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How racism played a part in shaping the US interstate system

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Posted at 4:10 PM, Apr 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-19 16:10:45-04

In President Joe Biden's proposed American Jobs Plan, his administration is calling for $20 billion to be spent on a new program that would “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments,” according to the White House.

One of those investments is the U.S. interstate system built in the late 1950s and 1960s as part of the Federal Highway Act of 1956.

The act was intended to connect parts of the country, and while it did, it also divided communities in countless cities across the country.

“We just received a notice that through eminent domain, you were going to have to move, and so my mother and father had to search all across the city for a neighborhood,” said Janice Franklin.

Franklin grew up in a small home in Montgomery, Alabama, until it was purchased by the city and then bulldozed so the I-65 could be built throughout the city.

When considering different routes, the Department of Transportation chose the one that cut through Franklin’s community, full of Black businesses and families, rather than the other two that would have disrupted affluent white neighborhoods.

“It does, it does upset me, but I guess knowing there were so many other communities that experienced the same thing, you realize that this is something that you are powerless to change,” said Franklin.

Today, some of the buildings that used to house those businesses are still vacant.

“You can go to almost any southern city and stand in one location and see the interstate, a housing project, what used to be the Black business district,” said Dr. Howard Robinson, the Archivist at Alabama State University, a historically Black college that had a front-row view to the dilapidation that would take place.

“You could literally drive through these communities and see the remnants of a once-thriving business and institutional center that no longer exists,” said Robinson.

Since the interstates were built during a time when many communities were looking to overcome segregation, there was little impetus for Black families to rebuild the areas they were forced from.

Robinson said it has furthered the socioeconomic and racial divides still felt in many cities today.

“The interstate system played into the transformation of Black neighborhoods and Black community,” said Robinson.

The $20 billion federal investment in the American Jobs Plan is a start as it would go towards improving infrastructure and transportation in these neighborhoods. It's money Franklin sees as a start to acknowledging pain she feels was overlooked.

“I think that there should have been some way in which we were spoken to, so we could understand the overall intent of the interstate, why our neighborhood was chosen over other neighborhoods,” she said. “I think there does need to be something to reconcile these feelings that I have lived with all these years.”