A Brief History of Housing Segregation in Baltimore

October 29, 2021
IMA Research Team

How a Baltimore garden suburb contributed to the popularization and legalization of historical segregation and redlining practices

By Sarah Jacobson

Garden Suburbs

In the 1890’s, planned and segregated housing communities had slowly begun to gain popularity in United States’ urban areas. The garden suburb, a community which focuses on incorporating the natural landscape into the community and preserving green areas, began to gain popularity. These neighborhoods were initially designed for and exclusive to upper-class, white families but were eventually made accessible to working class, white families in the 1950’s-1960’s.  

Snowy Roland Park, one of Baltimore City’s first garden suburbs. More historic pictures available from the Johns Hopkins University Special Collections.

While many may consider suburbs a definitively American concept, the movement was largely popularized by British investors who wanted to bring the industrialization and style of British imperialism to the United States. As the Civil War ended in the United States, freed Black men and women began to migrate to Northern cities, which emerged as hubs for work and opportunity. As a result, white elites began searching for an escape from the city life, without losing access to its convenience, job opportunities, and resources. With British investments in the American housing market, the suburb neighborhood began to gain popularity among the elitist and segregationist white class in the United States.

Introduction to Roland Park, Baltimore

Established in 1891, the community of Roland Park in Baltimore, Maryland was among one of the first and most influential garden suburbs in the nation. It was developed by a Baltimore landscaping and suburban development company, the Roland Park Company, that worked with some of the most popular architects and landscape artists of the time to design the neighborhood, receiving 75% of its funding from the Lands Trust Company, a London led and run investment corporation. For more on British investments in segregated suburbs in the United States, see “Building Suburban Power” by Paige Glotzer.

Roland Park, although not the first garden suburb, was one of the first to be an all-inclusive neighborhood offering various services to the community such as transportation via electric car lines, a free automobile service, fire protection, a variety of schools, local business and store fronts, and common grounds of green space, playing fields, and footpaths throughout the community connecting residents to varying regions of the neighborhood. 

“The Footpaths of Roland Park” from rolandpark.org.

The contracts that investors signed included strict regulation on what homeowners could change about the design, landscape, and utilization of property, allowing for the creation of a cohesive neighborhood. Roland Park Company was among the first construction companies to absorb the cost of installing running water, gas and a sanitary sewage system to appeal to upper class citizens. But it did nothing to contribute to infrastructure in neighboring communities who struggled with access to running water, which was necessary to prevent disease outbreaks and destructive fires. Additionally, when adjacent neighborhoods with little infrastructure began struggling with public health hazards like typhoid and tainted water, the Roland Park Company took no action until those outbreaks threatened to spread into their up and coming neighborhood in 1908. For more on infrastructure development in Roland Park see “Building Suburban Life: Roland Park, Baltimore and the Regulation of Space” by John Joseph Swab.

Despite some early hiccups, Roland Park continued to thrive, eventually becoming known as the Roland Park – Guilford District, with the Guilford area added as an extension between 1913 and 1914. The thoughtful and elaborately designed neighborhood gained extreme notoriety in the early 20th century, and the Roland Park Company designers were asked to work with housing developers across the nation’s largest cities, influencing the design, layout, and lifestyle of numerous suburban communities.

The Roland Park-Guilford District in north Baltimore City. More historic pictures available from the Johns Hopkins University Special Collections.

How Garden Suburb Development Contributed to White Flight and Segregation

At the start of its development in 1893, Roland Park executives questioned attorneys to see if it would be possible to create and include a deed restriction against “persons of African descent” and any other Black person, preventing them from purchasing a house or owning property in the neighborhood. In response, the lawyers stated it was unconstitutional, with the development eventually going as far as questioning a Maryland Court of Appeals Judge who also advised against it as it was illegal and wrong. For more on the beginning of restrictive covenants see Jacques Kelly’s article in the Baltimore Sun.

A portion of the 1893 letter from as depicted in “Building Suburban Power.”

The company held off for about 20 years, with white-on-black violence often being what maintained the “residential color line” of the neighborhood, along with marketing Roland Park to prominent and wealthy German-Jewish immigrants to gain notoriety and interest. The covenant returned in 1913 after Baltimore City Council passed the first enforced discriminatory deed restrictions in 1911; the result of white petitioners’ request that the Mayor and City Council “take some measures to restrain the colored people from locating in a white community, and proscribe a limit beyond which it shall be unlawful for them to go…”. These restrictions were eventually extended to exclude the white, Jewish families which Roland Park initially marketed to. 

In 1917, the Supreme Court struck down segregationist deed restrictions from Kentucky, not necessarily because it discriminated against Black Americans, but because it prevented white property owners from doing what they wanted with their property. In response, the Baltimore mayor, James H. Preston, told housing inspectors to “instead cite anyone who rented or sold property to black people in predominantly white areas for code violations.” 

