City leader recalls era of segregation

Testimony: Drawing from 50 years of civic involvement, Sondheim is the final witness in a housing trial.

December 20, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Walter Sondheim Jr. appeared in federal court here yesterday as a witness in a trial - and as an observer and participant in a time of trouble and change in Baltimore's history.

During three weeks of testimony, social scientists and historians have tried to provide a perspective on Baltimore's segregated past using records and documents.

Sondheim, who is 95 and has been a business and civic leader for more than half of a century, was there to tell it like it was from memory, in his inimitable self-deprecating way.

"I grew up in a society that practiced discrimination at a great rate," he said.

Sondheim was the final witness in a trial on discrimination claims brought by public housing residents who say the city and federal government perpetuated the segregated system they set up in the 1930s.

Called as a witness for the city, Sondheim wanted to walk the several blocks from his office at the Greater Baltimore Committee, where he is a senior adviser, to the courthouse, but he eventually agreed to be driven. When he arrived, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis called a recess and was prepared to suspend the testimony of another witness so Sondheim could be put on the stand immediately.

Sondheim would have none of it. "He was very upset we were interrupting testimony," a lawyer for the city confided to his colleagues outside the courtroom. "He felt it makes it seem he's infirm."

So Sondheim sat through 90 minutes of often contentious and tedious cross-examination. "The patience you all have, I don't understand," he told the lawyers afterward.

Finally taking the stand, Sondheim acknowledged that some of the societal discrimination he witnessed was practiced by his longtime employer, the old Hochschild Kohn department store.

At first, Hochschild's, like other major department stores in the city, wouldn't allow blacks to shop there. Then, they allowed them to shop but not to try on clothes.

"I was vocal within the organization that it was not the right thing to do," he said. "I was terribly unhappy and embarrassed."

Sondheim was asked by City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. if, as a Jew, he had ever experienced discrimination.

"I hate to mention it because it seems so much less than the discrimination African-Americans faced," he said. But he said the seller of a house that his family was interested in buying on the edge of Roland Park backed out when she found out his religion. He also said private downtown clubs would not allow Jewish members.

The Center Club was begun in the 1960s as an alternative to the discriminatory, old-line clubs.

Asked whether the Center Club accepted African-Americans, Sondheim said, "There's a small story about that. I don't know if the court wants me to tell stories."

"Go ahead," Garbis said.

Sondheim explained that when the Center Club wasn't going to allow blacks, he and several others withdrew their applications. "The rule was changed," Sondheim said. "Henry Parks of the Parks Sausage Company was the first African-American member."

Sondheim told about the split decision by the school board in 1952 to allow several black students to enroll in the "A course" at Polytechnic Institute - two years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. When he mentioned then-school board President Roszel C. Thomsen, Garbis pointed to a courtroom wall where there was a portrait of Thomsen - who was named a U.S. District Court judge in 1954 and was the court's chief judge for 15 years.

Sondheim also described his experiences as the head of the school board in 1954 when the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling was issued - including a cross burned on his lawn because he was moving to quickly comply with the desegregation edict.

He was asked about the city public housing authority's decision to adopt an official policy of desegregation almost as quickly, before it was clear Brown extended beyond schools.

"One could say the school board did this in response to the Supreme Court," he said. "The housing authority did this on a more voluntary basis."

In 1957, Sondheim became chairman of the newly created Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Agency, which undertook as its first project the demolition of decrepit alley houses in Harlem Park to create a school.

Asked if the purpose of the program was to displace African-Americans, Sondheim answered, "Without any doubt, it was not done for that purpose. I don't think anyone on the staff - myself included - would have participated if it was."

When he was done testifying, the lawyers for the residents and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said they had no questions for him, leaving his recollections unchallenged.

Their lack of interest gave Sondheim another cause for self-deprecation.

"I wasn't even worth cross-examining," he said, chuckling, as he prepared to leave the courthouse.

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