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The Lasting Effects of Racial Covenants

By Ji Pak '20, Guest Writer

· Ji Pak

For generations segregation has taken its toll on American cities. Baltimore is a prime example of a city whose landscape is still affected by racist housing policies instituted decades ago. Three different exclusionary tactics were used by white Baltimore citizens over the past two centuries. The first of these was the use of city ordinances in the late 1800s and early 1900s to legally define white and black neighborhoods. the second was the use of covenants from 1917 to 1948 to exclude any non-white buyers from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods. The third was redlining in which banks refused to give loans to black buyers seeking to buy or mortgage property. I will not only look into these policies and their origins but will also examine why Baltimore neighborhoods have remained largely segregated since these forms of discrimination were made illegal. It will examine how these policies have filtered down to the present and affected the current landscape of cities across the United States. Lasting economic effects such as lowered property values in black neighborhoods and the destruction of school systems are still felt today.  At the same time it has had profound cultural impacts, creating a feeling of solidarity amongst the excluded black population.

In the late 19th Century a nativist push for homogeneous neighborhoods created a culture of strict regulations and clear segregation. After the abolition of slavery, during the 1880’s there was a huge wave of African Americans moving into cities to find opportunities. The influx of newcomers mainly consisted of poor black families seeking economic opportunity. Seeking cheap shelter, they became the first residents of American slums. Eventually a bourgeoisie class arose within the black population. Able to afford higher quality housing, they relocated into neighborhoods that were traditionally white. The border between “white” and “black” neighborhoods was made ever more clear. Druid hill avenue demarcated the new line between the two populations, becoming a landmark of “Baltimore’s Apartheid” (Power, 298). However, in 1910, African American lawyer W. Ashbie Hawkins bought a three-story row house at 1834 McCulloh Street that violated the longtime border (Pieltila). No sooner than Hawkins purchased his row house did the white residents of the neighborhood go into a frenzy. They entreated the Baltimore city government to pass a city ordinance, and the very next year it was made illegal for a person of color to move onto a block that was previously more than 50 percent white (Pieltila). This was the first instance of government-backed support of racial segregation between neighborhoods. It sparked a movement across the nation and was the impetus to further policies that created racialized borders among neighborhoods where a physical one did not exist. 

The 1911 ordinance was short-lived, yet neighborhoods began devising other internal rules and regulations to keep minority populations from entering. In 1917 the supreme court struck down the Louisville Kentucky ordinance which subsequently outlawed all city ordinances of similar nature across the nation (Power, 289). With this mode of protection gone, neighborhood councils started to take things into their own hands and created even stricter regulations on their neighborhoods in the form of racial covenants. Covenants are rules and regulations in the deeds of neighborhoods that usually detail how the house is supposed to be kept. The Roland Park Company put in their deeds a covenant that stated, “At no time shall the land included in said tract or any part thereof, or any building erected thereon, be occupied by any person of negro extraction” (Deed). The exclusion of people of color once was again legal after only a brief moment of success for equality. Housing restrictions were not limited to race but went on to attack selected religious backgrounds as well. During the early 1900’s Jewish families were starting to move into northern Baltimore neighborhoods. The white Catholic population which dominated these neighborhoods took issue with it, and once more the Roland Park Company used this opportunity to capitalize on the racial prejudices of its clients. They devised ways to exclude people of Jewish heritage. They did this in order to steal competition away from their competitors such as Forest Park (Kelly). Enforcing these restrictions proved more complicated than excluding people of color because religious descent was not always as easily determined as one’s race. To attain information about a buyer’s religion, the Roland Park Company often hired a female investigator to woo a male buyer into giving away some information about their ethnic background. If it was determined that the buyer was Jewish, the company would deter them from buying. 

