Rodgers Forge Community Association board member Jaime Fenton and Del. Steve Lafferty submitted paperwork making the Towson neighborhood the first to scrub its land records of racist restrictive covenants.
Rodgers Forge Community Association board member Jaime Fenton and Del. Steve Lafferty submitted paperwork making the Towson neighborhood the first to scrub its land records of racist restrictive covenants. (Libby Solomon/Towson Times / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The decision by the Rodgers Forge community to file a request to remove racist covenants from historic deeds may seem like just a symbolic gesture. The 85 records with discriminatory language that prohibited African Americans and other people of color from living in the 1,800-home neighborhood (unless they were the domestic workers of white residents) haven’t been enforceable since the 1968 Fair Housing Act. So, some are bound to ask, what does it matter that the language is still there if it is not meaningful?

Rodgers Forge scrubs racist covenants from land records, becoming first Maryland neighborhood to do so

The Towson neighborhood filed paperwork Tuesday to remove racist restrictions from 85 land records.

It matters in many significant ways.The legacy of the neighborhood was built on an idea of white superiority that segregated African Americans — even those with means — to poorer neighborhoods with sub-standard schools. These black neighborhoods to this day don’t appreciate in value as fast as white neighborhoods, denying African Americans the same ability to build wealth. We can’t change history, but eliminating the covenants is a powerful way of saying history was wrong, and that serves to change its impact. Rodgers Forge’s two-year effort to erase racist covenants has involved an active campaign and sweat equity that showed residents were invested in and believed in the effort. Leaving the discriminatory wording written into deeds between 1933 and 1949 but making some sort of statement promoting inclusiveness would not have been a strong enough stance.

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Here's why getting rid of unenforceable racial housing covenants matters

Covenants prohibiting minorities from buying houses in Rodgers Forge need to go.

It would have also sent sent a message to African Americans and other people of color living in the neighborhood that it is OK to brush off offensive language. While most people in the neighborhood probably never knew the covenants existed, the wording would have been an unnecessary reminder to those who came across it that they once didn’t belong — and certainly might make them wonder whether some people still don’t want them. Is the thinking still alive if the covenants still exist? Getting rid of the language, including the egregious statement that “no person of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot,” shows that the community realizes the hurtful and angry feelings it may rouse up among some of their neighbors. At least one resident told The Sun she felt nauseated when reading the covenants. Those are legitimate feelings that should be addressed.

Do the old covenants turn off African Americans considering a move into the neighborhood? We can’t say for sure, but Rodgers Forge remains about 84% non-Hispanic white, about 23 percentage points higher than the county-wide figure. Laws no longer allow housing discrimination, but many people still self-segregate, and neighborhoods are unofficially known as welcoming to one race or another. Rodgers Forge features affordable housing, good schools, lower crime and taxes than many Baltimore city neighborhoods, as well as easy reach to restaurants, shopping and other amenities. But it lacks diversity. Anything that extends an olive branch to change the notion of white and black neighborhoods is a step in the right direction. A change in covenants is a meaningful way of saying Rodgers Forge is truly welcoming to people of different backgrounds.

Residents of Towson neighborhood confront racist legacy of covenants

So-called racial restrictive covenants were once common in Baltimore neighborhoods such as Roland Park and around the nation. They remain in legal paperwork.

Of course removing covenants isn’t the panacea for all segregation issues. Redlining, discrimination in mortgage loans and other factors are still major problems that must continue to be addressed. But it is a good start and yeoman’s work for a neighborhood.

We know there were plenty of other neighborhoods that had similar covenants, and perhaps they are still on the books. Let’s not forget that Baltimore was a national leader in discriminating housing practices, legalizing the racial segregation of neighborhoods in a first-of-its kind City Council ordinance that passed in 1910, and after the Supreme Court struck that down, through private covenants. Baseball great Frank Robinson once threatened to leave the Orioles team because his wife couldn’t find a neighborhood that would allow his black family to move in. We applaud Rodgers Forge neighborhood leaders for taking the extra effort to remove hateful language from its history, and we urge every community in both Baltimore and Baltimore County to research their own deeds and covenants and follow in its footsteps.

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