Fair-housing champion remains in the battle after 25 years


In 1967 George Laurent took the job as executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a group formed to promote fair, non-discriminatory housing.

Such jobs, which require a high level of dedication for relatively low pay, are often burnout positions, something someone does while the fire of social activism burns bright before answering a more lucrative call for conventional employment.

But 25 years later, Mr. Laurent, now 66, is still executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. (BNI), continuing to fight the fair housing battle from a rowhouse in the 2200 block of St. Paul St.

A graduate of Union Theological Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister, the New Jersey native originally took the job to get back to the East Coast after a number of years in civil rights and church work in the Midwest.

He had worked in both Ann Arbor, Mich., and in Kansas City, where an ecumenical group he headed conducted one of the nation's largest fair-housing campaigns.

QUESTION: What was the situation when you came to Baltimore?

ANSWER: The thing that was fascinating to me was that BNI was a member of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, and they were members of us.

In Kansas City, we had tried to meet with the president of the board of Realtors, and they wanted it to be in secret in the middle of the night. We were an anathema to them.

So I credit the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors with having some foresight. They have credited BNI with making them more interested in fair housing.

The other thing that was surprising to me was that in Kansas City, there was a "gilded ghetto" for the black upper class, and everything else for blacks was slums. In Baltimore, there were large stretches of beautiful black neighborhoods.

Q.: What sort of work was going on then?

A.: That was a time of a lot of "blockbusting." BNI, which was a small group of business people, was trying to stop that panic-selling and sensitize the real estate industry.

No grass roots work had been done, though, so one of the things we did was to start fair-housing councils in the suburban areas. The idea was to get people together who believed in fair housing to kind of make a witness saying that there should be fair housing in their communities.

Cynically, when I look back, everyone seemed afraid of us at first, and then they realized that without a fair-housing law, we were kind of innocuous, so they said they supported what we were doing.

I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that there would be a fair-housing law. I still think we wouldn't have had it if [the Rev. Martin Luther] King hadn't been assassinated.

It was passed in 1968, but Congress didn't appropriate any money to enforce it. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it needed $12 million. Congress finally gave them $2 million.

Americans still don't think there's anything really wrong with discrimination, [or] that anyone should be punished for it. They think it's like a traffic offense.

When we file a lawsuit, people are shocked sometimes. More than 20 years after a law is passed, they can't believe we want to enforce it. They want to know why we didn't just talk to them.

Well, if someone robs a bank and then says he will give all the money back, should that stop the prosecution? We think this is just as serious.

l Q.: Has this been a fulfilling job, or a frustrating one?

A.: I remember once getting in an argument with a black lawyer here who was saying nothing has been accomplished.

We have gone through the greatest social revolution in United States history, and we have made profound progress.

When I was growing up, it was like we were in a cocoon. I went to the Savoy Theater, and blacks sat up in the balcony, whites downstairs. I never saw any blacks on the beach. I just didn't think about it; I didn't know it was discrimination.

It wasn't until I got in the Army and realized that blacks weren't being treated right even though we were all supposed to be fighting Hitler that I saw something was wrong.

Back then, it was [as if] black people were invisible. And white leaders said that the blacks were happy, that we were just stirring things up.

Today, so much has changed. Blacks are getting jobs and houses they would never get then. You see blacks on television, in advertising. The imagery is so important.

I am a bit disillusioned in that we are in the middle of a backlash. The Reagan-Bush administrations have made it respectable to be self-centered, to discriminate. But we've gone so far, there's no going back.

Q.: What sort of work is BNI doing now?

A.: It's something of a mopping-up process in that I do think a black family can move into any neighborhood they want now.

Not that they would necessarily be welcome, but [in] few places would they be met with violence or terrorism -- though that has happened here.

There is still discrimination, but it is harder to determine now.

We're doing more than racial cases now -- discrimination against families with children, against handicapped people. A lot of our work is in tenant-landlord affairs.

Q.: Hasn't residential segregation proved especially stubborn? Indeed, isn't there evidence of moves toward re-segregation in part because blacks don't want to feel isolated in white neighborhoods?

A.: The original vision we had was that housing would be salt and pepper, totally integrated.

Now I would like to see the black community perceived as any other ethnic community, [but] not as some sort of horrible ghetto where blacks live because they can't live anywhere else.

Plenty of Italians live in Little Italy because they want to, not because they have to -- they can live anywhere they want. The same with Polish and Greek communities. So I would like us to get to the same place with black communities.

Q.: Do the recent events in Los Angeles make you feel that true progress is elusive?

A.: I was appalled by what happened, the verdict and the rioting.

You have to remember that you have a great number of people living in a compressed community, suffering from unemployment, living on welfare. Their only contact with their government is the police, and they don't know if they are there to protect them or not.

I just hope that this will make people realize the depths of despair and distrust, wake them up so they will do something about it.

Q.: Has this been a good job to have for the last quarter-century?

A.: I'm very proud of what we've done, very satisfied.

I've always said that if I see someone threatened, then I feel threatened. That might sound corny, but if I see someone discriminated against, I realize that it could happen to me, and I wouldn't like that.

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