Race and Space in Nineteenth-Century New Haven

Space makes and reinforces the perception of racial differences.

Studies of “redlining” have made the connection of race and space especially clear, revealing that the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation classified the riskiness of home loans based largely on the racial classification of people living in the area. An effect of this system was that white Americans were more able to obtain home loans and grow their personal wealth than people of color. The system of redlining also encouraged the continued segregation of residential neighborhoods.

However, patterns of racial segregation existed before redlining and established the spatial patterns redlining exploited. Investigating the history of racial segregation in the nineteenth century helps to explain today’s continuing patterns of residential segregation and uneven wealth distribution.

Taking New Haven and its connection to what was then the Medical Institution of Yale College as a case study, this project examines nineteenth-century patterns of segregation to understand how they developed and persisted before the era of redlining. And it argues that medical students’ choice of housing reinforced existent segregation in New Haven.

Redlining map of New Haven (1937) from
Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America

Robert Austin Warner previously researched the history of Black New Haveners and loosely described the nineteenth-century location of the city’s Black neighborhoods (see the map to the right). Warner relied on the nineteenth-century African Improvement Society of New Haven’s annual reports to reconstruct the neighborhoods’ locations, and his descriptions repeat the language of his sources, leaving them impressionistic (and judgmental).

Warner generally describes the movement of Black New Haveners from the 1830s away from “Little Liberia” and “New Guinea” near the riverfront, in the eastern part of today’s Wooster Square, or Mill River, neighborhood. These people then settled in other areas dispersed around the edges of the city, including the Hill neighborhood to the southwest of the city center, along State Street to the northeast, and in the area north of modern Elm Street to the northwest.

Map of nineteenth-century Black neighborhoods from Robert Austin Warner’s New Haven Negroes, a Social History (1969).

Reconstructing New Haven’s historical demography from contemporary city directories largely supports Warner’s description of the geographical centers of Black New Havener life. Mapping areas of white activity and Black activity based on the 1841 New Haven city directory reveals the Black population living and working on the city’s outskirts.

In the maps below, business and home addresses associated with “col’d” individuals in the 1841 directory are concentrated further away from the city center, while those connected with white people tend to the center.

Example city directory page used to reconstruct New Haven’s historical demography.
Concentration of “col’d” addresses (left) and other addresses (right).
Color gradients are relative to the total number of addresses associated with each group.

Yale medical students reinforced these patterns of racial segregation by predominantly boarding in white areas of New Haven. Mapping students’ “Rooms” (below) reveal that students lived in white areas, even when they were not close to the medical school or the State Hospital, where clinics were often held. All white males before the Medical Institution allowed the first Black student to enroll in 1854, these students financially contributed to the white households and white-owned boarding houses and hotels where they roomed. Their room and board supported white New Haveners in maintaining and buying property, and because students favored white areas of town, this source of income would have been largely unavailable to Black New Haveners.

Example of medical students listed in 1842 catalogue, including their “Rooms.”
Concentration of “col’d” addresses (left) and other addresses (right)
overlayed with student housing locations 1836-1846 (blue dots),
the medical school (red, upper-center), and the state hospital (red, lower-left).

Ultimately, de facto racial residential segregation was firmly in place in New Haven by 1841, and medical students rooming in the city reinforced the spatial and economic differences already present.