Discrimination exposed by brilliant Birmingham black artist

Celestia Morgan
Celestia Morgan

Today’s guest columnist is The Bill Ivey.

Have you ever heard of Birmingham artist Celestia Anne (Cookie) Morgan? I hadn’t until a friend insisted that I check out her “REDLINE” exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art. And I certainly knew nothing about the practice of redlining.

Morgan is a rising superstar artist. Born in Ensley in 1981, she graduated from Jackson-Olin High School. Morgan believes she inherited her love for photography from her father, who died in 2005.

“When my father passed, we were looking for images of him and we realized that he was the guy behind the camera,” Morgan said. “He would give me one of his old cameras and I would go around and start to photograph.”  She gained further experience with a 35mm camera while participating in Jackson-Olin’s Junior ROTC program.

Celestia Morgan graduated from Lawson State Community College in 2004 and in 2012 was awarded a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts from UAB. In 2017, she graduated from the University of Alabama with a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts/Photography.

She currently holds down two positions: She’s a Visual Arts teacher in the Birmingham City Schools and an adjunct professor of photography at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Celestia is married with two children and lives in Birmingham.

When Morgan began taking photographs of Birmingham’s neighborhoods, she didn’t set out to make a political statement. It was personal.

“The first intent was not to create art about redlining,” she explained. “It was for me, exploring why my family only lived in a certain part of Birmingham. And I wanted to capture memories for my family, take pictures of houses that my grandmother lived in or my aunts and uncles lived in.”

But as Morgan saw both dignity and dilapidation in the neighborhoods she photographed, she started to think bigger.

“How can my story help somebody else?” she began to ask herself. “How can I connect it to something greater than what I am?”

REDLINE is brilliant, timely, and prophetic.

In the 1930’s the Federal Housing Administration created a systematic coding system to deny mortgages to prospective homeowners on the basis of race, religion, and immigration status. The term “redlining” emerged out of the practice of banks and government officials drawing red lines on housing maps. Red lines designated, for example, African American or Latino neighborhoods and singled them out as “undesirable” for investment. Blacks, Latinos, Jews, and other minority residents were disproportionately affected.

Redlining denied a wide range of services (financial and otherwise) for residents of certain areas: A systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on certain neighborhood demographics rather than on an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness. And Redlining,  of course, was a perfect complement to the Jim Crow system in the South. (One important point here, however, is that the Deep South states were just part of a nationwide caste system. Systemic racism is not confined to our region.)

Residents of Redlined communities were denied the opportunity to build wealth–and destined to live and raise families in blighted neighborhoods. Sadly, other services such as health care or even supermarkets have been denied to residents of Redlined neighborhoods. And, as is so often the case, the policy of Redlining disproportionately affects residents of minority neighborhoods.

Morgan was raised and currently lives in Birmingham’s neighborhoods that were once Redlined. Her REDLINE exhibit brilliantly displays and highlights the terrible consequences of that system.

 

 

This striking piece greeted patrons as they entered the REDLINE exhibit. BLUE=Best GREEN=Desirable YELLOW=Definitely Declining RED=Hazardous BLACK=Negro Concentration

(Click on photos to enlarge)

 

 

A 1933 Birmingham City map that clearly defines the REDLINE zones.

 

A blown-up section of the same map: A City engineer’s freehand key that explains the zones.

 

The passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 hypothetically outlawed Redlining, but the Act has been, for the most part, a failure. The discriminatory system was so entrenched nationwide that Federal court challenges have continued into the 21st Century. A government audit in 2010 found that HUD’s enforcement of the law was largely ineffective. Inside the Birmingham city limits, for example, there are still thousands of abandoned and dilapidated homes.

It’s clear that the effects of Redlining continue to negatively affect the racial income and wealth gap in the U.S. We know that home ownership is generally a path to building wealth, yet low-income neighborhoods remain pretty much the same after all these years.

In 2015 the Obama administration strengthened the original Fair Housing Act by requiring local governments to track patterns of poverty and segregation with a checklist of 92 questions in order to gain access to federal housing funds. The current administration, however, is currently attempting to roll back those efforts, potentially making it easier for banks to deny loans to black and Hispanic people or for cities to confine poor families to minority neighborhoods.

From The New York Times (7/1/20): “President Trump has taken aim at an Obama-era program intended to eliminate racial housing disparities in the suburbs, a move proponents of the policy see as an attempt to shore up his sagging support among white suburban voters by stoking racial division.

In a Twitter post recently, Mr. Trump announced that he was considering the elimination of a 2015 initiative known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires localities to identify and address patterns of racial segregation outlawed under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by creating detailed corrective plans.”

