How 1944’s GI Bill forever changed New Orleans
On June 22, 1944, with millions of veterans returning home from World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the original GI Bill, which put money in veterans’ pockets for schooling and unemployment compensation, as well as providing help in getting them home loans. In the loan program’s first eight years, nearly 2.5 million people took advantage it, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. In New Orleans, this led to a housing boom in New Orleans East, Jefferson Parish and other parishes around the city, transforming one-time sleepy communities into thriving suburbs.
There is no indication that the growth of the parishes around New Orleans is going to abate anytime soon. For instance, even though Jefferson Parish is regarded as a suburb of New Orleans, its post-Katrina population is larger — 434,123 compared with 369,888, according to 2012 census estimates. St. Tammany Parish, with 239,193 residents, is close behind.
- The home loan provision of the GI Bill was designed to give veterans a federally guaranteed loan — made by private lenders — with no down payment. More than 25 million people are eligible for such loans, according to the VA.
- Even though segregation was pervasive in New Orleans when the GI Bill took effect, black veterans were able to get loans to buy homes in Pontchartrain Park, a middle-class subdivision that was established for African-Americans in 1955.
- Eugene Watson Jr., a Korean War veteran, used the home loan program to buy a house in Pontchartrain Park for himself; his wife, Shirley; and their children. “Our house must have been the second smallest in the neighborhood, but to me it was a mansion. And it was all ours,” Shirley Watson told her granddaughter, Chakara Watson, in “Pontchartrain Park 1955: One Woman’s Story.”
- There’s some irony at work here, Edward Humes wrote in “Over Here: How the GI Bill Transformed the American Dream.” Although the GI Bill made home ownership and the development of suburbia possible, Humes said the people who settled there became socially conservative and, therefore, less likely to support big government programs like the one that had helped them buy their homes.
Postwar suburbanization, abetted by the GI Bill, let mid-century Americans stage their version of the opening of the American frontier, said Robert F. Dupont, chairman of the department of history and philosophy at the University of New Orleans. “You’re looking for land,” said Dupont, whose father bought a house with a loan through the GI Bill. “Maybe you can’t go west with your family, but you can find some green space. No matter how crowded it got in the suburbs, it was, in a way, the rural ideal.” Seven decades on, the lure of this ideal persists, as post-Katrina population figures show.