When I was researching my last post on the oldest remaining pre-subdivision homes in the Brookland area, I came across something I want to share. One of those old homes was 1525 Kearny Street NE. I went to the DC Recorder of Deeds website to research the address and discovered that in 1933 almost every house on that block of Kearny between 15th and 16th had signed a housing covenant to keep out African American residents.
I’ve posted about racially-restrictive housing covenants before, but hadn’t read the full text of one in all its cold, legalistic phraseology. Covenants were a blatantly discriminatory practice, a tool of de facto segregation, used primarily against African Americans, but also against Jews, Armenians, Mexicans and others who didn’t fit the white vision of the nation’s capital. There were two types of covenants, those written into a home’s deed by the builders/developers, and those that used petitions, where neighbors gathered signatures to restrict an entire block, or multiple blocks. That’s what was used on the 1500 block of Kearny Street.
All the petition covenants I’ve looked at use the same wording for a rationale. Keeping non-whites out was for the “mutual benefit” of the neighbors and the “best interests” of the community, and was a way to “improve and…further the interests” of the neighborhood. The covenants often ran for 25 years, sometimes less, and made it very clear what was not allowed: “No part of the land…shall ever be used or occupied by, or sold, conveyed, leased, rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of the negro race or blood.”
The courts had ruled in favor of restrictive covenants for decades, but by the end of World War II the social situation was changing. A number of cases were brought before the Supreme Court, including one from NAACP attorney Charles Hamilton Houston concerning a covenant placed on a home at 116 Bryant Street NW. This time the Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were legally unenforceable, basing their decision on the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Formerly restricted blocks became available to African American buyers, but not without antagonism and the intensification of white flight.
The first African American to buy a house in the 1500 block of Kearny Street was Robert Evans. It was 1948, and even though the Supreme Court had ruled against covenants a few months earlier, the Evans family opted to buy their house through a third (white) party. According to Robert Evans’ daughter Patsy,
We were the first black family on the block and within a year, all but three houses were resold, shifting the block to 3 white and 13 black families.
The Evanses felt comfortable on the 1500 block of Kearny Street, despite its recent changes. I spoke with Patsy Evans recently, and she has warm memories of growing up there, and had numerous friends, both black and white, as can be seen in the snapshots below (In the top photo, Patsy is the girl in the center, with the braids. In the lower photo, she is the one in the nurse’s outfit.).
She went to St. Anthony’s High School once it was integrated, and was particularly proud that Sterling Brown, the great poet and Howard University professor, lived three blocks away on her street. Families like the Evanses helped Brookland shake off the harsh past of housing covenants and legal discrimination and move toward a more equitable future.
I am beginning more thorough research into covenants in Brookland, and hope to report soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about the legacy of racially-restrictive housing in DC by checking out the “Mapping Segregation” page at the Prologue DC web site.