In an effort to resurrect the American economy from financial catastrophe, the federal government created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 to refinance troubled residential home mortgages and guarantee them going forward. The federal government drew on local realtors and lenders to create security maps evaluating the riskiness of neighborhoods in more than 200 cities throughout the country. African American neighborhoods were overwhelmingly rated poor investment risks and colored red on the maps, the origin of the term “redlining.” Since Kenneth Jackson’s work in the 1980s, urban historians have taken interest in the role of HOLC and redlining in shaping cities and suburbanization.
Mapping Inequality is a multi-institutional research collaboration on the impact and legacy of New Deal “redlining” in American cities. Participants from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Richmond are building a public-oriented digital archive of federal resources, including maps, demographic data, and contemporary realtor evaluations. Recently, the web version of an article in The Atlantic on reparations featured a redlining map from our archival resources to illustrate federal foundations for racial inequality. We are creating a large dataset of information on more than 200 U.S. cities in the 1930s to help understand the functioning of federal programs both at the local level and in aggregate. Finally, the dataset will enable us to assess, combined with subsequent census data, the ultimate fate of a redlined community—what did it mean for an individual neighborhood to be redlined and what did it mean for all redlined neighborhoods. Only big data can answer the general question in combination with the specific question. This effort holds the promise, as a digital project in particular, to make scholarly interpretation of urban and policy history accessible to the public.