Woman tries to reclaim her home in 1930s Jim Crow South
“I am a poor Colored Woman trying to have a home for living in my old age My husband and I have put all our life earnings in this place and now it is taken away from us.”
I read these words of Lucy Dalton of Asheville, NC, as I was combing through some old books and papers at an auction recently. Her letter was typed on a sheet of paper that had been folded and re-folded. The edges were torn and tattered, and a dark brown spot had planted itself in the lower right corner.
The letter was dated Oct. 25, 1934, and Dalton had addressed it to “The Hon. Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the U.S.A.”
I suspect that Dalton did not type the letter; typewriters for most people were likely a luxury back then. But I’m almost certain that the sentiment and words were all hers. I could feel her desperation at the thought of losing something she and her husband had paid dearly for. Here’s the rest of her letter as it was typed:
Hon.& Daer Sir:
Some months ago I wrote you concerning my property and the Home Owners Loan Corporation Office here in Asheville? N.C. I am a ain calling your attention to the same matter as to how some of us are bein treated.
My home is taken away from me.I was put out doors. This could be helped if it were not a rin like affair in this place .
Some people can have a loan and some has to pass under such red tapes and then turn down.Some of us cannot even have a word with the people in authority here,we are so much i nored.
I am a poor Colored Woman trying to have a home for living in my old age My husband and I have put all our life earnings in this place and now it is taken away from us , because the man hold the mortgage will not take bond.
My application is file months ago and was refused with out explanation.I would like very much that the office here reopen the application and help me to secure my home. I would like to find out also why the mortgagee will not take the Bonds.
I mortgage one lot and house and the mortgagee took both houses away from me I want you to see into that for me and help me. to et a place of my own to call home . .
If there is no relief tell me ,and if there is any I want you to help me to fine it,I am in an awful condition.
Yours very truly,
Dalton’s plea to the president was stapled and pinned to several other documents that included a hand-drawn map of an area labeled “Haw Creek, Ward 8, Tax Sheet 3,” which appeared to be an official government map; a 1932 letter from an Asheville attorney telling her husband, William Dalton, to “make payment on your note,” and a 1938 letter addressed to William from the Legal Aid Clinic at the Duke University School of Law in Durham noting that county records would have to be examined before their claim could be investigated.
I was obviously curious about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) that Lucy Dalton had accused of unfair treatment – a fearless act taken by an African American woman in North Carolina in the era of Jim Crow.
The events took place in the midst of the Great Depression, when jobs were almost nonexistent and life was tough – and even tougher for African Americans like the Daltons. Roosevelt took office in 1933 at one of the harshest periods in American history, and over the next eight years embarked on a program to keep the country, its economy and its people afloat. His New Deal programs gave people work to make money, food for their bellies and loans to help them keep their homes.
The (HOLC) was formed in 1933 to refinance home loans in default or threatened with foreclosure. It bought troubled mortgages from lenders using government bonds and refinanced them with better terms to help homeowners like the Daltons to hold onto their property. By 1934, the year Dalton wrote her letter, the agency owned one in five mortgages and foreclosed on thousands of others.
It seems not much unlike the 2008 federal law aimed at helping homeowners to avoid foreclosures.
The 1933 plan allowed homeowners to pay their mortgages over 15 years in equal monthly payments at reduced interest rates, thereby making the payments more affordable. It was available only to nonfarm properties (including rental) worth less than $20,000.
When I first read Dalton’s letter I didn’t quite understand it, until I researched the agency. It seemed that her lender refused to take the government bonds for her home, presumably choosing instead to force her to default on her mortgage and evicting her.
In 1937, the HOLC was asked by its parent organization, the Federal Home Loan Bank, to create maps of residential areas in 239 cities to determine the security level – or payback potential – for government mortgage support. The field workers took into account “housing stock, sales and rental rates, physical attributes of the terrain, and ‘threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.'”
The areas on the map were color-coded from green and blue to depict the desirable areas (white and affluent) to red for the poor neighborhoods (African American and other) that were considered the worst for refinancing mortgages.
With these maps, the agency was accused of instituting “redlining,” a discriminatory practice whereby credit is granted based on the location of a property and not on a person’s ability to pay. Lenders were accused of using the practice to deny loans to people of color or hike up the rates for credit.
Others noted that this was not the agency’s intent, but that the institutions used it in nefarious ways. Some contended that the practice began long before the agency produced its maps, which they said were not widely circulated.
Asheville was one of those color-coded cities. The Daltons lived in D2, a red area surrounded by the more desirable blue B4, known as Kenilworth, which is mentioned in the 1932 letter from the attorney seeking payment. It was an area built around an old brickyard, according to the HOLC research form, had unpaved streets and inadequate transportation.
The residents were described as common laborers and domestics. White men in the surrounding area were professional and businessmen, railroad employees and clerical workers. Income for whites was about $1,500 a year, while African Americans made $200 to $400 a year. William Dalton was a laborer in a private home, according to the 1940 Census, earning $624 the year before. Both he and Lucy had completed eighth grade.
William was estimated to have been born in 1871 in Virginia, and Lucy in 1873 in North Carolina, according to the 1940 Census. Previous census-takers had listed different birth years for both. They were living alone in the same place as they did in the 1930 Census. I can only assume that they reclaimed their Dalton Street house, which was located in an area called Haw Creek.
The couple lived at 8 Dalton Street, and were among a handful of people who owned rather than rented their homes. The homes were worth an average of $700. Many in the area were on relief as much of the rest of the country. The HOLC field worker noted that the area was at the bottom, with little room to get better.
“This is a very cheap Negro section all but North end being in valley. Mountains in East, West and South on which white people live.”
Lucy and William were married around 1893, according to the 1900 census, and they and their two boys lived with her grandfather Bossler Jenkins, whose daughter Tena was Lucy’s mother. Jenkins was a minister, according to the 1880 Census, and was born in 1822 (or 1811) and widowed in 1900.
By 1901, the grandfather had died and the administration of his estate was handed over to the city of Asheville, according to one of the auction documents. The action was taken in June 1901, but there’s no mention of what the estate entailed. The deceased was listed as Boston A. Jenkins, and the heir marked with a + sign, with a signature presumably written by someone else.
William and Lucy appeared to be living on their own in 1910 and had three boys. By the 1930 Census, two of the boys and a daughter-in-law were living with them.
Like most people in the area, the couple attended either St. John “A” Baptist Church, which was located at the dead-end of their street, or St. Mark AME Church. Behind St. John is the South Asheville Colored Cemetery, originally a slave burial ground that was managed by a burial association representing both churches. The cemetery was used for their own members and other blacks (for a fee) who lived in Asheville during the 1920s and 1930s. Records of burials were not kept, but estimates are that it may have held up to 5,000 graves. The cemetery was closed in 1943.
Lucy Dalton died in 1950 at age 77. I could find no information on the death of her husband.