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How Racial Covenants Shaped D.C. Neighborhoods

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When Robert Deane purchased this house in 1950, neighbors sued to block the sale citing the city's law governing "racial convenants."
Lauren Ober/WAMU
When Robert Deane purchased this house in 1950, neighbors sued to block the sale citing the city's law governing "racial convenants."

The year was 1950. A gallon of gas cost 18 cents. Diner's Club issued the first ever credit card. And a prominent black doctor named Robert Deane wanted to buy a house in the Northwest D.C. neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant.

The house Deane had his eye on was a stately, seven-bedroom Georgian Revival built in 1906. Perched above Park Road, the house typified the grandeur of the block. The 1800 block of Park Road had the biggest houses in the neighborhood, built by rich businessmen in the earliest years of the 20th century, explains Mara Cherkasky, a local historian.

It was one of those large, freestanding houses that Dr. Deane wanted for his family of five. It was easily the biggest house on the block, Cherkasky says. It was built for a German immigrant named Charles Kramer who worked as a wine and liquor dealer. He lived in it his whole life and when he died, his daughter Lillian Kramer inherited it.

As such, the house was Lillian Kramer's to do with as she pleased. And in 1950, she wanted to sell it to Dr. Deane.

Racial covenants were once the reality in D.C.

But there was a problem. Dr. Deane was black. And back then, black people didn't live in Mt. Pleasant or really anywhere else in the District except Shaw, Anacostia and a tiny handful of crowded African-American enclaves.

It's not because the city's black residents didn't want to live elsewhere. It's because they weren't allowed to buy property in neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant because of what were called racially restrictive covenants, explains Valerie Schneider, an assistant law professor at Howard University School of Law and director of the school's Fair Housing Clinic.

"They usually restricted a sale of property to whites, so sometimes they excluded particular groups of people -- blacks, Jews, religious minorities. They ran with the land so they were intended to last in perpetuity," says Schneider.

Back then there were riders attached to the deeds of many houses in the District that specifically forbade homeowners from selling their property to blacks, Jews and even Mexicans or Persians, depending on whom developers or neighbors didn't want living next door.

Sometimes these covenants weren't attached to individual houses. They could just be agreements entered into by all the residents in a particular neighborhood. That was the case in Mt. Pleasant.

"The goal was to restrict African Americans or religious minorities to particular areas in the city," Schneider says. "I think people felt that would preserve property values in their areas. I think there was a lot of fear."

Covenants face a legal challenge

In the 1926 case Corrigan v. Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court ostensibly endorsed this type of thinking by basically turning a blind eye to these covenants. The former dean of Howard law school, Charles Hamilton Houston, was one of the lawyers who argued unsuccessfully against the overtly racist practice.

But Houston wasn't put off by the defeat. He and other lawyers used the case to fine-tune their legal strategy moving forward.

"They decided that instead of just fighting the legality of racially restrictive covenants head-on, we're going to bring in a lot of sociological and economic evidence that shows the damage that these covenants do," Schneider says.

Not just to African American communities, but to others as well.

In 1948, they had their day in court again. The Supreme Court heard two cases on these covenants. One involved a dispute in D.C.'s Bloomingdale neighborhood. Again, Houston argued for the petitioner.

"So they had experts testify as to overcrowding caused by racially restrictive housing and that caused deplorable housing conditions," Schneider says. "They linked racially restrictive covenants to infant mortality rates in African American communities because of health issues, crime issues related to overcrowding."

Houston and his team prevailed.  The justices ruled that racially restrictive covenants could not be legally enforced. But that didn't stop groups like the Mt. Pleasant Civic Association, says historian Mara Cherkasky.

"In 1950, the racially restrictive covenants were no longer valid, but neighbors sued anyway. They sued Lillian Kramer, but the court threw out the suit. So the Deanes moved in," Cherkasky says.

Damage done lingers even today

When the Deanes settled into the yellow clapboard house on Park Road, they were the only black residents for miles. Marjel Thomas, one of Dr. Deane's three daughters, recalls it was a hard place to grow up. Thomas lives in Connecticut now and didn't want to speak on tape. But she did say that her family kept to itself and didn't have any dealings with the neighbors who had sued to stop them from moving in.

The Deanes' story was unique at the time because they succeeded in buying a house in a white neighborhood. But countless black families were denied real estate in much of the District. Not just because of covenants, but also because banks refused to lend to minorities. Realtors wouldn't even show houses to black people.

Valerie Schneider of Howard's Fair Housing Clinic says the impact today of policies that created and reinforced segregation can't be overstated.

"I see the direct linkage in the work I do every day and it's not just racially restrictive covenants. It's also zoning decisions and decisions on where to build highways, which neighborhoods they're going to cut through and which neighborhoods to create greater access to," Schneider says. "You can directly trace the explicit racist policies to current housing segregation patterns."

That, she says, is going to take a lot of work to undo.

[Music: "Goin' Home" by Glenn Miller from Just One of Those Things]


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