to all agency heads emphasizing the need "to secure equal treatment and equal opportunity for all Americans and to assure that no Federal program operates to encourage or support racial segregation." He quoted President Johnson as saying, "As far as the writ of Federal law will run, we must abolish not some but all racial discrimination."

On July 29, 1964, Whitton used the Secretary's message as the basis for a memorandum to all field heads titled "Federal participation in segregated meetings." In accepting speaking engagements and participating in conferences, all BPR employees were instructed to follow these guidelines:

  1. No official should participate in conferences or speak before audiences where any racial group has been segregated or excluded from the meeting, from any of the facilities of the conferences, or from membership in a group.
  2. Requests received for speakers or for Federal participation under circumstances where segregation may be practiced require specific inquiry to be made as to the practices of the group before acceptance is given. Obviously, the Bureau of Public Roads should cooperate if any inviting group expresses a willingness to discuss modifications of their practices for any occasion.
  3. The Bureau of Public Roads shall not sponsor, support or financially assist, directly or indirectly, any conference, convention, or meeting held under segregated circumstances.

Exceptions were to be cleared with the Administrator. "I am confident," Whitton said, "that all of you will see to it that this policy is firmly carried out."

On April 2, 1965, President Johnson informed his Cabinet that:

The Federal service must never be either the active or passive ally of any who flout the Constitution of the United States . . . . Where there is an office or an officer of this Government, there must be equal treatment, equal respect, equal service-and equal support-for all American citizens, regardless of race, or sex, or region, or religion . . . .

The Federal service asks no conformity-no uniformity of thought and no unanimity of vote. But where Constitutional rights are concerned, the country can ask no more-and accept no less-than uncompromising devotion to the Constitution itself.

Secretary Hodges passed this injunction on to agency heads. On May 3, 1965, Whitton forwarded it to all BPR employees along with a message endorsing the sentiment. He added:

We do have a distinctive role-not only in our official actions but in our personal actions as well. We are in a "showcase" and must set the example because we are the example.

Through this period, BPR sponsored an aggressive college recruitment program. On October 14, 1965, College Recruitment Bulletin No. 12 discussed Equal Employment Opportunities. In setting up visits to colleges and universities, recruitment coordinators should "emphasize our interest in considering all well-qualified candidates without regard to race, creed, color, national origin, marital status, sex, physical handicap, or lawful political affiliation." The bulletin continued:

Visits to minority group colleges are to be made to acquaint the faculty and students with our recruiting needs, qualifications required of candidates for our several training programs or other professional positions in Public Roads. Minority group colleges not producing graduates meeting our needs because of curriculum deficiencies should be made aware of our requirements in order that they may give consideration to adjusting their curriculum so that their graduates can meet our requirements.

College Recruitment Bulletin No. 16, dated January 25, 1967, noted the tough competition for college graduates and suggested several steps to strengthen BPR's recruitment efforts, including:

Expand recruiting contacts to include predominantly Negro and smaller colleges. Competition may be less and the quality high at small, lesser known institutions.

The bulletin included a list of "Predominantly negro colleges and universities" to aid recruiters.

In March 1966, BPR established the Equal Opportunity Division within the Office of Audits and Investigations to administer the equal opportunity program under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On May 31, 1966, Whitton extended a Civil Service Commission program to BPR to establish a record of minority group status. Each employee would receive a computer punch card with his name, organization code, and employee number. He or she was to punch out the one block on the card describing race or national origin. The card was to be returned to the Automatic Data Processing Division in a sealed envelope. Data collected on individuals would be confidential.

Gradually, African-Americans began to fill higher level positions. The employees often came from outside the organization, reflecting the lack of African-American employees ready for advancement to leadership roles. The September 1966 issue of The News in Public Roads announced the appointment of four Equal Opportunity Officers, three of whom were white males. The fourth, Kermitt E. Wheeler, was an African-American native of St. Paul, Minnesota, who had previously held a similar position with Chicago's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On September 28, 1967, FHWA informed employees that a new employee, Leon C. Watkins, had been appointed Equal Employment Opportunity Officer. Any employee with a complaint based on race, creed, color, or national origin could contact Mr. Watkins. According to Federal Highway Administration News on October 31, 1967, Mr. Watkins was a native of Danville, Virginia, who had graduated from a historically black university, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before joining FHWA, he had been a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the District of Columbia Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Another milestone occurred in July 1968 when Edward J. DePina became Division Engineer in Connecticut (head of FHWA's State office, a position that is now called Division Administrator), the first African-American to hold that title. He had joined BPR in 1965 after serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a stint with the Massachusetts Department of Public Works.