The abolishment of racial covenants and other forms of explicitly racial residential regulations did not do much to diversify the racial spread of Baltimore. The racial covenants started in 1912 and continued on until 1948 when they were determined to be unconstitutional on the basis of the 14th amendment (Shelly v. Kraemer). But the latter half of racial covenants’ lifespan overlapped with the early history of a new practice known as redlining. Redlining began in the mid-1930’s and was a practice in which banks refused to give loans to black people attempting to purchase houses located in white neighborhoods. Where legal barriers previously stood, there was now an insurmountable financial barrier for black families attempting to buy or mortgage homes in white neighborhoods. Like covenants, redlining has since been deemed unconstitutional and banned under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act). Nonetheless the combined effect of covenants and redlining has left its mark on Baltimore. The neighborhoods had been thoroughly segregated and created stark lines in Baltimore’s ethnic spread in neighborhoods. The first map below shows the stark racial divides between neighborhoods in Baltimore in 1970. Looking at a map from 2010, very little has changed in the past forty years.  


In 1970, drastic divisions persisted between the white and black populations though 22 years had passed since the abolition of racial covenants. North Baltimore remained dominated by white households, indicated in blue. As shown by the 2010 map to the right, six decades after the abolition of racial convents, there is still a majority white population in the areas of North Baltimore where the strictest regulations on race were once located.


The Fair Housing Act may have outlawed the practice of housing preferment based on race, but that did not mean it created perfect enforcement and regulation. This is inherent in housing bias which is still going on today. Racial housing bias which is technically illegal, is a problem that sprung after the abolishment of red lining as another mechanism to preserve the neighborhood borders established from policies before. Housing bias ranges into a myriad of things that are done unjustly to people of color. It includes practices such as showing people of color less housing listings, steering them away from certain neighborhoods, and even mandating that they give early notice to view houses and units ("1968–Present: Housing Discrimination"). During the Presidential campaign of 2016, Hilary Clinton brought into the limelight an example of this with a federal court case against Fred Trump, Donald Trump and their company, Trump management, on the allegation of racial housing bias. This case was a suit that specifically targeted Trump management for not abiding by the Fair Housing Act and enforcing housing preferment in the buildings and apartments that they managed and owned (Staff). At the time, the New York housing commission had “testers” go out and see if housing bias was being enforced in the city. In the specific example that paved the grounds for this case, a black woman looking for housing came into an apartment that presented a for sale sign and was turned away saying that it was already taken. Later that day, the tester, a white woman, asked about the same unit and was greeted warmly and shown the apartment unit immediately. This was an explicit and clear form of racial bias that was occurring during the 1970’s even after it was clearly outlawed. Examples like these were not localized to New York but were evident across the United States and added another layer to the already seemingly impenetrable racial barrier that stood.


These racist policies of the past are now illegal but their legacy still persist to this day due in part to the economic differences that sprouted from the years of segregation. One of the key ways people have been able to accumulate wealth throughout the years was through their homes, and the black population has been left out of this form of investment. Since they were excluded from the more affluent neighborhoods in Baltimore for so long their homes are of lesser quality and did not accrue as much property value over time. Institutionalized discrimination rendered the stereotype that black people bring down property values a reality (Bouie). This stigma became significantly evident after the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008. Houses in traditionally black neighborhoods failed to recover from the housing crash to the same extent as those in white neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were made from the same materials and code but they are worth around 25 percent less than those located in zip codes associated with whites. Therefore, the collapse of the housing bubble served to further widen the gap of wealth between whites and blacks in recent years (Badger). Time passed and the differences between these neighborhoods started to manifest outside the realm of just housing prices. As prices fall so do the taxes associated with those neighborhoods. This means that the tax base in areas with lower property values becomes weaker. Schools get less funding, parks do not get cleaned up or simply do not get built, and the neighborhoods lose all appeal to potential buyers and spiral lower in their property values. They cannot compare with those in white neighborhoods with well-funded schools and pristinely maintained parks. Neighborhoods that once consisted of people of the same economic class now have vast inequalities due to the stigma that institutionalized racism caused. 


The differences that were created above are clearly accentuated when we look specifically at Roland Park. Baltimore city performed a Neighborhood health profile on all the neighborhoods in the city, including Roland Park. In its profile, Roland Park’s characteristics clearly show that there is a great disparity between it and the rest of the city. The data states that Roland Park’s ethnic makeup is greatly skewed toward the white population; it is 82.6% white while the entire city average is 30.3%. The black representation is 6.9% while the city average is 62.8%. Diversity is not the only difference, according to the data collected, Roland Parks average school readiness for 8th graders is at a high of 94.3% while the rest of the city is stuck at 54.9%. It even goes on to record the amount of green space available in the neighborhood, standing at around double the rest of the city at 63.6% (“2017 Neighborhood Health Profile”). The statistics clearly show the great disparity between mostly-white neighborhoods and mostly-black neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore. 

