In her new book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, historian Beryl Satter puts a human face on the often told story of racial discrimination in urban housing by following the career of her father, Chicago attorney Mark J. Satter, who was both an ardent defender of his mostly black clients who had been severely exploited by real estate speculators, and a property owner in an increasingly black neighborhood who some later accused of being a slumlord himself. Her account is a cautionary tale that reminds us that the ghettos of Americas largest cities are the consequence of large impersonal economic forces and of hundreds of individual decisions driven by self-interest and, on occasion, by selfless motives as well.
Family Properties deals with one of the most contentious questions of recent American history –- why so many urban neighborhoods changed so rapidly from white to black, and then decayed into slums. Yet the book originated in something very personal -- my curiosity about my father, Mark J. Satter.
He was a Jewish Chicago attorney with a largely black, working-class clientele. He was 49 years old when he died from a heart ailment in 1965; I, the youngest of his five children, was six. As I grew older, I picked up oddly mixed messages about him from my relatives. They told me he had been a well-known crusader for the oppressed. But they also spoke in more whispered tones about properties he had owned in what was now a black ghetto. He’d hoped that they would provide for his family. Instead, they had become worthless. They were sold shortly after his death. By then they were worth so little that their sale hadn’t even covered that winter’s coal bills -- and I understood that somehow, my relatives felt that he was to blame.
There was a mystery here, and so, a decade ago, I finally decided to investigate my father’s story. I began by reading my father’s papers, which had been saved by one of my brothers.
I was shocked by the stories they