Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series can be found at the bottom of the page.
By Rebecca Retzlaff and Jocelyn Zanzot
In cities across the United States, as racist public monuments are being removed, many people have pointed out that the Interstate Highways are also monuments to America’s racist legacy. However, Interstate Highways differ from public statuary; we can’t simply tear them all down. They are a backbone of the American transportation system at the same time that they bring consequences that no statue ever could: higher asthma rates, impaired lung function, more air pollution, noise pollution, increased risk of premature death, and neighborhood instability. It is time to reckon with America’s racist legacy of Interstate Highway planning and engineering for a new era of peace and reconciliation.
The interstate highway construction era began with a small number of limited access roads built in the 1930s. In 1939 the Bureau of Public Roads recommended a few interstate highways, and by the early 1940s some of those highways were under construction, such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles, which displaced many Mexican American neighborhoods, and the Congress Street Expressway in Chicago, which displaced some 13,000 Mexican American, African American, Italian American, and Jewish Chicagoans and 400 businesses. A report to Congress in 1944, Interregional Highways, recommended expansion of highway construction and a comprehensive system of interstate highways throughout the country. Congress responded with Highway Acts in 1944, 1952, and 1954. However, those Acts were limited in scope and funding, indicating that Congress was not yet serious about developing a comprehensive interstate highway system. In 1955 the push for a much more comprehensive system came with the publication of the report, General Location of a National System of Interstate Highways. Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act and Highway Revenue Act in 1956, marking the first major step toward construction of what we know today as the Interstate Highway System.
As soon as the Highway Act was passed in 1956, interstate highway routing became part of the political process. Although highway engineers portrayed the decisions they made in highly technical and scientific terms, through studies on traffic counts, economics, strategic interregional connections, and defense; the reality is that highway routing was, and still is, a highly political activity, based as much on socioeconomics, power, and racial bias, as it was on technical engineering principles. Interstates went where powerful white men wanted them to go. Conversely, places that powerful white men wanted to remain disconnected, or without access, remained so.
As interstate highways moved from idea to reality in American cities, many urban mayors and state governors lobbied Congress to route highways close to downtowns for economic development reasons. Through the political process, increasing numbers of highways were planned in direct alignment with urban areas, especially near downtown and through minority and low-income neighborhoods. As urban interstate routing got closer to being finalized, the politics of power played out at a more local, intimate scale. State and local engineers were very important actors in routing decisions because they were more familiar with local land use, economics, and social circumstances than federal highway engineers.
In many cities, urban interstate construction also coincided with dramatic shifts in demographics and local racial politics. In the South, interstates were being routed through cities at the same time that civil rights activists were encountering violent reactions from white government officials to their demand for change. The laws that had legalized segregated public transportation on trains and buses were being strategically challenged. In the North, highway routing coincided with migration of African American refugees from Southern violence, murder, and incarceration.
While some highway routing through white neighborhoods was unavoidable, state and local highway engineers found it politically desirable to avoid as many white neighborhoods as possible. African Americans and other people of color lacked political power, and in many places were actively and violently targeted, so routing highways through their neighborhoods became not just a byproduct of highway routing, but a goal of it. This was described as the removal of urban blight, a condition validated through other planning documents and tools of oppression such as red lining.
In some places, especially the South, state highway directors and local public officials were active in and affiliated with white supremacist organizations. Some African American neighborhoods were targeted for interstate highway construction by these white supremacist public officials because of the civil rights activism within the community, including for school integration and voting. The municipalities were complicit and aided through zoning and comprehensive planning. The states were complicit and aided through route planning and design. The federal government was complicit and aided through funding, route approvals, and other federal programs such as Urban Renewal.
Perhaps nowhere is as emblematic of the effect of white supremacy in highway routing as Montgomery, Alabama, where Sam Englehart, planter and ginner from Shorter, cut his teeth in racist policy-making when he invented “gerrymandering” as a strategy to disenfranchise the African American voters of Tuskegee. Englehart was also the head of the Alabama White Citizen’s Council, a hate group. After he was promoted to Director of the Alabama Highway Department, he rerouted the freeway extension of I-65 to destroy the African American neighborhood and business district of West Montgomery, in which Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and others lived, and re-routed I-85 to separate the HBCU Alabama State University (ASU) from its residential neighborhood of distinguished African American merchants, doctors, faculty, and civil rights intelligentsia. Engelhardt intended specifically to target the home of Ralph David Abernathy, African American civil rights leader and Baptist minister, as Abernathy wrote to President Kennedy:
Mr. President if this route [I-85] is approved it will destroy one of the best negro neighborhoods in the south and make for a hazardous condition near the local negro college, a high school, and an elementary school…my home will almost be in the center of this route…The destruction of this neighborhood will only aid the segregationist in their attempt to make the negro vote as ineffective as possible.
In 1957, three weeks after the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and just before I-85 was re-routed through Abernathy’s house, First Baptist church, where Abernathy served as minister, was bombed along with three others nearby. No one was hurt, but the church was severely damaged. The church was also the site of the Siege of First Baptist. Following the arrival of Freedom Riders in 1961, who were met with violence at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Montgomery, the church was besieged by 3,000 whites who threatened to burn it down. In the basement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy while bricks were thrown through the windows and tear gas drifted inside. The event played a crucial part in the desegregation of interstate travel.