The restrictions were continuously enforced and adapted into city policy with the creation of the Committee on Segregation, a private-public partnership of “city government, community organizations, and real estate industry representatives,” intimidating any agent who would be willing to cross the racial divide in the city (quotes from “‘The Black Butterfly’ Racial Segregation and Investment Patterns in Baltimore”).

For more details on the implementation and adoption of racial deed restrictions in Baltimore, see Elizabeth Dickinson’s post in the John Hopkins Magazine.

WWI & After

With the start of World War I in 1917, there was an increase in Black out-migration from the south to the north, often called the Great Migration, which continued for several decades. With an influx of Black residents moving into the city, white flight commenced with the movement of white families from dense urban areas to less populated, suburban areas.

Various factors played into white families moving en masse during this era such as predatory housing marketers and economic concerns over the housing market, but it was largely driven by fear, racism, and prejudice against any nonwhite residents, and the stereotypes of increased violence surrounding Black people and families. 

Crime did actually increase during this time, but it is incorrectly attributed to the Black families moving into neighborhoods. The systems that kept people in cycles of poverty, combined with the high tensions surrounding Black out-migration increased the amount of violence both against and within Black communities. The over-policing of Black neighborhoods, violence from white neighbors, and racist housing policies trapped people in homes and communities that were unsafe and unsanitary to live in, not at the fault of the Black homeowner but because of the predatory and segregated housing market which actively and systemically denied them access to housing in majority white neighborhoods that provided access to education, sanitary homes, and community spaces.

Racism & Redlining

After the Great Depression, many families struggled to afford owning a home and so in 1937, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) created a mortgage insurance program where the buyer would provide a 10% down payment on the home, and banks would be willing to issue a mortgage with low-risk. The Veteran’s Association (VA) also established their own mortgage insurance programs which, after World War II, caused a massive increase in housing demand. However, these programs were only available to white families with the small down payments and low monthly payments making it a “cornerstone of wealth creation for the white middle class.” Black and African American citizens were completely excluded from these policies, furthering the cycle of poverty.

In order to maintain segregated housing, the FHA and VA would develop maps that color coded city blocks and neighborhoods according to a risk assessment of their creditworthiness. Initially developed by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the maps would use red to indicate risky neighborhoods that were ineligible for federally-insured loans, and any neighborhoods that were majority Black or were transitioning into becoming majority Black were automatically colored red, thus cutting them off from access to credit and institutionalizing the practice of “redlining.” 

The Federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) published what is known as the Baltimore redlining map in 1937 also called the “Residential Security Map of Baltimore Md.”

The FHA in its 1939 FHA Underwriting Manual states that in order for a neighborhood to maintain any stability, racially restrictive deeds and property laws were necessary, and it recommended the continued use of segregation. Continued white flight from Baltimore to developing suburbs meant that housing, for a short period of time, became more affordable and accessible to Black and Brown populations within large cities, with neighborhoods becoming majority Black, and beginning to expand to meet the demand.

Highways to Nowhere

White homeowners within cities began to feel threatened by the continued expansion of Black neighborhoods and actively fought to block any further development by segregating areas of the city, restricting how much Black neighborhoods could expand, and allocating race specific outdoor areas and parks. This occurred specifically in Baltimore, where the Black population doubled between 1930 and 1960, but little to no new construction for Black housing occurred. During the same time period, an increase in demolition and rebuilding of the city occurred with primarily Black and impoverished neighborhoods seeing their homes and neighborhoods torn down to make room for expanding highways, schools, and other housing projects, displacing hundreds of Black and African American residents.

Baltimore’s “Highway to Nowhere” destroyed over 900 homes, displaced over 1,500 residents, and was never completed. Image from WBALTV11.

Between the years of 1951 and 1971, over 75,000 people were displaced, with 80-90% of them being Black people who were removed from their homes for the building of schools, urban renewal, highway expansion, and “slum clearing.” The city exacerbated the existing Black housing shortage by demolishing more houses than it built or allowed space for.

As a result, blockbusting became more and more frequent, where sellers would “break the real estate industry’s code of ethics and cheat on the cartel between white homeowners, real estate dealers, mortgage lenders, city government, and the FHA”, by selling homes to Black people in white neighborhoods. Those who engaged in blockbusting often manipulated white families into selling out of fear of low prices and then sold the house to a Black buyer marking up the price, and “exacting exorbitant profits.”

Fair Housing Act of 1968

Several bills attempted to end discriminatory housing practices, but it wasn’t until after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and the ensuing riots that pushed conservative senators to break party ties and vote for the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This federal ban prohibited several discriminatory practices; however, the systemic removal of these practices would be difficult to achieve due to the numerous compromises made in the bill, often preventing justice for victims of housing inequities. 

As much as white communities tried to prevent it, legislation eventually changed, ending discriminatory practices with congress passing the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, which stated that discrimination against Black people in mortgage lending is prohibited and in 1977, passing the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which outlawed discrimination against black neighborhoods and ended the ability to redline on any legal basis.

