The Violent Geography of Winston-Salem

written by Thomas Lees 

If you were to find yourself behind First Baptist Church on North Highland Ave. in Winston-Salem’s East Side, you could look over Highway 52 and get a good view of the brightly shining Innovation Quarter – a name intentionally taken from the slogan adopted by the city back in 2014: “The City of Arts & Innovation.” (1)

When the Winston-Salem Journal reported on the slogan’s adoption by the city council, they included a man’s reaction to the new slogan. “Otherwise it’s, you know, beer and doughnuts, and cigarettes,” he said. “So arts and innovation sounds pretty good.”

Now while that’s just one person’s off-handed response, that sentiment represents a deep and widespread lack of awareness of place, of the history and stories that surround us. This is a result of what Dr. Willie Jennings has referred to as geographic whiteness. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Jennings says that geographic whiteness is “a desire to create communities that normalize white dominance by creating communities that structure ignorance and invisibility.” (2)

The idea that Winston-Salem is just “beer, doughnuts, and cigarettes” is spoken out of the ignorance and invisibility created by geographic whiteness.

And Winston-Salem, like practically every other American city, has been designed to promote that ignorance and invisibility. Dr. Jennings points out that “place and space for us are always deeply designed” and that “racial calculations and spatial calculations have always flowed together in the history of the colonial west and we live in the powerful undertow of that history.”

Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter and Highway 52 are perfect examples of such calculations, of Geographic whiteness that is born out of racial calculations and that continue to structure ignorance and invisibility.

For example, if you are a white resident of Winston-Salem, it is unlikely that you have any idea of the communities or businesses that were uprooted or cut down to make way for Highway 52. It is also unlikely that you regularly find yourself on the other side of 52 to eat at restaurants, pay bills, or shop. This was not and is not accidental. (3)

There’s obviously a long history that has impacted this, but much of the way Winston-Salem is structured is due to the Federal Housing Authority’s red-lining policies of the 1930’s and the Interstate boom of the 1950’s. Red-lining was the creation of maps by the federal government that dictated the “risk” of investing in particular communities. If a neighborhood was marked red or “redlined” on these maps, it was nearly impossible to get loans to start businesses or buy homes or to get the city government to invest in services, infrastructure, or development.

And if you think that these neighborhoods just happened to time and time again be neighborhoods of color, let me point you an original Federal Housing Authority evaluator report about a particular community:

This is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements … It is hazardous residential territory and is accorded a general medial red grade.

It was not because people of color couldn’t run their own businesses or because they couldn’t take care of their own communities that their neighborhoods and businesses suffered. It was because the resources needed for the flourishing of their community were explicitly denied on the basis of race.

By way of a short theological aside, I am reminded of the story of the Passover that was celebrated just a few weeks ago. This story in book of Exodus climaxes with the red blood of a lamb marking the doorposts of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so that God would know who his people were, so that “the destroyer” would pass over their homes, that their homes would be “spared” the final and worst plague.

But our city – like all American cities – enacts and embodies an unholy reversal of this story, where red lines marked homes and communities that the state deemed were not their people. And houses marked by these red lines were not passed over, not spared, but have had the plagues of injustice and divestment and displacement visited on them.

Map detailing redlined areas of Winston-Salem

And so, because these black and brown communities had been redlined and intentionally divested from, they economically withered, having been systematically cut off from any kind of economic lifeline. These very communities thereby became “prime real estate” in the eyes of city planners to be carved up and paved over during the 1950’s and 60’s highway expansion.

Highway 52, like pretty much every highway constructed during its time, was laid right through Winston-Salem’s black community. This was a trend so prevalent and so common that people of the time not infrequently referred to it as “white roads through black bedrooms.” (4)

This is the still-living legacy of Highway 52. But most of us, well, most of us white folk, don’t know that history – and as Dr. Jennings said, that’s not an accident. And as Winston-Salem continues to “innovate” by “renewing” urban areas, by “renovating” buildings and “refreshing” neighborhoods, it continues to expand a “violent geography” (in the words of Dr. Jennings) that we’re supposed to see as normal if not praiseworthy. But as Jennings emphatically says, “there’s nothing – NOTHING – normal about the geographic patterns of our country, cities, or towns. They are shaped by a racial past and dictate a future that divides us, that only furthers injustice and inequality.”

The hope in all this is that by confronting the ways our city is racially structured, the way race informs where our city invests and builds, who our city invests in, who it builds for, what stories it erases as it continues to “innovate,” that by confronting these truths that “white geography” seeks to make invisible, that we may better know how to move forward, who to come along side of and what to stand against, in order to (and I’m hopefully paraphrasing Dr. Jennings faithfully here) image ways of life that move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregation, but instead open up possibilities for truly sharing life with another. (5)





3. This is not to say that every space has to be built for or accommodating to white people.