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History of Baltimore’s racial segregation includes a hard look at newspapers’ role

baltimore sun

The Baltimore Sun’s motto has been “Light for All.”

Photo by: Sun press pass

If Rosebud, the sled, is the cipher code that unlocks the secrets of Citizen Kane, Roland Park is the key to understanding how The Baltimore Sun’s editorial policies and business practices helped determine the racial evolution of Baltimore. I discovered the newspaper’s role while working on my book Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City .

Roland Park (1891) was among the early “romantically planned suburbs,” as they are called in planning literature. It was a trendsetter like Llwellyn Park in New Jersey (1853) and Chicago’s Riverside (1868). But because Roland Park’s development spanned the entire Progressive Era and included the peak of eugenics, the 800-acre suburb uniquely demonstrates how a belief took hold in real estate that African Americans and Jews were bad for property values.
Here is a short history of The Sun’s involvement.

“Progressive Era” planning, racial separation

In 1910, the African-American lawyer W. Ashbie Hawkins bought a three-story rowhouse at 1834 McCulloh Street, near Eutaw Place, a prestige neighborhood at the time. All hell broke lose. As a result, Baltimore enacted the first citywide law in the United States that mandated the segregation of each residential block: Ordinance for preserving order, securing property values and promoting the great interests and insuring the good government of Baltimore City.

While The Sun supported that law, it told readers that it preferred Roland Park’s solution. Just a few months earlier, that garden suburb had obligated each home purchaser to sign a binding legal covenant that barred blacks, a condition of sale that was to last for decades.

The Roland Park historical marker sign.

Three years later the company also adopted an internal policy to exclude Jews. At the time, a handful of prominent Jewish families resided in Roland Park but as they departed, other Jews could not replace them. That company policy guaranteed that not a single property there or in the company’s three other prestigious developments was sold to a Jew for the next 50 years. Many other Baltimore suburbs followed Roland Park’s example of exclusion.

All this was the handiwork of Roland Park’s developer Edward Bouton, a Kansas City native who rose to become one of the nation’s leading experts on developing garden suburbs. While running Roland Park, he also doubled as the general manager of the Sage Foundation’s important model suburb, Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, N.Y.

Among Bouton’s friends and Roland Park neighbors was Charles Grasty, who ended his varied newspaper career as the roving European correspondent of The New York Times.

Sun editor, Roland Park’s ‘godfather’

A Virginia native raised in Missouri, Grasty entered college at the age of thirteen and became managing editor of The Kansas City Times at twenty. That newspaper’s backers were heavily engaged in real estate speculation, and in 1890 they sent Grasty to Baltimore to secure the British capital required for Roland Park’s development. He stayed, acquiring the struggling Baltimore News and turning it into a muckraking newspaper. In other words, Grasty, Roland Park’s godfather, became a power broker and a leader in Baltimore’s Progressive movement.

In 1910, shortly before the McMechen Street controversy, Grasty took over as editor and publisher of The Sun after he put together a group of investors who bought Maryland’s newspaper of record. The paper made no secret about its thinking.

“The white race is the dominant and superior race, and it will, of course, maintain its supremacy,” The Sun editorialized, while Grasty headed the newspaper. “The attitude of the Southern man and the attitude of an average Baltimorean toward colored people is one of helpfulness. He sees in them not simply wards of the nation but descendants of those whom he and his ancestors trusted and respected for their loyalty and affection.”

Racial attitudes with deep roots

Maryland had stayed with the North in the Civil War, but its loyalty was so much in question that Union troops positioned cannons on Federal Hill and aimed them at City Hall. Several newspapers were closed, their editors thrown into jails. The Sun’s policy during the political crisis and the war “was that of an ostrich,” Gerald W. Johnson, Frank R. Kent, H.L Mencken and Hamilton Owens wrote in their 1937 centennial history, The Sunpapers of Baltimore. The Sun simply ignored important but uncomfortable stories.

After the war, Maryland behaved pretty much like a former rebel state. In 1899, Baltimore Democrats campaigned under the slogan, “This is a white man’s city.”

Between 1905 and 1911, Democrats made three attempts to disenfranchise black voters. Several other cities, mostly in the old Confederacy, copied Baltimore’s pioneering residential segregation law. After the Supreme Court struck it down in 1917, Roland Park-style restrictive covenants became a national model until the Supreme Court prohibited their court enforcement in 1948. All this is documented in my racial real estate history.

Before I began working on the book, I had little idea of the extent of the white-supremacist record of the newspaper that employed me from 1969 until 2004. The record makes me utterly uneasy – and not only because of The Sun. My uneasiness stems from a realization that other newspaper companies in various parts of the country may share similar histories of segregation, except that those remain hidden because no one has probed them.

Fanning racial fear

In writing my book, I reviewed not only the The Sun’s news coverage from the 1880s until contemporary times but also its business practices. What I found was not pretty but also not unexpected. After all, wide segments of America shared white-supremacist views and a latent anti-Semitism. My book documents how even the Federal Housing Administration adopted such bigotry, championed by eugenicists who also were responsible for immigration quotas that favored Northern European Protestants at the expense of Catholics, particularly from Southern Europe, and Eastern European Jews.

The real shock involved The Sun’s conduct during the controversy that produced the City Council’s residential segregation law in 1910. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, The Sun allowed itself to become a pawn in that racist campaign. Its news columns agitated disenfranchisement as a means of controlling the spread of black residential neighborhoods; it published a bogus real estate ad and a fake letter to the editor to racial fan panic.

