When Daniel W. Spaulding bought a bow-front rowhouse in Northwest Baltimore, he went where no black resident had gone before -- to live on the west side of Fulton Avenue.
From 1802 Baker St., where he moved with his wife and daughter, he could see Fulton just two blocks away, a firmly established boundary dividing white and black neighborhoods. In the eyes of many in 1945, the insurance salesman from Philadelphia was on the wrong side.
He had broken the color barrier, the unwritten law that said no Realtor showed houses to black buyers and no bank gave them mortgages. Only speculators or investors sold to blacks, and only within the crowded blocks bounded by North, Fulton, Harlem and Madison avenues.
"News began to spread that the boundary had been broken, that we could buy property anywhere," said Mr. Spaulding, who had become a real estate broker and went on to sell hundreds of
houses to blacks outside the "confined" areas.
But he never became a Realtor, the trademark name of the National Association of Realtors. After the Baltimore chapter twice denied him membership in the late 1940s, he vowed he would never join. Instead, he and three other black brokers formed their own local group and called themselves "Realtists."
Today, the Real Estate Brokers of Baltimore has about 300 members, predominantly black and other minority agents, bankers, appraisers, title attorneys and insurance agents.
Realtists say they get more than the professional training, seminars and conferences they'd expect from a trade group. They share common backgrounds and therefore a special bond. They say that enables them to promote democracy in housing, the group's primary mission, by focusing on the problems of minorities.
Members say less blatant forms of discrimination remain today. Current President Janice Blackwell West says her group is actively working to try to sell more homes to low-income, inner-city residents.
Earlier this month, the Realtists reached an agreement with the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors that will for the first time make the board's computerized home sales information accessible for a fee to any licensed real estate agent or broker.
Prior to the agreement, access to the multiple listing service (MLS) was limited to dues-paying members of the board of Realtors. In a lawsuit, the minority group had charged the board with discrimination and with violating antitrust laws. It said its members were forced to pay dues to join two trade groups. (The board, in the agreement, did not admit to any wrongdoing.)
Realtists say such challenges have been a matter of business survival over the years.
In 1943, Mr. Spaulding left the insurance business in Philadelphia after his brother-in-law urged him to get into real estate in Baltimore.
"I found that colored people, as we were called, were being confined to certain geographical areas and could not move out because no lending institution would grant a mortgage, unless at least one black family lived outside the so-called area," said Mr. -- Spaulding, 86, who despite poor eyesight and reliance on a cane, works most mornings managing properties from a building sandwiched between two others on North Avenue.
One day last week, he sat in his narrow office at Spaulding Realty Co. Inc., surrounded by walls of framed certificates, plaques and awards, faded photographs and portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.
He recalled how, as a new broker, he had what few other minorities had, a connection with a mortgage lender. He became the Maryland mortgage correspondent for the black-owned North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., for which he had worked in Philadelphia.
After moving his family to Baker Street in 1945 -- with financing from the insurance company and help from a local attorney -- he sold a house in the 2000 block of nearby, all-white Ruxton Avenue to a black family.
It sold in a day. He posted his sign, "Sold by Spaulding Realty," and parked his car across the street to wait for reaction. Some black passers-by stopped to copy his phone number.
Within days, he sold another house outside the "confined" area, again to a black family. This time, his sign read, "Another sold by Spaulding Realty."
Mr. Spaulding and two other black brokers in Northwest Baltimore, George Carroll and Philathea Carter, began to sell hundreds of homes to black buyers outside the known "redline" district. Many deals were financed and insured by North Carolina Mutual.
But none of these brokers could join the Realtors.
In 1947, black real estate agents from eight states formed the National Association of Real Estate Brokers in Tampa, Fla. Mr. Spaulding attended the first convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
The next year, he and Mr. Carroll, Ms. Carter and D. Arnett Frisbee met in Ms. Carter's basement to form the Baltimore chapter, the Real Estate Brokers of Baltimore.
It wasn't until 1959 that the first black agent joined the Realtors, by mistake, the Realtists recall. A Board of Realtors secretary sent membership applications to a white agency, Enza Clark. Black agent William Barnhill was among those who filled them out. Black members slowly began joining.
In 1961, James Crockett became the first black broker to sit on the Realtors board of directors. In that position, he voted on membership bids to the board's multiple listing service. But as a black member, he couldn't join the MLS.
When fellow board member Mal Sherman asked him if he'd like to join, he jumped at the chance, saying the shared information would help him find houses for his customers.
But even as Mr. Crockett met at a downtown lunch counter with Mr. Sherman and a community group member to discuss ways to win support, he ran into discrimination. A waiter at Read's Drugstore brought Mr. Crockett's white companions their orders but refused to bring him a tuna sandwich and Coke.
He finally got his meal after his companions complained. When they finished, the waiter cleared the counter, throwing Mr. Crockett's dishes in the trash.
Mr. Crockett has often emerged at the center of controversy. In 1977, he challenged Baltimore City's "For Sale" sign ban, enacted in 1974 to prevent blockbusting and panic selling. Believing he had a constitutional right to do so, he posted a sign on a McCulloh Street house he had renovated. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Maryland court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional.
Like many members of the Realtists, Mr. Crockett had belonged to the minority group as well as to the the board of Realtors. That changed in 1979, when the board passed a rule that brokers who belong to the multiple listing service must require their agents to join as well. That meant they had to belong to the board as dues-paying members.
Mr. Crockett says he refused to force his agents to join, and he withdrew his own membership. In doing so, he also lost his ability to access the multiple list.
His real estate sales dried up, so he opened Alliance Title Co. He has tried several times to rejoin the multiple list and each time was told to first join the board. His situation became a catalyst for the Realtists' recent lawsuit, in which Mr. Crockett was also a plaintiff.
Today, he runs a real estate firm and a title company from a stately, 100-year-old mansion on Eutaw Place near Druid Hill Park, the former residence of Dr. Isaac Emerson, creator of Bromo Seltzer.
Mr. Crockett said he expects the opening of the multiple list to help him expand his business.
The work of the Realtist founders inspires younger black real estate agents such as Patricia Davis, a broker with Re/Max Columbia.
"During the time I was growing up, I had no idea I lived where I
lived as a result of this effort," said Ms. Davis, who moved to Northwest Baltimore as a young teen-ager in the early 1960s.
Selling homes over the years, later serving as Realtist president, her goal has remained "putting families in places where they never dreamed they could live."