One Man's Fight Against Religious Bias

February 08, 2010|By Antero Pietila

A small paid notice in Wednesday's Sun announced the death of Anne Irene Ruth Salzman at Charlestown Retirement Community. She was 97 and "was preceded in death by her husband of fifty years, Sidney Salzman," the notice said.

Missing was the rest of the story - how the Salzmans in 1941 fought the Federal Housing Administration for the right to live in a neighborhood of their own choosing. Much has changed since then, but studies suggest that each year millions of Americans still face similar discrimination - not by the government, perhaps, but by the real estate marketplace.

In 1941, Anne Salzman and her husband wanted to buy 821 Glen Allen Drive, one of seven foreclosed houses in Hunting Ridge, a neighborhood off Edmondson Avenue. Four years earlier, the federal government had prepared lending risk maps for Baltimore and 238 other American cities from coast to coast. It had given to Hunting Ridge its highest ranking, the same rating it bestowed on Guilford, Homeland and Rodgers Forge. Under federal guidelines, such mostly Protestant neighborhoods generally barred "inharmonious elements" - African-Americans and Jews.

In Hunting Ridge, though, the homeowners' covenant against Jews had expired in 1940.

Mr. Salzman was Jewish, a court stenographer who had gone to law school. Mrs. Salzman was Christian, a 1933 graduate of Hood College. They had "always lived in Gentile neighborhoods," he wrote to the FHA in justifying his interest in Hunting Ridge. Federal bureaucrats were not impressed, and Mr. Salzman got a runaround.

Mr. Salzman decided to fight.

He repeatedly offered purchase prices verbally suggested by FHA officials, proposing to put nearly half the money down. He was refused each time, even though he had been pre-approved for a mortgage, according to documents in the possession of University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor W. Edward Orser.

Finally, one official, "with evident embarrassment ... gave as reason for the turning down of my offer the fact of my Jewish extraction, that it was thought best not to sell one of these properties in a restricted neighborhood to me, that it might affect the sale of other properties, and that the [Charles] Steffey Co. real estate brokers handling the properties strenuously objected to such sale to me, on the same grounds."

The FHA's stand was not surprising. Blacks and Jews were regarded as bad risks. "FHA did more to institutionalize redlining than any other agency by categorizing mortgages according to their risk levels and encouraging private lenders who wanted insurance for their mortgages to do the same," professor Amy E. Hillier of the University of Pennsylvania has written.

Mr. Salzman complained of religious discrimination and charged that the FHA engaged in "a needless credit investigation, which with attendant circumstances had led personal friends and acquaintances to doubt my credit standing in the community." The FHA's state director, E. Lester Muller, denied those charges. "Frankly, I was amazed to read the document," he responded to Mr. Salzman's letter. "There is no religious discrimination on the part of any one in the Federal Housing Administration."

In the end, Mr. Salzman's tenacity paid off. After he threatened to take the matter to Maryland's two U.S. senators - "for whatever action they deem proper" - the FHA's deputy administrator in Washington fixed a definite price on the property. Mr. Salzman met the price, got the title to 821 Glen Allen Drive and spent the rest of days there. After his death, Mrs. Salzman stayed in the house even as the neighborhood changed from white to largely black.

The Salzmans never sought or received publicity for their battle. They were quiet, everyday heroes, extraordinary examples of one ordinary family's determination not to surrender in the face of institutional discrimination.

Antero Pietila retired from The Sun after 35 years. His history of Baltimore, "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City," will be published later this month. He may be reached at

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