1893 letter details racially restrictive covenants in city neighborhoods

Hopkins historian has discovered an 1893 letter that details racially restrictive deed covenants in Baltimore

A Johns Hopkins historian has discovered an 1893 letter that details the racially restrictive deed covenants that would, over the next 50 years, help to maintain segregation in many Baltimore neighborhoods.

Paige Glotzer, a doctoral candidate now completing an extensive history of the Roland Park Co., found the document among the well-preserved business archives of the influential real estate firm, which closed in 1960.

It is curious. When the deed restrictions were conceived by a Roland Park executive in the 1890s, two prominent Baltimore attorneys, George Whitelock, president of the Maryland Bar Association, and Samuel Schmucker, later a Maryland Court of Appeals judge, said no. Don't try it. Illegal and wrong.

They advised Edward Bouton, general manager of Roland Park, against creating a deed restriction against "Negroes or persons of African descent" in the homes then going up in Baltimore's fashionable northern suburb. In their legal opinion, such an act of bias was unconstitutional. The attorneys said that such a deed restriction would affect "a whole race of people, who are in Maryland numbered in the thousands."

So what happened? The Roland Park Co. held off 20 years and began using the deeds when Guilford opened in 1913. By the time the company unveiled Homeland in 1924, the restrictions had been in place for a decade. The first batch of Homeland building lots sold out in one day. The covenants were legally unchallenged and the company quietly traded with an all-white, all-Northern European clientele.

The company also sought to woo purchasers away from Northwest Baltimore's Forest Park. Glotzer believes that because Jewish families were moving to Forest Park in the 1920s, the company thought there would be families who would leave — and what better way to attract them than with a restricted neighborhood? She said that Roland Park-Forest Park rivalry was long established.

In the 1890s, the company was not as restrictive as it would become. "The Roland Park Co. was not financially successful initially, and the company built houses on speculation and they also actively rented houses," Glotzer said. "Some Jews were allowed to live in Roland Park at first, but that later changed."

She also found a troubling instance of conflict. When a dog bit a Roland Park boy in 1908, Roland Park volunteer watchmen shot and killed four dogs in Cross Keys, a black neighborhood on nearby Falls Road. The story was in The Baltimore Sun and there are letters in the archive that describe the incident.

The covenants were also used in Homeland and Original Northwood, and then copied by other developers throughout the country. It was not until 1948 that the Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive deeds were unenforceable.

Glotzer began reading the extensive Roland Park Co. correspondence in 2010. By a quirk, all the records of the development firm were saved. For nearly 60 years, at the end of each December, company secretaries were told to gather the year's letters and bind them up. The company's internal culture was fastidious and involved much letter writing and private internal memos. It all survived to tell a tale.

She also found a troubling pattern of sales behavior. When the company advertised that its neighborhoods were restricted and their own "district," they meant it. While the firm employed men as sales officers, its officials hired a woman, called a "female investigator," to make clandestine but snoopy visits to prospective buyers. This task fell to a Tuscany Road resident.

The files list the job description of the female investigator: "Not too old, not too young, reasonably well educated and from a good family."

"The company got the idea from credit investigators," said Glotzer. "The idea was to use her womanliness to trick men to give information."

That information concerned ethnicity (Jews, Italians and Greeks excluded) and the occasional remark about domestic habits. The company maintained an "exclusion file" of those who tried to buy within its restricted neighborhoods but were found unworthy.

Glotzer, who has studied 20th-century national housing policies, said the influence of the Roland Park Co. was extensive. John Mowbray, its last president, was also a major lobbyist for the real estate industry in Washington and made an impact on urban renewal issues as well.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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