Baltimore proudly touts its American firsts: first Roman Catholic cathedral (1821), first railroad (1827), first shot tower (1828), first dental college (1840), first Ouija board (1892), first rubber gloves used in surgery (1894), even the first permanent building topped with a revolving restaurant (Holiday Inn, 1964).
There's another first that one hears much less about. Baltimore was the first U.S. city to pass a residential segregation ordinance (1911) that limited the places blacks could live.
So when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued city and federal officials last week for allegedly perpetuating "systemic racial segregation" in Baltimore's family public housing, some scholars found the lawsuit historically appropriate.
After all, said Florence Roisman of Georgetown University law school, "Baltimore has the infamous distinction of being the city that first introduced the notion of using government power to say black people couldn't live in certain places."
The ACLU, whose researchers sifted through hundreds of public-housing documents dating to the 1930s, believes that notion is still alive. It contends that the government sowed the seeds for the poor, segregated neighborhoods that ring downtown Baltimore today.
While the impoverished black ghetto seems a painful fixture of urban America, it was not always so, historians say. African-Americans lived scattered throughout much of 19th-century Baltimore, often as domestic servants residing in alley housing near their white employers.
Beginning in the late 1800s, Baltimore's black population grew rapidly as former slaves left Southern farms for the city. Blacks and whites, including an influx of European immigrants, began what a University of Maryland legal historian, Garrett Power, describes as a "skirmish for race space."
The first black slums developed. By 1892, the Baltimore News described Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown as "foul streets, foul people in foul tenements with foul air; that's Pigtown!" Another slum developed around what is now the Inner Harbor.
By the turn of the century, a black ghetto had developed along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. At its southern end (just west of today's state office complex) was the Biddle Alley slum, known as the "lung block" for its deadly rate of tuberculosis. The city's small black middle class lived a mile north on Druid Hill Avenue.
The move to adopt what Mr. Power calls "apartheid, Baltimore style" began in the summer of 1910. George W. F. McMechen, a black Yale Law School graduate, moved to McCulloh Street, crossing the east-west color line that had been informally drawn at Druid Hill Avenue.
Angry whites petitioned city fathers to "take some measures to restrain the colored people from locating in a white community," Mr. Power wrote in a 1983 Maryland Law Review article. What emerged was the 1911 ordinance that divided all Baltimore into white blocks and black blocks.
The Progressives who then governed Baltimore wanted blacks quarantined from whites to safeguard the public health, prevent racial strife and protect property values, Mr. Powers says. Many white social reformers (and The Sun's editorial page) viewed the ordinance as a necessary, practical measure.
H. L. Mencken was among the few white critics.
"But who ever heard of a plan for decent housing for negroes in Baltimore?" he wrote. "The law practically insists that [blacks] keep on incubating typhoid and tuberculosis -- that [they] keep these infections alive . . . for the delight and benefit of the whole town."
The result of the ordinance, of course, was to cram the growing African-American population into a fixed quantity of deteriorating housing. For blacks, housing prices rose, housing quality declined, and slum conditions grew more noxious.
Similar ordinances were adopted in cities across the South. Branches of the fledgling NAACP sprang up to challenge them. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a copycat ordinance from Louisville, Ky., unconstitutional. The Baltimore law was soon off the books.
But "apartheid, Baltimore style" remained. Real estate agents deemed it unethical to help whites sell or rent to blacks in white neighborhoods. White landlords who tried to rent to blacks were hounded by city housing inspectors.
The ACLU's lawsuit picks up where Mr. Power's history of Baltimore's residential segregation leaves off. By the 1930s, the ACLU found, 89 percent of Baltimore's black population was concentrated in a parenthesis of poverty ringing downtown.
The ACLU argues that for 60 years -- even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act -- Baltimore's public housing policies have intentionally confined African-Americans to poor, segregated neighborhoods.
The first public housing projects built in Baltimore (1937-1943) were legally segregated, designated as "white housing" or "Negro housing." McCulloh Homes (1941) was built for blacks on the border of the West Baltimore ghetto as, in the words of a 1934 federal study, "a splendid barrier against the encroachment of coloreds" toward Bolton Hill.
During World War II, the Cherry Hill peninsula, adjacent to a city landfill and incinerator, was the only site outside the inner city deemed acceptable for black housing.
After the war, the city cleared black slums and replaced them with huge housing projects, including the high-rise complexes now slated for demolition. Lafayette Courts (1955), Lexington Terrace (1958) and Murphy Homes (1963) were blacks-only. Flag House (1955) was built for whites. As whites left the city, Flag became the nearly all-black project it is today.
After 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education decision (outlawing "separate but equal" schools), the city housing authority adopted a "freedom of choice" policy for tenants. The result was largely to ratify the racial status quo.
In 1967, the housing authority was ordered to adopt a "first-come, first-served" tenant assignment policy. However, almost all white tenants have been housed in two projects, O'Donnell Heights and Brooklyn Homes, that were built for whites and are still majority-white. When Brooklyn Homes was desegregated in 1968, the Ku Klux Klan marched and burned crosses.
Even in recent years, the ACLU complains, family public housing has mostly been located in poor, black neighborhoods. The lawsuit contends this policy has robbed black tenants of real housing choices and stacked the deck against their attempts to escape poverty.
By the numbers
Today, 75 percent of poor blacks in the Baltimore area live in poor neighborhoods, compared with only 12 percent of poor whites. The ACLU argues that the location of public housing in poor, segregated neighborhoods is partly to blame.
As the dilapidated high-rises are demolished (starting with Lafayette Courts this spring), the government will need to find new homes for 2,700 tenants. The ACLU wants a federal judge to bar city and federal housing officials from locating them again in poor, segregated areas.
If this is to happen, at least some tenants will have to land in the suburbs. But last year's fierce opposition to the federal Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program, which will help 285 poor Baltimore families move to middle-class neighborhoods, showed that the suburbs won't receive the city's poor without a fight.
The ACLU hopes that a federal judge will give black, public-housing tenants the choice of moving -- a few here and a few there -- to middle-class neighborhoods, where jobs are closer, schools are better and the streets are safer.
The advocates favor giving tenants counseling and certificates good for subsidized rentals anywhere in the regional housing market. In the long run, the ACLU believes that all new developments should set aside a percentage of units for low-income families, as is now the law in Montgomery County.
In effect, the ACLU lawsuit has moved the MTO debate from the political arena to the courts. That may be the only place to dismantle "apartheid Baltimore style."
James Bock is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.