Then & Now: Unmapping segregation

An article from The Billboard calls out Hyattsville's town council in 1949 for preventing a non-segregated theater to open in town. Image courtesy of The Billboard.

BY STUART EISENBERG — With debates ranging regionally over the legacy of tolerating monuments to leaders of the Confederacy in public spaces, one may ponder, “What does institutional racism look like locally? Where does it dwell in Hyattsville?”

One form in which I find institutional racism still present are vestigial restrictive deed covenants. They lie hidden within the fabric of Hyattsville homes, properties and institutions. Although the restrictive deed covenants rarely rise to the surface, many properties stand upon these embedded directives that previous land owners have written into their deeds of sale as preconditions limiting future use of the property. By explicit enumeration or by unrevealed reference. In property records that ultimately bear the signed consent of generations of property owners and organizations at the time of purchase or transfer. “Subject to covenants and restrictions of record,” say most deeds glanced over at closing.

Restrictive covenants were and still are used for innocuous purposes, such as to limit land use to residential purposes, establish setbacks, set height limits, propagate design standards or special appearances and restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Flash back to 1927: the deed transferring a portion of Magruder Park bears the following statement, “… IN TRUST NEVERTHELESS to hold said land as a public recreation park and playground to be known as WILLIAM PINKNEY MAGRUDER PARK, for the Caucasian inhabitants only of the said town of Hyattsville,” and, “… to issue permits permitting persons of the Caucasian race, not inhabitants of said town.” Fast forward to 1944 when Hillary and Annie Willis deeded four lots to the city to expand Magruder Park under these exact terms. Race-based deed restrictions, now unenforceable due to court decisions in 1948, were once found to be legal and acceptable in 1896 America under Plessy v. Ferguson and were put into practice to reinforce segregation, ensure white access to desirable neighborhoods and extend white social preferences and privileges.   

An example of a restrictive deed covenant embedded in a 1943 deed for the former Concordia Lutheran School’s land. Image courtesy of MDLANDREC.NET.

I stumble across race-restrictive phrases in texts of deeds both in my work in Hyattsville property development and through my volunteer activities on behalf of the Hyattsville Preservation Association. These stumbles reveal racist moments and a legacy of practices below the surface of our daily community experience.

The former Concordia Lutheran School is another local landmark bearing such covenants. The deed for the school’s land, and in fact for the entirety of Clearwood Subdivision in which the school was established in 1943, enumerated eleven restrictive covenants, including number six: “No persons of any other race than the white race shall use or occupy any building or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”

Although the 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer left racially restrictive covenants unenforceable, Hyattsville would not move forward easily. The Arcade Building, for decades an entertainment hub in the city where entrepreneur and impresario Sidney Lust operated a segregated movie theater, closed in the mid-1940s. The same Arcade Building, partially rehabbed by the city and the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (CDC) as of 2010 and now home to the amazing Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center, became a hot potato of municipal impedance to integration when the National Repertory Theater proposed to open a non-segregated facility. The Hyattsville mayor set up a committee, chaired by local architect Paul Kea (the designer of the 1939 WSSC building wing), to consider the matter.

After the committee stalled for seven months while considering seating limits, an Aug. 13, 1949 article, “Jim Crow Wins in Hyattsville,” from The Billboard magazine noted, “National Repertory Theater, Inc. this week dropped its project to open a legit playhouse in nearby Hyattsville, Md., because of the refusal of the town council to okay a building permit for the non-segregation theater.”

Original deeds of sale, hundreds from one of the most prolific developers in Hyattsville’s history, Otto Zantzinger, contained racially restrictive covenants that bear witness to those darker times.

Twenty years after Shelley v. Kraemer, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 passed. This prohibited “discrimination of sale, rental, and financing of dwellings and other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex … .” This law officially made use of racial restrictive covenants in housing illegal. However, the ruling didn’t force the removal of racial restrictions from property deeds.

My next article on this topic will address what mapping segregation might look like and how Hyattsville CDC plans to research and develop a legal tool kit to excise these abhorrent covenants.    

The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city: www.preservehyattsville.org.

Optimized with PageSpeed Ninja