Although Abernathy’s home was ultimately saved because of the removal of an interchange in 1965, thousands of others were not so lucky. Isaac Scott Hathaway, a registered voter and director of the ceramics program at Alabama State University, who broke a major racial barrier when he introduced ceramics at the all-white Auburn University, lost his home to I-85. Other people who are largely unknown to history, such as Annie Mae Snipes, Eugene Jackson, Winfred Meadows, and Augusta McHaney–all of whom overcame violence and terror when they became registered African American voters–lost their homes to interstate highways.
The freeway was ultimately constructed just feet from Abernathy’s home at one of the main gateways to Alabama State University. In front of it is a historic marker that tells the story of this violent era in American planning and engineering and of the destruction of the neighborhood in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy once lived. This intentional and personal violence was not veiled but an overt dimension of engineering’s and planning’s white supremacist power. Thousands of small businesses were destroyed, families displaced, and property de-valued in not only the singular sweep of freeway construction but the enduring trend of disinvestment that has sabotaged the health and well-being of African American Montgomery citizens for generations to come.
Dr. Mindi Fullilove, a physician who has connected the impacts of urban planning to individual and community health epidemiology, describes the cumulative negative mental and physical health outcomes caused by the destruction of urban neighborhoods as a result of urban renewal as “root shock,” which is, she explains:
…the traumatic stress reaction to all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem being destroyed…Root shock at the level of the individual is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. Root Shock undermines trust, increases anxiety about letting loved ones out of one’s site, destabilizes relationships, destroys social, emotional and financial resources, increases the risk for every kind of stress-related disease, from depression to heart attack…Root Shock at the level of the local community, be it neighborhood or something else, ruptures bonds, dispersing people to all the directions of the compass.”
In Montgomery, the new connective interstate system designed by Engelhardt offered the African American Westside no on or off ramps with which to connect to the business of the city, creating a new kind of trap. Systemic disinvestment and devaluation led to ruined structures, clearance, and ultimately vacancy threatened by crime. Working with neighborhood police, Weed to Seed programs began to develop in the late 1980s and 90s to transform vacant lots to gardens. However, even in 2010, as the entire length of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail which crosses through the Westside neighborhood along Mobile Street was designated a National Historic Route, the Westside has seen very little re-investment and revitalization. The cycle of disinvestment is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Similar stories played out throughout the country. In Atlanta, I-75/85 was built adjacent to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood; in Detroit the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods were demolished to make way for I-75; I-95 displaced some 10,000 people in the Overton neighborhood in Miami, and in New York Robert Moses became famous for building highways that displaced an estimated quarter-million New Yorkers. The Bronx is burning was not a metaphor. Although there is much less research on rural interstate construction, some rural African American areas, such as Alabama’s Black Belt, were left out of the interstate highway system entirely, along with the access to services and economic development that highways bring.
Today we ask the transportation and urban planning professions, the same professions responsible for designing and routing the Interstates, to be on the side of truth and justice and join community activists to call for peace and reconciliation for the neighborhoods that continue to be harmed by the slow, enduring violence of planning and engineering of interstate highways. Dr. Fullilove and others offer strategies for rebuilding communities and restoring joy in our inner-city neighborhoods that start with truth telling, inclusivity of access, and ending cycles of disinvestment. In the twenty-first century these approaches are taking new root in Montgomery and in other cities across the country.
Much of this work was led by community members who directly carried forward the creative resilience of their ancestors, making new institutions possible through effective partnerships. Let’s not cloak the truth of the professions’ history in the weak language of racial disparity, but begin the post-pandemic era with a new era of peace and reconciliation for the enduring harms of interstate highways.
Additional entries in the Justice and the Interstates series:
- Sarah J. Peterson, “The Myth and the Truth About Interstates.”
- Ruben L. Anthony, Jr. and Joseph Rodriguez, “Harnessing the Memory of Freeway Displacement in the Cream City.”
- Danielle Wiggins, “Remembering Sweet Auburn Before the Expressway: What Nostalgia Reveals about the Limits of Postwar Liberalism“
- Kyle Shelton, “Right in the Way: Generations of Highway Impacts in Houston“
- Tierra Bills, “A Contemporary Path to Transportation Justice.”
- Amanda Phillips de Lucas, “The Perils of Participation.”
- Sarah Jo Peterson, “Justice and the Interstates: A Proposal for a National Project of Truth and Accountability.”
Jocelyn Zanzot is the Urban Design Planner in Economic and Community Development for the City of Montgomery, Alabama. She also co-directs Mobile Studio, a community-based planning and design justice studio that collaboratively re-interprets history, builds capacity, and creates new opportunities through public art creative placemaking.
Rebecca Retzlaff, AICP, is a professor in the Community Planning Program at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama (aub.ie/mcp). She teaches planning history, historic preservation planning, and planning law.
Featured image (at top): Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge, Toll Plaza & Service Building, 8801 South Anthony Avenue, Chicago, IL. Jet Lowe, 1999, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
 Telegram from Ralph Abernathy to President Kennedy, RG 30, National Archives II in College Park, Maryland.
 M. T. Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It. (New York: One World/Ballantine Books, 2004).