The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 19, 2014

Black suburb-makers: How black women's activism changed suburban America

May 19, 2014

“Ethel Lawrence did not argue the case before the New Jersey Supreme Court…she did not write the legislation which created the NJ Fair Housing Act…nor through this legislation did she create the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing. But, because she cared, fought, and never gave up, they all exist. She never gave up the fight for affordable housing in Mount Laurel and the entire state of New Jersey has benefitted from it.” 

While residential segregation, urban decline, suburbanization, and inequality are among some of the important themes covered in Climbing Mount Laurel, it is Doug Massey and his colleagues’ attention to the role of black working-class activist Ethel Lawrence that animates the critical role black women have played in the construction and development of America’s suburbs in the 20th century.

A sixth-generation African American resident of Mount Laurel, certified day care teacher, mother of nine, and member of Burlington County Community Action program, Lawrence’s determination to compel local, state, and federal officials to address the housing woes of black poor and working class New Jerseyians led to the pivotal “Mount Laurel doctrine.” In Climbing Mount Laurel, Massey writes that the declaration by the New Jersey Supreme Court states “unequivocally that municipalities in the state of New Jersey had an ‘affirmative obligation’ to meet their ‘fair share’ of the regional need for low- and moderate-income housing.”

For decades, Lawrence, like her urban counterparts Dorothy Gautreaux in Chicago and Alice Lipscomb in Philadelphia, protested racial exclusion in housing. Indeed, Lawrence proposed designs, spearheaded lawsuits, and ultimately pioneered the development of a stable and prospering black subdivision in Mount Laurel.

To be sure, the battle that ensued was fraught with delays, setbacks, and dismissive policies. But as Climbing Mount Laurel shows, Lawrence and her colleagues confronted these dilemmas and hold-ups with grace, fire, and determination, yielding a fruitful outcome for many black families.

Although the delays meant that Lawrence was never herself able to occupy the housing development bearing her name, her tireless work is a political and historical reminder of the important and oft-overlooked activism black women have done and continue to do to bring equity to lives of all Americans. As Massey’s work deftly shows, carving out a black suburban space of stability and safety is critically linked to the prosperity of urban and suburban America.

Ethel Lawrence photo from Fair Share Housing

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