The Missing Link: The Connection between Housing and School Policy in the Sheff v. O’Neill Case

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The court’s decision in favor of Brown v. Board in 1954 that declared separate but equal education for black and white students unconstitutional gave African Americans hope in their fight for true equal opportunities. In a post Brown era, residents in the Hartford metropolitan area began their fight to eradicate the same educational inequalities that were fought against 35 years earlier. The original Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (1989) which was supported by both urban and suburban parents from various racial, ethnic, and economic background claimed that both Hartford minority students and their white suburban counterparts were being deprived of the best educational opportunities possible.[1] Together the plaintiffs advocated for integrated schools to achieve the equal education opportunity that is assured under Connecticut’s State Constitution.

To learn more about the Sheff case from Elizabeth Horton, a plaintiff in the case watch the video below.

When I first learned about Sheff v. O’Neill, I thought that the idea of integrating urban and suburban students in the same classroom was bizarre.  From my own educational experience at home in Chicago, I was aware of the stark differences between city and suburban schools, but I never thought that the best solution to combat the difference in education quality could be solved by integrating the two.

I recently came to the realization that in order to understand the Sheff movement, historical housing segregation must be examined. The Cities, Schools, and Suburbs seminar, brought the connection between housing and schooling to my attention. Housing discrimination has existed since the beginning of the 20th century. In the Hartford metropolitan area, housing discrimination practices such as redlining, racial steering and blockbusting have not only contributed to the racial composition of the city, but also limited opportunities for employment and quality education to the minority populations that reside in the city today. The creation of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, made housing discrimination illegal.[2] However, the creation of this law did not completely vanish housing discriminatory practices. As a result housing barriers that were once overt transformed into more subtle practices.

There are a lot of discussions surrounding the Sheff movement as the deadline to meet the second set of proposed goals approaches. With the increase in attention that the Sheff movement has received since the ruling, many people are either not aware or have lost sight of the underlying purpose of the original Sheff complaint. Housing and schooling segregation go hand in hand even though they often separated. In pursuit of eradicating the housing barriers that leave many Hartford residents disadvantaged, civil rights activists’ used school integration tactics to bring a new hope for equality and opportunities for all.

History of housing barriers in the Hartford Metropolitan Area

As you can see in the “Racial Change in the Hartford Region 1900-2010” interactive map below, Hartford was once predominately white. During the years 1910 to 1930, there was a huge shift in the demographics of Northern cities. This period known as the Great Migration was a period of mass movement for southern African Americans in search of life without the perils of Jim Crow. When African Americans began to settle in Hartford, they moved into the area that is now referred to as the North End.

Click on the map below to see an interactive change in the racial composition in the Hartford Area beginning in 1900-2010.

In the mid to late 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) instituted a housing policy known as redlining. Redlining is “the practice of denying or restricting financial services to certain neighborhood based on the racial makeup of that neighborhood” greatly affected communities where people of color lived.[3] The HLOC created maps of neighborhoods and drew colored lines ranging from green, which were deemed as the safest areas to invest while areas that had red lines drawn around them were deemed the riskiest areas to invest. The HLOC’s characterization of redlined areas included undesirable population or infiltration of them (people of color and poor people), physical characteristics such as vandalism, and low home ownership.[4]

This is an example of how a redlining map looked. Photo source: University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center- MAGIC. (2012).

Redlining was detrimental because it denied poor and people of color access to loans for home buying. More importantly, further entrenched the color line that that existed, making it easier to keep racial segregation alive.

Racial Steering and Blockbusting

After the Fair Housing Act was enacted, housing discrimination still existed in Hartford. Neighborhood improvement associations and real estate agents used more subtle tactics were very instrumental in preventing people of color from residing in certain neighborhood using two methods known as blockbusting and steering.

While looking at the two racial change maps below you will notice the increasing number of blacks in Bloomfield in the from 1960 and 1970. Furthermore, the change in the black population continued to increase in Bloomfield as seen on the map from the 1980s well into now.

Click on the map below to see an interactive change in the racial composition in Bloomfield. Start the map at the year 1950, and continue through 2010 to see how it has changed over the last 60 years.

