'Apartheid, Baltimore Style' City Housing Suit and History of Bias

February 05, 1995|By JAMES BOCK

Baltimore proudly touts its American firsts: first Roman Catholic cathedral (1821), first railroad (1827), first shot tower (1828), first dental college (1840), first Ouija board (1892), first rubber gloves used in surgery (1894), even the first permanent building topped with a revolving restaurant (Holiday Inn, 1964).

There's another first that one hears much less about. Baltimore was the first U.S. city to pass a residential segregation ordinance (1911) that limited the places blacks could live.

So when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued city and federal officials last week for allegedly perpetuating "systemic racial segregation" in Baltimore's family public housing, some scholars found the lawsuit historically appropriate.

After all, said Florence Roisman of Georgetown University law school, "Baltimore has the infamous distinction of being the city that first introduced the notion of using government power to say black people couldn't live in certain places."

The ACLU, whose researchers sifted through hundreds of public-housing documents dating to the 1930s, believes that notion is still alive. It contends that the government sowed the seeds for the poor, segregated neighborhoods that ring downtown Baltimore today.

While the impoverished black ghetto seems a painful fixture of urban America, it was not always so, historians say. African-Americans lived scattered throughout much of 19th-century Baltimore, often as domestic servants residing in alley housing near their white employers.

Beginning in the late 1800s, Baltimore's black population grew rapidly as former slaves left Southern farms for the city. Blacks and whites, including an influx of European immigrants, began what a University of Maryland legal historian, Garrett Power, describes as a "skirmish for race space."

The first black slums developed. By 1892, the Baltimore News described Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown as "foul streets, foul people in foul tenements with foul air; that's Pigtown!" Another slum developed around what is now the Inner Harbor.

By the turn of the century, a black ghetto had developed along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. At its southern end (just west of today's state office complex) was the Biddle Alley slum, known as the "lung block" for its deadly rate of tuberculosis. The city's small black middle class lived a mile north on Druid Hill Avenue.

The move to adopt what Mr. Power calls "apartheid, Baltimore style" began in the summer of 1910. George W. F. McMechen, a black Yale Law School graduate, moved to McCulloh Street, crossing the east-west color line that had been informally drawn at Druid Hill Avenue.

Angry whites petitioned city fathers to "take some measures to restrain the colored people from locating in a white community," Mr. Power wrote in a 1983 Maryland Law Review article. What emerged was the 1911 ordinance that divided all Baltimore into white blocks and black blocks.

The Progressives who then governed Baltimore wanted blacks quarantined from whites to safeguard the public health, prevent racial strife and protect property values, Mr. Powers says. Many white social reformers (and The Sun's editorial page) viewed the ordinance as a necessary, practical measure.

Mencken dissents

H. L. Mencken was among the few white critics.

"But who ever heard of a plan for decent housing for negroes in Baltimore?" he wrote. "The law practically insists that [blacks] keep on incubating typhoid and tuberculosis -- that [they] keep these infections alive . . . for the delight and benefit of the whole town."

The result of the ordinance, of course, was to cram the growing African-American population into a fixed quantity of deteriorating housing. For blacks, housing prices rose, housing quality declined, and slum conditions grew more noxious.

Similar ordinances were adopted in cities across the South. Branches of the fledgling NAACP sprang up to challenge them. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a copycat ordinance from Louisville, Ky., unconstitutional. The Baltimore law was soon off the books.

But "apartheid, Baltimore style" remained. Real estate agents deemed it unethical to help whites sell or rent to blacks in white neighborhoods. White landlords who tried to rent to blacks were hounded by city housing inspectors.

The ACLU's lawsuit picks up where Mr. Power's history of Baltimore's residential segregation leaves off. By the 1930s, the ACLU found, 89 percent of Baltimore's black population was concentrated in a parenthesis of poverty ringing downtown.

The ACLU argues that for 60 years -- even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act -- Baltimore's public housing policies have intentionally confined African-Americans to poor, segregated neighborhoods.

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