A second component of Morgan’s REDLINE exhibit is her Sky Maps series, which superimposes outlines of once-redlined neighborhoods (in the 1933 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map) over beautiful blue skies and cumulus clouds. There’s a sad tone to each one, as if these neighborhoods were deemed “unworthy.” However, the gorgeous Sky Map backgrounds convey a feeling of hope—as if all is not lost. That if we’ll just pay attention, we can find beauty and value in each of these places–and that their potential is infinite. Morgan: “The sky is the limit.”

 

 

Titusville Neighborhood: A Sky Map Example

 

 

 

 

Birmingham Interstate Map

(Click on photos to enlarge)

 

A third component of Morgan’s exhibit focuses on Interstate 20/59. The interstate, built in the early 1970’s, bisected black neighborhoods and separated them from the city center and predominantly white neighborhoods. The interstate’s placement displaced many residents in its path and caused property values to drop.

Hallie Ringle, the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art, was instrumental in bringing REDLINE to the museum. “I’ve wanted to work with Celestia for a while,” said Ringle. “She is an incredible artist and her work is really visionary. She is from Birmingham and is making work about Birmingham and the museum has been really focused on finding topics that are important to the city as a whole.”

“Every neighborhood in Birmingham was affected by redlining, but I think that maybe not everybody knows why 20/59 cuts through Birmingham the way it does,” Ringle said. “It was very intentionally planned to prevent access, to make property values plummet for black neighborhoods in Birmingham. So, it seemed like the right time to engage this conversation when this construction is happening right in the museum’s backyard.”

In the “reconstruction” of I-20/59, Morgan finds a metaphor. “It’s in the same spot. We’re repeating the same thing. We’re modernizing it a little bit, but we’re actually doing the same thing,” Morgan said. “We no longer use the map anymore; however, we’re still moving and operating in this path that has been laid out for us.”

The final piece of Morgan’s REDLINE exhibit includes several of her photographs of “run-down” homes in blighted Birmingham neighborhoods. We can see how Redlining has affected communities and families. From the Exhibit caption: “Morgan’s photographs of homes in Birmingham show the impact of redlining and its ongoing effects on people living in these areas. …the homes speak to the physical, emotional, and environmental image of redlining.”

This sample photograph conveys a clear message that, not that long ago, people lived in the home, were evicted, and the possessions left behind are piled in the front yard.

When viewed alongside her photographs of I-20/59, Morgan’s photographs of houses illustrate that Redlining, primarily through urban planning, continues. Although the interstate has been elevated quite a bit, it still bisects poor, Black neighborhoods.

Thanks to my friend, Andrea Whitehead, a docent at the Birmingham Museum of Art, I was able to attend a seminar conducted by Joyce Benington. She is a 23-year veteran of the Museum and is incredibly complimentary of Morgan’s work. In fact, the Birmingham Museum of Art purchased the REDLINE exhibit.

Ms. Benington invited Dr. Max Michael, former dean of the UAB School of Public Health, to participate in the presentation. Here is a summary of what Dr. Michael said:

  • There are 99 neighborhoods in Birmingham, which include 16,000+ abandoned properties (many a result of Redlining).
  • The health indices in those neighborhoods are terrible.
  • There is a biologic impact from growing up in blight. Our environment can modify our genome for at least 3 generations. (Italics added)
  • Citizens in these neighborhoods have higher levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone). The debilitating symptoms of high cortisol levels are too numerous to list here.
  • The interstate:
      •  Bisected poor neighborhoods.
      •  Ended all foot traffic to downtown (like big walls).
      •  Created unhealthy conditions for those neighborhoods, which include:
          • The lingering effects of leaded gas residue
          • Hypertension
          • Chronic renal disease

Dr. Michael’s short presentation was shocking and sobering. And the solutions seem overwhelmingly massive.

There is an Old-Testament, prophetic quality to Morgan’s work. Those prophets are best known for predicting the future, but their most important function was to speak for God and “call out” the Israelites at critical times. (“Although the Lord sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not listen.” II Chronicles 24:19, NIV Version) and, just like us, the Israelites really didn’t want to listen to them!

REDLINE is timely because Morgan uses it to provide insight into one facet of a racist system designed to keep certain non-mainstream groups “in their place.” She is a 21st-Century prophet. They are everywhere and, as painful as it can be, we need to seek them out and listen to them. Do we really believe that all people are created equal? 

Watch this PBS video: Celestia Morgan’s work, in her own words.

Bill Ivey
Bill Ivey

Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher who has a BS in Business from the University of Alabama and a Master’s degree in History from UAB. He recently closed his Birmingham Basketball Academy (due to the pandemic) and is now fully retired after 45 years of working with young people. He and his wife Cathy founded the Carolyn Pitts Class for Social Justice (Sunday School) at First United Methodist Church downtown, which has continued to meet virtually since March. 

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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