Racial Change Map in Hartford Photo Source: University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012).

During this time, real estate agents use of blockbusting changed the racial makeup of Bloomfield. Blockbusting is a practice used by real estate agents to generate “white panic” or fear from white homeowners in the area by instilling fear that their property values will diminish when blacks moved into the area.[5] The white residents who were scared sold at low prices their homes to the real estate agents to get out the area before the blacks infiltrated the area. Real estate agents would then resale the homes to blacks at significantly higher prices to maximize their profit.

Real estate agents also used steering to maintain the racial make up of different areas in and around Hartford. Steering is the practice of guiding homeowners to some neighborhoods and not others based on race.[6] Steering may appear harmless because it has the potential of coming of as a friendly suggestion. Blacks who had the means to afford homes in wealthier and more predominately white towns were often steered by agents. Fair housing tests, which included two testers (often black and white) who sought after the same housing properties in the more affluent towns in the Hartford area, were used to discover if real estate agents were actually unlawfully steering clients. As reported in The Hartford Courant in 1989, the tests uncovered the dirty truth; real estate agents were more likely to question the black clients about their finances and were more hesitant to show them properties in comparison to whites.[7] These findings allowed people to see that discrimination continued to exist despite the change in the law and time.

Although blockbusting and steering were harder to prove as being discriminatory practices, they were still very detrimental to the lives of blacks. Even though blacks were not totally denied of all housing, the limits placed on them led to racial isolation, concentrated poverty, and low opportunities. There should be no surprise that these historical housing barriers continue to effect the lives of blacks in the city of Hartford as seen in Sheff movement’s continued fight today.

The Sheff Flaw

Housing and neighborhood quality has direct effects on the quality of life. Although I commend the Sheff movement’s fight for quality education, I think the amount of significant changes that can effectively be made is very limiting. I agree that changing the neighborhood district lines allows students to not be limited to the shoddy neighborhood schools that exist and provides more possibilities for opportunities. However, the real problem lies in housing. Going to school in a different neighborhood only provides temporary escape from the everyday struggles that the children face outside of school walls. If housing and neighborhood conditions don’t improve, there will still be a great number of students that continue to fall under the cracks.

As the Sheff II deadline approaches and the plaintiffs prepare for the third remedy, I challenge the Sheff proponents to reevaluate the underlying issues that lead to the need for desegregation. Even though equal housing is not declared a constitutional right, more should be done to not only put pressure on schools for meeting testing standards and racial composition percentages. Instead, the proponents should think of ways to better the Hartford neighborhoods as well. I understand that changing neighborhoods will not happen over night, but investing changes in neighborhoods and schools concurrently will serve more good than rescuing schools alone.

[1] Sheff v. O’Neill complaint (Connecticut Superior Court 1989). Available from the Trinity College Digital Repository, Hartford, Connecticut (


2 Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, ch. 2-4.

3Jack Dougherty and colleagues, “Preview Chapter,” On The Line: How schooling, housing, and civil rights shaped Hartford and its suburbs. Web-book preview edition. Hartford, CT: Trinity College, Fall 2011,

4 Jason Reece, et al., People, Place, and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut: A Report Commissioned By the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, 2009),

 5 James Ross. “Realty Agents Blamed for Shift In Bloomfield’s Racial Pattern.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1986). Hartford, Conn., United States, February 24, 1974.

6 Jason Reece, et al., People, Place, and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut: A Report Commissioned By the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, The Ohio State University, 2009),

 7 Bixby, Lyn, Vada Crosby, Brant Houston, Jeffrey Williams, and Larry Williams. “Some Real Estate Agents Discriminate Against Black Home Buyers (Two Connecticuts Series).” The Hartford Courant, May 21, 1989. Temporary URL:

University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012).Racial Change in the Hartford Region, 1900-2010. Retrieved from

University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center – MAGIC. (2012). Federal HOLC “Redlining” Map, Hartford area, 1937. Retrieved from


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Victoria Smith Ellison

Victoria is a student at Trinity College in Hartford, CT majoring in Educational Studies.