Ashbie Hawkins. (Maryland State Archives.)

Much as I wanted to believe in the innocence of The Sun, I could not after I found a smoking gun. In contending that blacks were the cause of falling property values on McCulloh Street, the newspaper repeatedly printed claims that Hawkins paid only $800 for the three-story McCulloh Street brick rowhouse whose previously accepted value was said to be $2,400.

The Sun’s claims were demonstrably false. I found a court record that proves that Hawkins obtained a $1,900 mortgage on the house from an established white institution. Since substantial down payment was required in those days, it seems likely that he paid close to $2,400, or perhaps even more, for his acquisition.
There is more, but you have to read the book.

The Sun seems to have been the only culprit during the 1910 controversy. No other Baltimore paper that I could find, including the new Evening Sun, thought that Hawkins’s house purchase was a big story.

After Baltimore’s segregation law was invalidated in 1917, segregation became part of the standard real estate contract.

Later on in the book, I document the anti-Semitism of The Sunpapers — from its employment policies to its job and real estate advertising. I also show how the Afro-American colluded with real estate brokers — its biggest advertisers – to determine the direction of black expansion during the initial 1940s blockbusting phase. As a result, a pattern established in 1910 was continued in which neighborhoods transitioned from non-Jewish to Jewish to African-American.

Did newspapers in other American cities engage in similar practices? I don’t know, but I suspect they did. What I do know is that records provide ample, conclusive documentation of at least two newspapers’ racial advocacy role in Baltimore at the time when the development patterns were initiated that continue even today.

- by ANTERO PIETILA

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  • liz

    Is it McCulloh or McMechen St. where Hawkins bought his house? Both are listed here.

  • Joan Jacobson

    That little man who stood on the corner of Calvert and Centre Streets for so many years (protesting a mistake in an ad he once took out in the Sun)had it right when he held up his sign each day to passing traffic: “Sun Lies, Sun Errs”

  • Leo Ryan

    This is a fantastic book, a must read for anyone even pretending to understand why we are who we are today in Baltimore. Congratulations to the author on a compelling narrative of a difficult yet fascinating subject.

  • Rick Kenney

    This is sad, but expectable. It’s good that Mr. Pietila is illuminating the history. Sun executives maintained discriminatory policies within the company well past the awkward PR attempts in the early 1980s to appease the NAACP.

  • http://anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    Hawkins bought 1834 McCulloh and rented it to his law partner, McMechen.

  • http://Planning.Maryland.gov Andrew Ratner

    Bought Antero’s book on Amazon last week. An excellent read. (For a journalist-turned-planning geek, it’s especially fascinating.)

  • Chris

    Mr. Pietila,

    I pre-ordered your book from Amazon, and absolutely devoured it (finished last night). It’s a true masterpiece, and I agree with Leo Ryan that nobody can now proclaim to understand Baltimore without having read this book. Outstanding work!

    -Chris Merriam, Remington

  • Dan Henson

    The Sun Lies? Oh, I am so shocked!! Shocked and amazed!!

    Antero, I am trying to get the book on Kindle.

  • Pete Smith

    Just so you know, ‘Rosebud’ wasn’t the cipher of Kane. That was the actual nickname that William Randolph Hearst gave to his lover’s vagina. Orson Welles wrote his script around that tidbit as an F-U to Hearst. Watch the special features disc of the Citizen Kane DVD if you don’t believe me. I know it’s an aside, but it illustrates the role that individuals play in institutions. Blaming an institution for the sins of an individual seems a little like overkill in most situations.

  • Ken Wiebke

    “Blaming an institution for the sins of an individual seems a little like overkill in most situations.”…excellent point; in fact when it is not overkill?

  • Fran McKinney

    Liz,
    McCulloh is the street, McMechen is the person (the law partner of Mr. Hawkins) that the house on McCulloh was rented to. Hope this helps.

  • Larry

    Didn’t the Sun have a racist mural on their walls until this past decade?

  • Frank Coakley

    Please share the date, time and place of your book signing. Thank you. Frank

  • http://anteropietila.com Antero Pietila

    My book launch will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 25, at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, Cathedral Street. All welcome.
    There will be more later.

  • James Hirschhorn

    As someone who grew up in Liberty Heights during the 50s and 60s, I’m angered but neither shocked nor surprised by the Sun’s genteel racism and anti-Semitism. It always was the organ of the Maryland Club crowd, and that’s the Baltimore they wanted. It’s also sad but not surprising to read that about the Afro. Thanks for a public service.

  • Carl Cleary

    Mr. Pietila:
    Your book is not just a good read,it is a must read. I now better understand how folks fell prey to Land Installment contracts, the block busting tactics used by scam artists like Robert Beamon to “flip” properties north of Patterson Park and Baltimore’s present day housing patterns. Thank you for the insight and for giving voice to a story long silent.

  • Mark Muhammad

    verry verry good book with infomation i need,
    iam still reading the book.
    Mark Muhammad

  • Canela Jaramillo, Ph.D.

    Thank you for your work, your insights, and particularly for remembrance of truth. I have been teaching the covenant real estate model for many years (and the evils of its international sibling, the gated community). U.S. history has been lost to many young people, on this vital topic. Your voice and research are invaluable.

    In gratitude,

    Canela A. Jaramillo, Ph.D.

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