West Hartford, Connecticut
- Community: West Hartford, 1679
- County: Hartford
- State: CT
- Type: Suburb
- Metro: Hartford
West Hartford is the ancestral homelands of the Sicaog, a Native American people who were part of the Algonquian confederation. The first European settlers in West Hartford were of English descent who settled in 1679 and brought enslaved people with them. In 1783, Connecticut’s Gradual Emancipation Act lessened the number of enslaved people in the state, but slavery was not officially outlawed until 1848. Census records indicate that West Hartford had a small African American population (less than 2% of the population) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An influx of immigrants to Hartford at the turn of the 20th century led to a population boom in West Hartford, as residents moved from the city to the growing suburb. Through the early to mid-20th century, the population was 98% White. Today, the White population continues to be the most prevalent accounting for 73% of the population.
- Owner-Occupied Housing Units: 71%
- Median Value of Owner-Occupied Home: $334,300
- Median Gross Rent: $1,325
- Median Income: $104,281
- Poverty Level: 6.4%
- High School (ages 25+): 94.4%
- Bachelors (ages 25+): 64.7%
Discrimination by Design
Discriminatory real estate practices played a defining role in the growth of West Hartford, CT over the past century. To Black and Jewish residents deemed “inharmonious” or “undesirable,” West Hartford’s evolution was shaped by overt and subtle discrimination. West Hartford’s history of racial segregation was the result of racism and religious prejudice, reinforced by restrictive covenantsRestrictive covenants: Agreements in contracts that prohibit buyers from taking certain actions after they purchase a property. Although covenants can pertain to any number of restrictions on property ownership or use, during the early-twentieth century it was commonplace to have restricted covenants preventing a buyer of a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group., realtor steeringSteering (real estate steering): Steering is the practice by real estate agents or brokers of limiting a purchaser’s housing options based on one of the protected characteristics under the Fair Housing Act, including race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin. It manifests itself through one-on-one conversations, limiting access to available properties, or providing false information about a property listing., and zoningZoning: A tool of city planning where cities are divided into specific zones with requirements for new development that set the zones apart from one another. Common zones are residential, business, and manufacturing/industry that can also include differentiation with zones for single-family homes or multi-family units among others. laws that targeted Black and Jewish residents.
In the 1890s, the City of Hartford was bursting out of its limits. Wealthy residents, many in the insurance industry, moved to West Hartford’s east end, where an electric trolley line to downtown Hartford offered the convenience of easy travel to the city for work. Those who were welcome and could afford it lived in quiet pastoral neighborhoods outside the city. Over time, the ease of transit contributed to the rapid conversion of farmland into residential developments.
Black people had been in West Hartford since its founding, when they typically arrived by force in enslavement or servitude. Throughout the nineteenth century, a small number of Black families lived in West Hartford, and some eventually owned property. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Black residents most frequently lived in White households where they worked as domestic laborers. In 1930, 129 Black people lived in West Hartford. Of these, only thirty lived in a household headed by a Black person.
George Augustus Pine, born in West Hartford in 1876, was a homeowner living at the corner of North Main Street and Fern Street. After the death of his mother in the 1920s, George lost his family home and two lots of land, selling one and losing the other to unpaid property taxes. The Pine family’s loss coincided with zoning regulations enacted in 1924, the first of their kind in Connecticut. At that time, the town was divided into sections with specific restrictions on land use and lot size.
Along with these changes came higher property tax rates. The new zoning plans made homeownership for low-income families, like the Pines, virtually impossible. Combined with other exclusionary factors like redliningRedlining: Redlining is the practice of denying mortgage loans to people living in neighborhoods determined to be financially risky. The name comes from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), which during the New Deal commissioned maps that color coded neighborhoods from Green (Best), Blue (Still Desirable), Yellow (Declining), and Red (Hazardous). It was virtually impossible to get a loan in a red area and almost every Black neighborhood was denoted as red. and restrictive covenants, West Hartford drove out longtime Black residents and prevented new Black families from moving in.