Despite the legal improvements, Baltimore natives are still being highly affected by economic disparities, environmental health hazards, over policing, and other racist systemic issues that have been upheld as a result of economic and power imbalances caused by segregated housing and other racist policies enacted during the early 20th century. While the 1977 CRA outlawed discriminatory practices, no efforts were made to equalize cycles of poverty perpetuated by racist housing practices that were commonplace for most of the 1900s.

Effects of Housing Segregation, Redlining, and Discriminatory Lending Practices

The current connections between housing, poverty, and race in Baltimore are a direct result of the varying levels of discrimination and segregation throughout Baltimore and this country’s history. 

Studies done by Dr. Lawrence T. Brown, a Baltimore native, connects the geography of Baltimore to race and economic status, displaying a pattern he coined as the “Black Butterfly” effect. Based on the neighborhood and city block, regions of Baltimore are segregated by factors of economic status, housing, health, and race even if not explicitly segregated by law. Maps created by the Baltimore Neighborhood Institute Alliance clearly demonstrate the distinctions between predominantly Black and white neighborhoods, creating a butterfly shape consistent throughout each map of various socioeconomic factors. 

Dr. Brown agrees that the 1977 CRA “was never enforced in any real powerful way,” and since the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015, redlining has gotten even worse within the city, creating “bank deserts in redlined black neighborhoods” (In a 2019 Bloomberg article: “Are Reparations Baltimore’s Fix for Redlining, Investment Deprivation?“). The predominantly Black neighborhoods in Baltimore deal with extreme poverty with poverty rates at 23.1% compared to the 12.7% national average.

Other effects of redlining include drastically hotter temperatures in redlined neighborhoods with summer temperatures being nearly 6 degrees hotter than the city average. This is, in part, due to the large disparity in the amount of tree coverage as well as an increase in paved surfaces which absorb heat. Researchers went block to block, measuring temperatures during a heat wave and found a 16 degree difference between the hottest and coolest blocks in the city. Communities like Roland Park work to incorporate and maintain nature, and as a default have access to cooler spaces, unlike redlined neighborhoods which have historically been neglected and void of green spaces.

Redlined neighborhoods also have increased levels of pollution and vulnerability to natural disasters with heavier rainfalls overextending the ability of Baltimore’s drainage system to function which causes flooding, the closing down of roads, and an increase in sinkholes. Those who cannot afford to rebuild their homes or businesses after such catastrophes are forced to live without water, heat, A/C, and could possibly lose their homes or businesses. For more on the environmental impact of redlining see the Baltimore Sun’s article “Summer is hotter in Baltimore neighborhoods that have seen racial ‘redlining.’ And the difference is more extreme here.

Redlined neighborhoods also have increased rates of health risks, increased prevalence of poor mental health, and lower life expectancy at birth. The homes in these neighborhoods are often old and neglected with residents dealing with various hazardous conditions such as mold throughout the home, and lead in the paint and pipes. The asthma hospitalization rate in Baltimore is one of the highest in the country, with rates being 50% higher for families below the poverty line. The houses and communities next to busy commuter streets and highways are often impoverished and previously redlined communities that, in combination with extreme heat, have to deal with extremely high ozone levels, increasing the asthma inducing effects.  The Baltimore Magazine has an article about climate change in Baltimore, which is predicted to have worse outcomes in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

Conclusion

Today, the Roland Park – Guilford District lives on as Greater Roland Park/Poplar Hill, and continues to be a predominantly white and wealthy neighborhood.  A study done in 2016 by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance found Greater Roland Park to have the 2nd lowest overall and violent crime rates and is third lowest for property crime rates in Baltimore. It has some of the lowest rates of adult arrest, domestic violence calls, shooting calls, and assault calls. These are just a few of the reported indicators that demonstrate how investing in a community’s access to public transportation, sanitary water and waste management, and community oriented areas such as schools, parks, and businesses create safer, healthier neighborhoods for people to live in. However, these communities and resources are primarily still only accessible to white people in Baltimore, with income disparities and historical segregation exasperating the racial class-divide that exists today.

Time and time again, policy change and legislation has tried to end systemic discriminatory issues within Baltimore, and time and time again it has failed. In Baltimore, the most successful way to fight against the systemic inequities has been through local, mutual-aid efforts led by members of the community. Baltimore has always been a center for local activism within the community, and today we see organizations such as the Black Yield Institute, Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and more actively making a difference within their communities, providing access to healthy food resources and empowering Black residents to enact change in Baltimore. In order to address the many issues that racist and prejudiced policies have caused, we have to listen to those who have been exploited and neglected the most.

The community of Roland Park is just an example of one neighborhood that flourished and thrived as a direct result of racism and classism. Through the understanding of how our current society has been, and still is, shaped by the convoluted policies of a time ruled by segregation and racial violence, we can actively work to dismantle those systems still present within our own institutions and relationships. 

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