It wasn’t that long ago that DC’s Real Estate Board told agents not to sell homes in white areas to black people. A 1948 report called Segregation in Washington put the discrimination into plain language.
The problem in a picture. All images from the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital.
Segregation in DC looked a lot different in the early part of the century. There was plenty of racism, but legally DC retained a lot of strong Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The result was that one block could be white and the next black. Or, in wealthier neighborhoods, the front of a block was white, while alley dwellings were black.
But, the 1948 report claims, someone surreptitiously cut these laws from from the District Code at the turn of the century. This opened the door for realtors to use racial covenants, legal agreements that forbid selling a house to blacks forever. By the 1920s, these contracts were widespread. Southern-style segregation policies cropped up in other areas as well, especially after the Wilson administration segregated federal agencies.
The realtor’s code of ethics even included a rule saying “no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people.”
What often happened was that the supply of housing available to blacks got smaller. Both the white and black populations were growing, but most of the new housing was for whites.
Zoning, implemented in the 20s, favored detached single family homes. The city banned unsafe alley dwellings, but didn’t create new housing for blacks. When apartment buildings went up in black neighborhoods, they often were whites-only.
Covenants, the report argues, appealed to the racism of white residents, who would pay extra to live in an “exclusive” neighborhood where the type of residents would be stable, familiar, and “high-class.”
Realtors and developers were happy to meet the market for these contracts. They discouraged smaller apartment buildings that were harder to regulate, and advertised the better value of a house with a covenant on it.
The result was simple: new houses for blacks cost 30% more, so fewer could afford them. Rents were higher. Blacks had a hard time getting loans for repairs. And so, African Americans took smaller apartments in older neighborhoods.
More about the report
The report focused on housing segregation, but also covered similar practices in education, health, employment, and social life. Over twelve sections, the report charted how blacks and whites received unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of life, and how that took a toll on human lives. But, they argued, shrinking the supply of quality housing available to blacks was the root of the most corrosive social ills.
Its punchy text, written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who is often confused with his uncle, a Major League Baseball commissioner who had the same name), contained tables of facts, lurid stories, and humiliating anecdotes of foreigners disgusted by what they found blocks from the monuments. Infographics made dismal statistics like higher arrest rates and more expensive rents impossible to ignore.
The report was hugely successful, introducing a topic to a wide audience. It made space for activists who had been fighting segregation for years. Old arguments got traction in the political scene. It challenged the clout of civic associations and developers. In neighborhoods, it was much harder to openly defend racial covenants, so tactics to preserve neighborhood character changed.
It certainly didn’t end housing discrimination. The effects of covenants, which were legal until 1968, meant that black families had less wealth, even as they became the majority group in DC. Much of the issues behind gentrification and concentrated poverty are not hangovers from slavery, but were proactively made worse in the 20th century to preserve some residents’ sense of neighborhood character.
Correction: The original version of this article said former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote Segregation in Washington. His nephew, who had the same name, actually wrote it.