Jaime Fenton, of Rodgers Forge, arrived at the Baltimore County government building Tuesday with a box of papers so large that Maryland Del. Steve Lafferty offered to carry it. Inside were documents altering 85 covenants written more than 70 years ago to restrict the Towson neighborhood to whites only.
Fenton and Lafferty, who represents the Towson area in the state legislature, gave the stack of deed modification documents to a woman behind a counter. She furrowed her brow as she looked over one document before walking to the back to consult with a colleague about it.
“You may not have seen these before,” Lafferty told her, smiling.
Nobody had. With those documents, made possible by a bill passed in the General Assembly in 2018, Rodgers Forge became the first neighborhood group in Maryland to file to remove racist language from historic deeds, Lafferty said.
A committee of five neighborhood board members, which Fenton chaired, and six volunteers, worked for five months, poring through land records in the 1,800-home neighborhood to identify 85 records with racist language, Fenton said.
Those discriminatory deeds were written between 1933 and 1949, Fenton said, and were incorporated by the developer that built the neighborhood, James Keelty.
The National Register of Historic Places, in which Rodgers Forge is included, said Keelty boasted that Rodgers Forge was "an exclusive suburban development of group homes," because it would be a “restricted development, modeled on the neighborhoods created by the Roland Park Company, where buyers had to agree to a whole list of covenants to ensure that the residential community would never be impacted by commercial or industrial uses, the annoyance of stables or wandering farm animals.” Those covenants also included language keeping out people of color.
One deed said: “No person of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on said lot, except this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”
“When we were approached with the covenant, I was nauseous,” said Sarah Denny, a Rodgers Forge resident whose husband is black and children are biracial. “How could the community that I had grown to love and praise have such a horrible hidden secret, and how could we have lived on our street for almost a decade and not have known.”
“It was emotional to find all of these, to see that the paperwork had been written in such a way that discriminated against African Americans,” Fenton said.
The covenants are unenforceable thanks to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But neighborhood leaders said removing the racist language is still a symbolic act, a sign that Rodgers Forge is now welcoming.
“Although the covenants are not enforceable, we felt it was important to take the steps necessary to ensure that anyone who reads their covenants sees that Rodgers Forge, as a community, formally repudiates the discriminatory language,” said Kris Henry, president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association. “Without formally changing the covenants, someone reading them might not necessarily know if this is still a mindset that is embraced by the community – and, thankfully, it certainly is not.”
“I feel blessed to live in a community where people are willing to speak up and correct the wrongs of the past instead of turning away and acting like they are not there,” Denny said. “It is our job as humans to welcome everyone into our homes and hearts, regardless of race, creed, gender or social status.”
Lafferty said that though the covenants are unenforceable, people looking to buy property in Rodgers Forge might not know that, thinking if it is in the deed “it must be law.”
Lafferty worked in the Maryland House of Delegates to pass the bill sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, of Baltimore City, that allowed neighborhood associations like Rodgers Forge to amend discriminatory deeds.
The bill mandates that the county attorney review the changes, and gives neighborhood associations until Sept. 30 this year to use the simplified process. The reasons for the deadline are unclear to Lafferty as it originated in the Senate version of the bill.
Lafferty said other neighborhoods with similar land record language include Homeland in Baltimore City, which testified on behalf of the House and Senate versions of the bill last year, Homeland Association president Brian Hammock said.
The covenants are a remnant of segregation-era policies, but even today, their legacy lingers. The two census tracts that cover the neighborhood are both nearly 90 percent white, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. According to state statistics, fewer than 10 students at the 446-student Rodgers Forge Elementary School are black.
Henry said the covenant change is an important way to “formally say that Rodgers Forge strives to be a welcoming community to everyone.” The association, she said, will be launching other efforts to do so in the coming months.
“This doesn't make up for the original language or discriminatory practices in Baltimore County or across the nation, but it's at least a formal recognition that attitudes have changed,” Henry said.
Fenton said, “If it makes one more person feel comfortable moving into Rodgers Forge … I think it’s worth it.”