In the 1940s, five West Hartford developments added racially restrictive covenants on the titles to their properties. All featured the same clause: “No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant.”
Until 1948, when the US Supreme Court case Shelley v. KramerShelley v. Kramer, 1948: A US Supreme Court decision that ruled that racially restrictive covenants were legally unenforceable. It did not remove them from property deeds and many remain on deeds to this day. ruled that racially restrictive covenants were legally unenforceable, White residents of West Hartford and similar communities throughout the United States had the right to sue for the removal of Black renters or homebuyers.
The story of Oakwood Acres, a 1943 public housing development for war-worker families, spotlighted racism in West Hartford. When the town received federal subsidies for the construction of Oakwood Acres, White residents and officials were concerned about who would live there. Homeowners living near Oakwood Acres were quoted in the Metropolitan News as “alarmed” and “horrified” at the idea of “Negroes” living in their neighborhood. The paper warned of “an infiltration,” and reported that the prevailing sentiment among community homeowners was “We don't want them here.” West Hartford officials agreed to the construction after assurances that the housing would be temporary, only for the duration of the war. During a time of intense housing need, only 20 of 300 units were occupied in Oakwood Acres. Federal officials stepped in to prevent the exclusion of Black residents, but local officials found a loophole: to accept only those Black workers already employed in essential West Hartford industries. Only six Black families were eligible. Knowing that they were not welcome, none of the approved Black essential workers attempted to live there, effectively making Oakwood Acres a “Whites-only” development.
White West Hartford residents wanted Oakwood Acres demolished at the end of the war. But returning veterans faced a lack of affordable housing, so these units remained in use and there were long waiting lists to get in. By 1951, local homeowners again pressured the town to tear down the development. Oakwood Acres was razed in 1956.
In West Hartford, Black residents encountered acts of hate, prejudice, and racism. Olivia Shelton moved to West Hartford with her husband and two sons in 1959. Shortly after settling in, she found a note in her mailbox saying: “Get out of here, you black bastards, while you still can.” Later, at the age of 87, Shelton recalled that she was just happy she got to the note before her sons did. In a 1973 article in West Hartford News, Shelton recalled the “pettiness” of town residents. Real estate agents were known to steer Black homebuyers away from certain neighborhoods by falsely claiming that there was a termite problem or water in the basement. Shelton was so upset by the injustices that she sometimes attended real estate open houses with her family “just for meanness and devilment … to scare the people.”
Increasingly, realtors steered potential Black residents north toward the adjoining town of Bloomfield. Realtors also used steering to limit the housing choices of Jewish homebuyers. When Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford’s first synagogue, was built in 1933, an enclave of Jews resided in the community. After World War II, more Jewish families began moving to West Hartford as part of White flight from Hartford. Realtors directed potential Jewish homebuyers to certain neighborhoods while Christians were directed to others. In a 1993 newspaper article, Linda Hirsh, a former staff writer for the Hartford Courant, described her family’s experience looking for a house in the 1970s:
“A realtor helping my family find a home in West Hartford spread a map of the town on the floor. He proceeded to outline the Duffy School neighborhood with a Day-Glo green felt pen and adorned it with a crucifix. His hand crossed Farmington Avenue and found a section… Within its borders, he drew a Star of David. 'You would be more comfortable here,' he said.”
Some members of the Jewish community resisted these restrictive housing practices. Rabbi Stanley Kessler of Beth El Temple called real estate steering “un-American,” confronting real estate agents known to use the practice and even speaking with the ministers of their churches. He stated, “Some Jews wanted to move to [restricted areas] and came to me with these stories that were troubling to me. Two realtors in Greater Hartford, in particular, I had confrontations with.”
West Hartford’s ongoing dialogue about affordable housing and equity has shown that there is work yet to be done. Certain sections remain exclusive: less than 8% of the town’s total rental units are affordable. Zoning regulations continue to favor single-family homes that are unattainable for many. Although West Hartford champions diversity in many ways, displays of racism—both individual and institutional—betray systemic problems that still need to be solved.