June 25, 2010
One of the local consequences of the assassination of Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. in April 1968 was a desire on the part of a number of
local people to put into practice his dream of creating a rainbow society.
Shortly thereafter, the newspaper and radio announced the formation
of an organization created to address long-standing housing
inequities. Named MOVE, the first meeting was held in the auditorium
of what is today the DeWitt Mall. The name was not an acronym, but a
verb selected because it "embodied the spirit" of the membership.
There was a desire to "move" things forward, past where they were at
the time when many African Americans could not buy a house or get
bank loans for one.
Then, as now, it was more profitable to convert downtown houses into
rental properties for college students, especially as the two local
schools increased enrollments.
According to a memoir written by Jemma Macera, landlords required
large damage deposits and, in some cases, requested the first and
last month's rent at the time the rental contract was signed. This
represented a considerable amount of money and eliminated many
lower-income people from downtown rentals, especially disadvantaging
Department of Social Services clients. Some people reported that a
few landlords who offered rental units were known to claim that
recently advertised apartments were "not available" when African
Americans showed up to see them.
MOVE created lists of apartments and checked them out to determine
their suitability. A committee set up a phone line to assist families
requesting help, and volunteers accompanied apartment seekers when
they went to see an apartment. These simple steps were taken to
guarantee equal access and fairness in the local housing market.
In addition, MOVE volunteers aided in negotiating repairs, in the
moving process, and in finding necessary furniture and other household goods.
MOVE established a process to prove discrimination were it to occur
and helped black families file legal suits when appropriate. MOVE
also alerted members of Common Council of discriminatory actions and
urged the city to tighten its enforcement of its building code. MOVE
pushed for better-paid housing inspectors and urged safety measures
as required by law.
Larger families faced additional difficulties. At the time, an
average price for a house in good repair, with an ample number of
bedrooms, according to Macera, was $12,000. MOVE found it necessary
to work with local banks so that mortgages could be given to single
women who were head of household, and to unmarried couples. The
organization worked with church groups and businessmen to arrange for
down payments to make rental possible and often provided closing
costs. Macera recalls that one woman took a tin can about with her
inviting everyone she met to contribute to this cause.
A unique solution came about in the case of one elderly black woman
who lived with an adopted grandniece. Lacking money and an
opportunity to work because of ill health, the woman had little
chance to buy a home. A MOVE volunteer offered to put a house in her
own name and helped the woman find the necessary $8,000 needed as a
down payment. The two women made that house their home for the next 12 years.
Although the 1970s is not so long ago, few records remain of the
activities of Ithacans and others who attempted to create a better
world for people right here at home. There are few memoirs of this
era. Yet, lots of people marched for equality, for an end to the war
in Vietnam, for citizenship rights and other just causes. Letters
telling about activities would be most welcome: e-mails, too, to
MOVE's activities are only faintly documented, but it was an
effective force for change. In 1970, MOVE became Tompkins County
Better Housing Inc., or Tompco. By 1972, the Tompkins County Human
Rights Commission had been founded and worked to eliminate discrimination.
Jemma Macera credits Jack Goldman, who called the earliest meetings
that addressed issues surrounding housing discrimination. She
believes that in the end, MOVE accomplished its original goals. We
can honor what was done and those involved by recording what we can
of that era -- a time so disruptive to many, yet so earnest in its
attempts to make this a better place for all.