Race-related covenants anger Towson residents
Though unenforceable, language still exists in home deeds
Hiteshi Auburn liked the tree-lined streets and sturdy brick homes of Rodgers Forge. She loved how the children played outside and walked to school.
But most of all, it was the sense of community that attracted her family to the Towson neighborhood — where, she says, you can’t live long without getting to know your neighbors. So Auburn was disturbed to discover a piece of Rodgers Forge history that remains in its legal records.
“No person of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot,” states a local housing covenant, a document that is attached to the deeds of some homes in Rodgers Forge.
The form, from the late 1940s, provides an exception: “This covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”
Auburn, a fiscal administrator for Baltimore County, is an American of Indian descent. When she learned her neighborhood was built on such agreements — and that they’re still part of the legal paperwork of many of its homes — she was “shocked.”
“Why is it 2017 and this thing is still on the books?” she asked.
Racially restrictive covenants were once
“Why is it 2017 and this thing is still on the books?”
Hiteshi Auburn, Rodgers Forge resident on racially restrictive covenants
common in Baltimore and across the nation. They were used to keep minorities from moving into white neighborhoods.
The Jim Crow-era agreements, which barred homeowners from selling their properties to anyone but white buyers, proliferated during the first half of the 20th century. The Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that they were legally unenforceable. The practice was finally outlawed by the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
But their impact persists: In many communities that relied on covenants, academics say, much of the racial segregation that they were intended to enshrine continues to today.
“That type of language shaped Baltimore tremendously,” said Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who studies segregation. “That legacy is still with us.”
Rodgers Forge was developed beginning in the 1930s by the James Keelty Co., on land that was once owned by Johns Hopkins, the university and hospital benefactor. The community just north of Baltimore now has about 1,800 households, with most residents living in brick rowhomes.
It was listed in 2009 on the National Register of Historic Places, where it is cited as a “prototypical example” of the region’s suburban rowhome development between the late 1920s and 1950s.
Even though the covenants’ race restrictions are unenforceable, Auburn said, they’re still offensive, and send the wrong message about her neighborhood. As vice president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association — and the only person of color on its board — she plans to introduce a motion at the association’s meeting Wednesday to explore how the neighborhood can remove what she calls “hate speech” from its records.
Auburn and others say the conversation is important in light of the deadly white supremacist rally last month in Charlottesville, Va., and the continuing debate over Confederate monuments and images in public spaces.
Ben Moreland, 39, a Navy veteran who works in information technology, moved with his family to Rodgers Forge from New York two years ago. He supports talking about the covenants.
“I don’t see this as something that is divisive,” he said. “I think it’s important to have that dialogue.”
Moreland and his wife chose Rodgers Forge in part because it is close to the city, but still offers some suburban amenities. The area has good schools, and taxes are lower than in the city.
Moreland learned of the covenants recently from Auburn. As an African-American, he said, “it’s like finding that we’re still considered [three fifths] of a human in the Constitution. “For me to find out that that was still written in a covenant in this day and age was really shocking.”
Howard Denney, a 41-year-old Marine who is black, finds it difficult to work up any outrage about the covenants.
“Maybe because I’ve been through so many incidents of racism and discrimination, I’ve come to just say, ‘You know what? I don’t care,’ ” he said. “I really don’t care about this covenant as much as other people think I should.”
“I just think he’s become numb to it,” said his wife, Sarah, 37, who is white. “To me, it’s very painful to hear my husband’s reaction.”