Residents of Towson neighborhood confront racist legacy of covenants

Hiteshi Auburn liked the tree-lined streets and sturdy brick homes of Rodgers Forge. She loved how the children played outside and walked to school.

But most of all, it was the sense of community that attracted her family to the Towson neighborhood — where, she says, you can’t live long without getting to know your neighbors. So Auburn was disturbed to discover a piece of Rodgers Forge history that remains in its legal records.

“No person of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot,” states a local housing covenant, a document that is attached to the deeds of some homes in Rodgers Forge.

The form, from the late 1940s, provides an exception: “This covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”

Auburn, a fiscal administrator for Baltimore County, is an American of Indian descent. When she learned her neighborhood was built on such agreements — and that they’re still part of the legal paperwork of many of its homes — she was “shocked.”

“Why is it 2017 and this thing is still on the books?” she asked.

Racially restrictive covenants were once common in Baltimore and across the nation. They were used to keep minorities from moving into white neighborhoods.

The Jim Crow-era agreements, which barred homeowners from selling their properties to anyone but white buyers, proliferated during the first half of the 20th century. The Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that they were legally unenforceable. The practice was finally outlawed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.

But their impact persists: In many communities that relied on covenants, academics say, much of the racial segregation that they were intended to enshrine continues to today.

“That type of language shaped Baltimore tremendously,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who studies segregation. “That legacy is still with us.”

Rodgers Forge was developed beginning in the 1930s by the James Keelty Co., on land that was once owned by Johns Hopkins, the university and hospital benefactor. The community just north of Baltimore now has about 1,800 households, with most residents living in brick rowhomes.

It was listed in 2009 on the National Register of Historic Places, where it is cited as a “prototypical example” of the region’s suburban rowhome development between the late 1920s and 1950s.

Even though the covenants’ race restrictions are unenforceable, Auburn said, they’re still offensive, and send the wrong message about her neighborhood. As vice president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association — and the only person of color on its board — she plans to introduce a motion at the association’s meeting Wednesday to explore how the neighborhood can remove what she calls “hate speech” from its records.

Auburn and others say the conversation is important in light of the deadly white supremacist rally last month in Charlottesville, Va., and the continuing debate over Confederate monuments and images in public spaces.

Ben Moreland, 39, a Navy veteran who works in information technology, moved with his family to Rodgers Forge from New York two years ago. He supports talking about the covenants.

“I don’t see this as something that is divisive,” he said. “I think it’s important to have that dialogue.”

Moreland and his wife chose Rodgers Forge in part because it is close to the city, but still offers some suburban amenities. The area has good schools, and taxes are lower than in the city. He said he feels like “part of the fabric” of the community. They felt welcomed early on, when their real estate agent, who also lives in Rodgers Forge, invited them to a barbecue.

Moreland learned of the covenants recently from Auburn. As an African-American, he said, “it’s like finding that we’re still considered [three fifths] of a human in the Constitution.”

“It’s very Jim Crow-esque,” he said. “For me to find out that that was still written in a covenant in this day and age was really shocking.”

Howard Denney, a 41-year-old Marine who is black, finds it difficult to work up any outrage about the covenants.

“Maybe because I’ve been through so many incidents of racism and discrimination, I’ve come to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t care,’ ” he said. “I really don’t care about this covenant as much as other people think I should.”

“I just think he’s become numb to it,” said his wife, Sarah, 37, who is white. “To me, it’s very painful to hear my husband’s reaction.”

The Denneys, who have two sons, say they were drawn to the area a decade ago for its schools. They found an affordable home in Rodgers Forge, and Sarah’s sister also lived in Baltimore County.

They’ve come to love the community. At the same time, they said, Howard has been stopped by police in his neighborhood for no reason. One night he was simply walking home from the Towson University library.

“My husband has been mowing our lawn before and asked if he’s for hire,” said Sarah Denney, a county middle school teacher. “He’s just tired, and I empathize with him …

“For me, it’s important to take a stand for something my husband is numb to.”

Legacy of segregation

In 2004, state lawmakers sought to make it easier to remove racial and religious restrictions from neighborhood covenants by reducing the portion of homeowner association members who must agree to 85 percent.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the measure, said a community association in Baltimore wanted to alter its covenants but was finding it difficult. The law at the time required a unanimous vote of the community association to make changes.

