Check the map to see if your house was once restricted.
I’ve written before about the role of racially-restrictive housing covenants in shaping the racial geography of our city. In the early 1900s, Washington DC was still a largely white metropolis. Whites could buy houses and live in any neighborhood they chose. African Americans, on the other hand, were restricted to just a few neighborhoods — Anacostia, Shaw, and some other enclaves primarily in the NE and SE quadrants. Racially-restrictive housing covenants were one of the tools designed to keep white neighborhoods white and keep others out. 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.
Much of what I know about the history of covenants in this city I gleaned from Prologue DC’s website, Mapping Segregation. It is their long-term public history project that provides a great deal of valuable information on housing segregation in the city. But it primarily deals with areas to the west of us, so I talked to historian Sarah Shoenfeld about including Brookland in their interactive map. She was willing to include the information, if I did the research. So, using the District’s Recorder of Deeds website, I went through every square in Brookland, noting all the instances of petition covenants. The boundaries I used were Michigan Avenue, 18th Street, Rhode Island Avenue, and the railroad tracks.
I was surprised, and chagrined, at the results. Surprised that so many residents had signed petitions banning the sale of their houses to African Americans. 810 households. It looks to be about 60% of the homes in the neighborhood. The earliest petition was from 1933, the latest from 1947, the year before the Supreme Court finally ruled that petition covenants were legally unenforceable.
Here’s another map that sets this issue in historical context. This is from 1934, and shows the squares in Brookland with non-white residents. There weren’t many. Primarily a small cluster of squares near 14th and Rhode Island with a moderate percentage of African Americans, and a few other squares with just a sprinkling of non-white residents. One lone block near the railroad tracks is almostly completely non-white.
Here’s how to see if your house was once restricted: Go to the Mapping Segregation site and look for the navigation bar on the left side of the page. Scroll down to the fifth heading, The Spread of Petition Covenants. Then click and drag the map a little to the left until Brookland is centered. You can use the buttons to enlarge and shrink the map. Click on your house and a box should appear with the square/lot number, current address, the year the covenant petition was signed, and the duration of the covenant. Here’s what it looks like:
I asked Sarah Shoenfeld of Prologue DC for her take on the distribution of petitions here:
Regarding the pattern of petition covenants in Brookland, I think they were used as a barrier to black settlement beyond the blocks where blacks already lived.
That certainly seems to be the case, with the petitions filling up the northeast part of the neighborhood, holding the line against the spread of African Americans who were already living in the southwest part.
It’s hard, with a 2018 perspective, to imagine what was going through the heads of white residents when they signed a petition. Was it pure racism? Fear of declining property values? Or both, the latter excusing the former in their minds? Sarah Shoenfeld:
According to white people we’ve interviewed whose families moved out of Ward 4 in the 50s/early 60s, there was a great deal of pressure to sign petition covenants. I imagine that concern about property values may have played into the decision, and/or pressure from the citizens associations…much of this was pushed by the real estate community and property-owners who bought into the belief that values would go down.
The Brookland Citizens Association was very much a part of the problem, coming down firmly on the side of segregation and keeping Brookland as white as possible. Arthur B. McNerney, the president of the Association from 1945 to 1949, strongly supported spreading and enforcing petition covenants and taking homeowners to court who dared sell to a person of color. Some of his anti-black speeches were so impassioned they prompted complaints of incitement from the NAACP and others.
McNerney and his fellow segregationists in the Federation of Citizens Associations were not alone. In fact, their crusade to hold the line against “black encroachment” was championed by one of the most prominent and virulent white supremacists in the country. In 1944, Theodore Bilbo (right, Library of Congress), Democratic Senator from Mississippi, was appointed Chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia. Most of his peers in the Senate considered his openly racist views distasteful and had shunted him to the least influential and prestigious committee on the Hill. But the appointment made him in essence the mayor of Washington, and he used his bully pulpit to preach his supremacist views to a national audience, using the city as a testing ground.
He was against black suffrage, against anti-lynching legislation, against fair employment policies, and against expanded public housing in what he called the “Negro heaven” of Washington. He was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and believed in separation of the races and relocating African Americans to Liberia. One of his first actions as Chairman was to suggest all the poor blacks living in the alley shacks around the Capitol be shipped off to Virginia farms, where labor was needed. And he was also strongly in favor of racially-restrictive housing covenants and their strict enforcement. Arthur McNerney, President of the Brookland Citizens Association, visited Bilbo to enlist his support in preventing “the Colored invasion of white property” in Brookland.
But times were changing, and Bilbo’s brand of public racism was no longer as acceptable outside the south. There was considerable backlash to his appointment to the District Committee. The Washington Post said his proposal to relocate the alley-dwellers, “reeks of prejudice, social backwardness and Hitlerian technique.” Street protests demanded his ouster.
The Brookland Civic Association formed in 1941 as an all-races alternative to the whites-only Brookland Citizens Association, which continued to actively oppose desegregation. The two organizations existed uneasily side by side until the Citizens Association finally disbanded in the 1960s. They had lost their biggest battle. With the end of petition covenants in 1948 more and more African American families moved into Brookland until the neighborhood became majority black in the 1960s.
Theodore Bilbo was elected to another term in 1946, but the Senate refused to seat him (for a corruption scandal, not his racism). He died of cancer in August of 1947. The beliefs he espoused continued, if pushed underground for a time. They were never far from the surface, judging by current news stories. Reading about and assessing this history is uncomfortable, even painful, but it is time to face up to our past. At the very least, it should serve as a warning that these kinds of hateful actions didn’t happen all that long ago, and we need to do our best to ensure they do not happen again
I encourage you to thoroughly examine all the information on Prologue DC’s Mapping Segregation website, in addition to the map. Their hard work putting it together is evident and gives you all the information you need to understand a particularly ugly time in the city’s history.
Bilbo, Theodore Gilmore. “Campaign Speech” in Pontotoc, Mississippi. May 7 1946, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Bilbo, Theodore G. Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. Poplarville, Mississippi: Dream House, 1947.
Fleegler, Robert L. “Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938-1947.” Journal of Mississippi History, Vol. 66, No. 1. (2006).
Petti, Caroline. “Our History.” Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, n.d.
Ward, Jason Morgan. Saving Segregation: Southern Whites, Civil Rights, and the Roots of Massive Resistance, 1936-1954. Dissertation, Yale University, 2008.
— Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics. University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
“Adventures in Bigotry.” Washington Post, March 17, 1944.
“McNerney, Inc.” Washington Post, September 22, 1947.
“Civic Groups Meeting in Schools Warned on ‘Creating Unrest’.” Evening Star, September 24, 1947.
“McNerney’s Position.” Washington Post, September 25, 1947.
“Race Segregation ‘Natural’ Here, Newell Tells Citizens.” Washington Post, October 15, 1947.
“Mr. Newell’s Plotters.” Washington Post, October 17th, 1947.
“Brookland Assails Civil Rights Report.” Evening Star, November 11, 1947.
Arthur B. McNerney to Theodore G. Bilbo correspondence, November 27, 1944, Theodore G. Bilbo Papers, University of Southern Mississippi.