Malcolm Sherman

Former Rouse Co. executive battled blockbusting in Baltimore neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s

November 21, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Malcolm "Mal" Sherman, a former Rouse Co. executive and real estate agent who battled blockbusting and worked tirelessly for integrated neighborhoods during the 1950s and 1960s, died Thursday of pneumonia at the Broadmead retirement community in Cockeysville. He was 87.

Mr. Sherman was born in Philadelphia and spent his early years there. After the death of his father in 1927, he was sent abroad to a boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he lived until returning to New York City in 1932.

After graduating from Horace Mann School in New York City, Mr. Sherman attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He dropped out of college and enlisted in the Marine Corps two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mr. Sherman was wounded while serving as a master sergeant during the Guadalcanal campaign and was honorably discharged at war's end.

He was a founder of the United Nations Veterans League, which worked for world peace.

After the war, Mr. Sherman and his wife, the former Miriam "Mimi" Heller, whom he married in 1943, moved to San Francisco, where he was a salesman for Paul Masson Wines.

In 1949, Mr. Sherman moved to Baltimore to be closer to his wife's family. He earned his real estate license and established Mal Sherman Inc. Realtors. His staff consisted of 18 men and 18 women, at a time when there were few women in the business.

"I always had an interest in houses and land," Mr. Sherman said in a 1999 interview with the Maryland Realtor. "I thought I could help people make a decision. I wanted to help families find a better quality of life. It was a way for me to combine business and social work all in one."

In the early days, Mr. Sherman confronted anti-Semitism and segregated neighborhoods.

"As a Jewish real estate broker, I was not allowed to show property east of Falls Road," he recalled in the interview.

In 1953, when Mr. Sherman tried to stabilize a neighborhood that was undergoing blockbusting, he appealed to white residents to stay.

They rebuffed his plea and refused to do business with him because of his integrationist views.

Even after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that declared "separate but equal" unconstitutional, discrimination in real estate continued.

In 1960, Mr. Sherman decided it was time to hire African-American real estate agents and brought Lee Martin, a Morgan State graduate, into his company.

While working for Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. in the early 1960s, Mr. Sherman began to push fair-housing issues and in a news conference said he would sell to anyone "regardless of race, creed, or color."

When baseball great Frank Robinson came to Baltimore to play for the Orioles in 1966, he instructed Mr. Sherman to find a home for him and his family in a white neighborhood.

"He didn't want to be segregated," Mr. Sherman recalled in an interview. After persuading the white neighbors to accept Mr. Robinson, Mr. Sherman was still attacked by a local builder for "breaking the block."

President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Equal Opportunity for Housing in America Committee.

Mrs. Sherman, who died in 2005, joined her husband in his quest for open housing and civil rights.

"All that black people wanted was the right to buy or rent anyplace, regardless of race, creed or color, and once given that right, they didn't necessarily inundate and run to the neighborhoods that they had been barred from," Mr. Sherman told The Sun in 2001.

He was later joined by other local brokers such as Russell T. Baker and Bill Wilson in the push for fair-housing laws that finally became a reality in 1968 when Congress passed legislation, but his crusade took a toll on his firm.

"Because he felt so strongly about these issues, it eventually put him out of business. It was a terrible thing to have happened," said Sandy Marenberg, president of MEI Real Estate in Baltimore.

"Mal held to his views all the way until the end of his life. He was a real hero and mentor in the Baltimore real estate community," Mr. Marenberg said.

In 1967, Mr. Sherman was named residential land sales director for the Rouse Co., and three years later was promoted to director of sales and land marketing in Columbia.

Mr. Sherman was named Rouse Co. vice president in 1971 with responsibilities for all residential land sales and helped steer Columbia toward racial diversity.

When he went to work for the Rouse Co., Mr. Sherman found a boon companion in Jim Rouse, the company founder, who shared his views.

"We were combating a trend, and Jim was frightened. He didn't want it [Columbia] to come out like the city," Mr. Sherman recalled in a 2000 interview in The Sun. "He wanted all of the people mixed all over the place; that was the social goal."

"He was a charismatic man always trying to help someone. He discriminated against no one," said James Holechek, a retired Baltimore public relations executive.

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