The Baltimore region has a long history of legally sanctioned segregation. Today, Baltimore County, home to 831,000 people, is the most segregated county in Maryland, according to a county analysis.

Baltimore enacted the nation’s first racial zoning law, in 1910. The Supreme Court struck down such laws seven years later, but restrictive covenants became common.

“They were promoted by the federal government as a desirable instrument to guarantee safety and stability in neighborhoods that might change,” said Antero Pietila, author of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City.”

While such covenants sometimes targeted other groups, such as Jews, they always excluded blacks, said Pietila, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that the agreements themselves were not unconstitutional, but enforcing them violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

That court decision stemmed from a case in which a black family bought a home in St. Louis, only to be sued by another resident. Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, successfully argued the case as an NAACP attorney.

The ruling didn’t break down barriers to black homeownership in white neighborhoods.

“It’s undoubtedly the case that long after 1948, restrictive covenants lived on as a matter of practice in the real estate industry,” said Garrett Power, professor emeritus of law at the University of Maryland.

Combined with practices such as redlining — in which the federal government and banks denied loans to black residents — and racial zoning, covenants created “very exclusively white communities” that remain mostly white today, said Brown, the Morgan State professor.

White neighborhoods developed stronger tax bases, which helped them accumulate “structural advantages” — better schools, parks and infrastructure — while black communities, lacking such resources, developed “structural deficits.”

“These advantages and disadvantages then have an impact on people’s lives,” Brown said.

Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey says black residents inthe Baltimore metropolitan area live in “hypersegregation,” which he says leads to social isolation and high concentrations of poverty.

Rodgers Forge remains predominantly white. Its neighborhood elementary school is about 82 percent white, according to state data.

The Baltimore County population has changed from 96 percent white in the 1960s to 62 percent today. Brown says the neighborhoods that once overtly excluded black residents remain out of reach for many of them today.

“In America, most people obtain and increase their wealth through their house,” he said. “By not being able to live in those communities, black people in Baltimore have not been able to grow their wealth in the same way.”

The Baltimore County government entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year to resolve a fair housing complaint filed by the county NAACP, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., and three county residents.

The complainants alleged that the county fostered racial segregation by spending almost all of its federal and state housing funds on elderly housing occupied mostly by whites; putting Section 8 voucher holders mostly in poor east-side and segregated west-side neighborhoods; and demolishing 4,100 subsidized housing units since 1995 without replacing them.

As part of the agreement, the county must spend $30 million over the next decade to help finance 1,000 affordable homes and help 2,000 families using vouchers move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was also required to introduce legislation that would have prohibited landlords from refusing to rent to Section 8 voucher holders. It failed by a 6-1 vote of the County Council.

At public hearings, some county residents said the proposal would cause voucher holders to move to their neighborhoods, hurting property values. Other opponents said it would be burdensome to landlords.

‘Like a slap in the face’

Rodgers Forge has many sets of covenants, said Kris Henry, the president of the community association.

The documents spell out restrictions for how property can be used — prohibiting, for instance, horse stables and live chickens.

Henry, a former reporter and editor for The Sun, researched covenants five years ago for a piece for The Towson Flyer, the local news website she runs. She found that they vary based on when homes were built and where they are located.

“When you see that language in your deed, it’s like a slap in the face,” Henry said.

Karen Rodriguez, 45, serves as treasurer of the community association. She said some people have asked what difference it would make to remove these provisions.

Rodriguez, who works as an analyst for a government contractor, said it’s important to at least talk about the issue.

“I think it’s really relevant to what’s going on in the bigger world right now,” Rodriguez said.

Timeline of segregation cases

1910: Baltimore enacts the nation’s first racial zoning law

1917: The Supreme Court rules in Buchanan v. Warley that racial zoning is unconstitutional

1948: The Supreme Court rules in Shelley v. Kraemer that racial covenants are legally unenforceable

1968: The Federal Fair Housing Act outlaws putting racial restrictions into deeds

2016: Baltimore County enters into an agreement with the federal government after allegations that its policies have fostered segregation

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