What do 'Summer of Soul' and the National Association of Realtors have in common?
Introducing Bryan Greene
Followers of housing policy may recognize the name of Bryan Greene, until 2019 a career official of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The civil service head of its Fair Housing office, he had responsibility for promotion and enforcement of non-discrimination. But he was sidelined by President Trump’s political appointees who had no interest in, indeed were hostile to, the goals of the Fair Housing Act.1
Without serious HUD responsibilities, Mr. Greene began to pay more attention to a previously hidden self—as a jazz and rock music aficionado, complemented by a talent for historical research and journalism.
He debuted with a January 2017 memoir in Poverty & Race, the quarterly journal of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.2 There, he wrote of growing up in St. Albans, Queens, a once all-white neighborhood where many black professionals including, at various times, jazz musicians such as Fats Waller, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, and James Brown had settled. It wasn’t only musicians. W.E.B. DuBois lived there for a while, as did Colin Powell, Lani Guinier, James McBride, and my own Brooklyn Dodgers heroes Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. His account of St. Albans includes not only its exalted history but its decline, as the real estate industry segregated and exploited the neighborhood.
In our book, Just Action, Leah Rothstein and I describe how middle class and culturally vibrant African American districts like St. Albans can’t remain mostly black and stable for long. Either whites will move in as its resources improve or, as in the case of St. Albans, the presence of a black population leads realtors and bankers to steer new white buyers away and to target black homeowners for loans with exploitative terms. As white flight proceeds, the neighborhoods become even more heavily African American; some whites who leave subdivide their homes and turn them into rentals for lower income black households while landlords from outside the area seize similar profit opportunities. Many black homeowners who remain in the community, now overburdened by high mortgage payments, also divide their homes to generate rental income. With fewer middle-class students whose parents are well-educated, local schools are soon overwhelmed by the social and economic challenges of their lower-income students. As St. Albans public schools declined in this way, Bryan’s parents chose to have him bused in the 1970s and ‘80s to more integrated schools elsewhere in almost all-white Queens areas. His high school was, incidentally, the same I attended nearly three decades before, when I had nary a black classmate.
Bryan Greene’s next contribution appeared in the subsequent Poverty & Race issue.3 He recounted a jazz, soul, rock, and folk music festival held in Harlem in the summer of 1969 with performances by The Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, and B.B. King.
Harlem and African Americans nationwide were then at a crossroads. Frustrated by lack of civil rights progress to redeem promises made in the previous decade, many leaders promoted “black power” as an alternative to false and dashed hopes of equality. But these new, more militant separatist aspirations also withered with little to show for the long term.
At the festival, Nina Simone stirred the crowd with her song “Revolution” – “Yeah, your Constitution…its gonna have to bend; I'm here to tell you about destruction of all the evil that will have to end.” Soon Ms. Simone left the United States, saying a quarter century later, “I left because I didn’t feel that Black people were going to get their due, and I still don’t.”
Bryan Greene’s Poverty & Race review reproached mainstream film-makers for failing to make the Harlem Cultural Festival known to an audience that was already all too familiar with the simultaneous and mostly white Woodstock rock music gathering but that knew nothing of its Harlem counterpart. He called his article “my treatment for the film that will come.”
If there were a movie of the Harlem festival comparable to one that glorified the whites’ Woodstock, he concluded: “We could freeze the frame in 1969. We could watch, over and over, Sly and the Family Stone remind us, ‘We’ve got to live together’ and celebrate, ‘Different strokes for different folks. And so on, and so on, and scooby dooby doo.’”
The producer Joseph Patel accepted the challenge and asked Bryan Greene to assist. As consulting producer, he dug up long-hidden footage for what became the documentary, Summer of Soul.4 At the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for documentary, and the following year an Academy Award for the best documentary feature.
Mr. Greene then began to deploy his research skills in a series of stunning articles in Smithsonian Magazine. I won’t describe them all here, but my favorite—although it is hard to choose from several terrific ones—tells the story of Patrick Healy, born enslaved in 1834. His biological father was his white slavemaster and Mr. Healy was so light-skinned that he could pass as white. He became a Jesuit priest and eventually president of Georgetown University from 1873 to 1882. His fellow Jesuits knew his background but kept it secret from Georgetown’s students to deceive them into believing their president was white. The university today recognizes and celebrates his racial identity.
You can read the Healy story and other Bryan Greene articles on his website.5 Other fascinating articles on our racial history are in the works. We’ll let you know as they are published.
In 2019, Bryan Greene was recruited to the staff of the National Association of Realtors (NAR). As fair housing director and vice president for policy, he has influenced several reforms, including an apology by the organization’s president for NAR’s past role in creating, perpetuating, and enforcing the nation’s racial segregation and its member-realtors’ denial of housing opportunities to African Americans. Authorized by the group’s promise to do better in the future, Mr. Greene has improved realtors’ non-discrimination training and pressed state agencies to include a demonstrated commitment to fair housing in their real estate licensing standards. His efforts have led some realtor associations to test their own members so that discriminatory behavior can be curbed. Although African Americans’ homeownership rate is much lower than that of whites, flawed probate laws in many states have led to a disproportionate loss of property, even for black families who were owners;6 at NAR, Bryan Greene has persuaded several state realtor associations to use their enormous lobbying capacity to campaign for reform of their states’ “heir’s property” laws.
But as we describe in Just Action, even if he can prod the NAR to become a model of non-discriminatory practice in the future, and there is still a long way to go in this regard, the affordable middle-class housing from which realtors excluded black families in the twentieth century is now unaffordable to moderate-income households, even if they are not now prohibited from buying because of their race. African Americans are entitled to redress that compensates for the causes of present inequality.
There remains much to be done, and Bryan Greene won’t lack for challenges.
Glenn Thrush. 2021. “Biden’s First Task at Housing Agency: Rebuilding Trump-Depleted Ranks.” New York Times, June 18.
Brian Greene. 2017. “This Green and Pleasant Land.” Poverty & Race Journal. January-March 2017 P&R Issue, March 24.
Brian Greene. 2017. “Parks and Recreation.” Poverty & Race Journal. April-June 2017 P&R Issue, June 1.