The agency continued to add African-Americans to its ranks in 1968, the year when the transition finally became evident in photographs appearing in the agency's newsletters. The issue of Federal Highway Administration News dated September 30, 1968 announced several African-American appointees:

Alexander D. Gaither took office as Chief, Equal Opportunity Division. A native of Knoxville, he had graduated from Knoxville College, a historically black college, in 1932. Before assuming his new position, he had been Equal Employment Officer for FHWA's Region 3 since 1966.

Flynn M. Wells was appointed Chief of the Relocation Assistance Staff in the Office of Right-of-Way and Location. A Detroit native, Wells had been a real estate broker and appraiser before joining the Michigan Department of State Highways.

Marshall Jacks, Jr., a registered professional engineer in Michigan, joined the Traffic Control Devices Branch.

On August 23, 1968, President Johnson approved the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968 reauthorizing the Federal-aid highway program. Section 22 of the Act added Section 140 on "Equal employment opportunity" to Title 23 ("Highways"), United States Code. It required assurances from each State highway agency that employment on Federal-aid projects would be free of discrimination. It also required the States to "include in the advertised specifications, notification of the specific equal employment opportunity responsibilities of the successful bidder." The law also gave the Secretary of Transportation authority to require, where necessary, the States to assure "that there are in existence and available on a regional, statewide, or local basis, apprenticeship, skill improvement or other upgrading programs . . . which provide equal opportunity for training and employment . . . ."

The bidding provision of Section 140 had begun in the House Committee on Public Works as a response to actions by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in the Department of Labor. The Office had required that after the State selects a low bidder on a Federal-aid contract, but before the contract is awarded, the contractor must submit an affirmative action program for the employment of minorities. This requirement violated the Federal-aid requirement for competitive bidding because bidders were not competing on the basis of all contract requirements. Pilot projects using the Labor Department's requirement had been delayed or blocked.

The Senate Committee on Public Works had also addressed the post-bid problem and added the training requirement so that those who wished to become qualified applicants could participate in registered apprentice and skill training programs.

The Conference Committee to resolve differences among the House and Senate versions of 1968 Act combined the two versions of the equal opportunity provision into the new section of Title 23. It also amended Section 112 of Title 23 on construction contracts to add the House requirements, while broadening the prohibition on adding requirements not included in the advertisement by prohibiting them from being a condition of award of the contract to the bidder.

By 1968, photographs in Federal Highway Administration News routinely depicted African-Americans. Although they remained a small but growing segment of the employment roster, they had become an integral part of the routine activities of the agency.

In January 1969, the Subcommittee on Roads of the Senate Committee on Public Works held hearings on civil rights and equal opportunities. The subcommittee recommended that FHWA assume leadership in demonstrating to the States the importance of equal employment opportunity. In response, Francis C. "Frank" Turner, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, who had risen through BPR's ranks to become the only career employee to hold the title of Federal Highway Administrator, appointed Gaither to the new post of Special Assistant to the Administrator for Equal Opportunity in March 1969. He also created the Office of Civil Rights in June with responsibility for internal and external concerns. Special Assistant Gaither became the first Director of the Office of Civil Rights.

On July 28, 1969, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) sponsored a meeting in Chicago bringing together State highway officials and representatives of The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), the American Road Builders' Association (ARBA), and FHWA. Participants included equal opportunity officers from FHWA and the State highway agencies. An account of the meeting in FHWA News stated:

AASHO President Ross Stapp [of the Wyoming Highway Department] moderator of the meeting said that since the early 1940's the contract documents of Federal-aid highway projects have all contained a rather innocuous statement to the effect that the project would be administered without regard to race, color, creed or national origin. The statement, he added, did little to change the normal process and procedures; however, such things will be changed and are being changed by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968. Mr. Stapp said the Act called on the Federal-aid highway program to assume its share of correcting some of the Nation's most pressing social-economic problems by training and bringing into the highway program minorities, especially blacks, who have all but been excluded in the past, except for low-paying jobs.

Turner told participants that the new system must work to take advantage of the full participation of the States in developing programs responsive to the unique needs of each State.

The account continued:

A. D. (Jake) Gaither, Director, Office of Civil Rights, FHWA, noted that, a year ago, a meeting of this kind was not possible. Mr. Gaither reported that paperwork has been completed-policies and procedures have been promulgated-and the stage is set for operating a viable program.

AASHO endorsed FHWA's Civil Rights Program, while all participants agreed that "a coordinated effort would have to be made on the part of the private sector, AASHO, AGC, ARBA, and all involved Federal-aid State agencies if this program is to realize its ultimate goal of achieving equality of opportunity in the highway industry." ["AASHO Endorses FHWA Civil Rights Program," FHWA News, August 19, 1969, p. 2]

Based on Executive Order 11478, signed by President Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1969 ("Equal Employment Opportunity in the Federal Government"), the Office's responsibilities were strengthened to include development of affirmative action plans and procedures for processing discrimination complaints and equal employment opportunity counseling activities.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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