So far, the reasons for racially divided neighborhoods have been related to legal issues or economic issues, but there is also a more immaterial reason why these neighborhoods have stayed so stratified for all of these years. In the United States, among families who earn more than 100,000 a year, 37 percent of blacks live in neighborhoods with a lower median income whereas only 9 percent of whites do the same (Now News one). According to families that match this demographic, they prefer to live in the black neighborhoods that they came from because it is where they felt comfortable and welcome. The United States’ long history of segregation has created generations of Americans who have only experienced living in neighborhoods filled with people of their own race. Many black Americans feel discomfort when faced with the option of crossing into the “other” side. Many Americans prefer to live with people similar to themselves even if it means living in a neighborhood with a lower quality of life on average. This preference for the monolithic is equally evident in the fact that wealthy black neighborhoods do exist across the United States. Black Americans prefer to invest in neighborhoods that nurture their own culture than move into existing ones with good structural bases but few black residents. 


It is hard to feel welcome in Baltimore neighborhoods when the echoes of the past still resonate in them. In Baltimore specifically, most homes in the wealthy white neighborhoods still have vestigial covenants that state the home should not be sold to any person of color. When the owners of these houses were asked how they felt, some said it was a “slap in the face.” One black homeowner remarked, “It’s like finding that we’re still considered [three fifths] of a human in the Constitution” (Knezevich). The fact that these convents exist still in 2017 says a lot about the racism deeply rooted in Baltimore’s history. In 2004, state legislatures made it possible for convents to be changed and expunged from home deeds with an 85 percent acceptance vote from the homeowners’ association (Knezevich). This means that the members of these associations in wealthy, northern Baltimore neighborhoods have the power to remove these remnants of hate speech but do not consider it an important enough issue to vote on it. If they did vote on it, these votes did not pass. This clearly shows apathy and residual prejudice that are left from decades before. Alongside this, recently the Roland Park Civics League sent a community email asking for the removal of “black lives matter” signs from their lawns and homes. The administration called them “unsightly” and said that they went against neighborhood rules on signs as well as Baltimore city rules against indefinite portable signs and posters (Broadwater). The administration claims that their interest is not in the politics behind the signs but the aesthetics of the neighborhood. They say that they want to make sure that their residents respect the law prohibiting signs, but one resident, Scott Bissett, said that he has two signs on his lawn: “All are welcome here” and “Hate has no home here” and has faced no problems with the Roland Park Civic League. This raises the question if this was a form of censorship. After backlash, the Civic League retracted their statement. Nevertheless, the message was heard loud and clear from the people of the neighborhood and the city. 


Baltimore is just one city of many in the United States that is left stratified from the years of segregationist backed policies. It is not the fact that different neighborhoods exist that is the problem, but the disparity in opportunity and quality of life for the residents. When white neighborhoods tend to have better schools, nicer parks, and overall a higher standard of living compared to majority black neighborhoods, neighborhood lines become barriers that block black Americans from upward mobility. The reason behind these differences stem back all the way to slavery and the innate xenophobic nature of people that are afraid of change and displacement. Over the years it seems like it is not only a matter of affordability that prevents people of color from moving into these neighborhoods but the sense of coldness, and distance they feel from these homogeneous neighborhoods. As it stands now, the racial income gap has stayed bad or has gotten worse over time and has left the population of wealthy black families few in the grand scheme of the black population. Without large numbers to rally and make claims on these lands that are now legally accessible, there will still be a cultural barrier that deters individuals or small groups from moving into these neighborhoods. Overall, the issues of the past cannot be dismissed because their effects are still strongly felt. It is certainly not a problem that has been solved, and it continues to be neglected to this day. Indeed it is the sad truth that many Americans still underestimate the economic and sociocultural legacy of neighborhood segregation.

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