The Little City recorded a history that is part prominent and part ignored. An eye-opening example of an omission is the recent uncovering of details on the racially exclusionary real estate covenants common in new subdivisions a century ago.
Language in sales agreements that denied access to disfavored groups turns up in documents from some 1,000 properties in downtown Falls Church, in the Greenway Downs and Woodland neighborhoods.
The News-Press set out to examine property deeds (stored in databases not in the city or nearby Arlington but at the Fairfax County Courthouse). But the work was already underway by a group of academics coordinated by Marymount University sociology professor Janine DeWitt, housing attorney Kristin Neun and University of Mary Washington professor of history and American studies Krystyn Moon.
Timed locally to coincide with the debate over Arlington’s disputatious plan to rezone to permit more “Missing Middle housing,” their work in Arlington analyzing 20th-century covenants that excluded black and Jewish buyers is part of a national movement, Moon said. “The history of covenants in this area is actually very late.” Covenants started in Massachusetts before the Civil War and proliferated in Virginia around the time of the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that permitted segregation. Today’s National Covenants Research Coalition is seeking such documents elsewhere, she added.
Moon has also worked with the City of Alexandria, which will soon release results as a narrative and interactive map as part of its “Housing for All” plan for rezoning to improve affordability. In Northern Virginia, “people live lives not just in Falls Church, Arlington or Alexandria,” but regularly cross borders, she noted.
Praising the helpful staff at the Fairfax land records office, Moon said the key to finding the aggressive racial language is to focus not on addresses, individual homes or title searches, but “deeds of dedication,” typically between first buyers and developers creating new subdivisions. Sometimes the language shows up in deeds for future development that didn’t actually take place, she added.
In Falls Church, two key players from the 1920s were D.C-based real estate attorney and entrepreneur Harry Birge, along with D.C. and Arlington-based developer Ruby Lee Minar. Birge “clearly had an agenda to segregate Falls Church, pushing wherever he can,” Moon says. The Falls Church library has a 1915 letter to Birge and partner Samuel Styles from Tinner Hill civil rights activist Edwin B. Henderson challenging that effort. “We would like to know your reasons for favoring this [zoning ordinance] legislation, and we would also like to know whether, in your opinion, anything might be assured by us to cause you to give up your fight upon us,” he wrote. “We have been told it is feared by you that colored people may buy property near you and other white residents and thereby lower the value of your property.”
Birge was planning what became the Woodland subdivision, around the 700 block of Fulton Ave. A Nov. 3, 1922, deed Moon shared, for a sale to A.T. Holtman drafted for Birge and wife Jeanne Birge, read: “Neither said lots nor any interest therein less than $2,500 to construct, and that neither said lots nor any interest therein shall be leased, devised, sold or conveyed to any one not of the Caucasian race; a violation of any of the said conditions shall cause a reversion of the title to the parties of the first part.”
On a grander scale was the multi-lot development undertaken by Minar, who also developed large swaths of Arlington in what today are Lyon Park, Country Club Hills and Livingstone Heights subdivisions. “She had a modern skill set for marketing,” Moon says, “with tactics such as campaigns to name streets and artistic promotions.” Her Falls Church opus was the late 1920s Greenway Downs subdivision on both sides of South Washington St.
Her sales agreement—posted by the Arlington Public Library but linked on the website of the Greenway Downs Citizens Association—banned duplexes, set strict setback requirements and included this language: “Neither said property nor any part thereof nor any interest therein shall be sold or leased to a negro or a person of negro descent.”
Other properties Moon uncovered are on W. George Mason St. and a now-commercial lot on Pennsylvania Ave. Her work broadened to explore the history of the African-American community off Annandale Rd. (formerly Freedom Rd.) near the James Lee Community Center, plots on which were sold by white Union General John Crocker and black clergyman Robert Johnson.
The existing documentation of civil rights in Falls Church “is a wonderful history of an African-American city but is focused on families,” she says. She hopes to “bring a different scope to this conversation and make the study more socially based and systemic.”
Asked to respond, Edwin Henderson II, the Tinner Hill Education Foundation leader who publicizes the local NAACP chapter that challenged segregation, said the analysis of the drama of the 1912 legislation enforcing “whites only” areas and “sundown” curfews for blacks was indeed systemic. The Supreme Court in the 1917 case Buchanan v. Warley struck down such ordinances, which had forced many black families to move, as unconstitutional, though it wasn’t removed from Falls Church books until 1998.
Inquiries from the News-Press to modern residents of Woodland on Fulton Ave. found that none were aware of the 100-year-old racial covenants of their predecessors. It was news to renter Michael McKeown, and to owner Bob Clarke. “I’ve never encountered any prejudice,” said Clarke, who is African American. “It’s a fairly diverse neighborhood,” he added, citing at least one other black family and neighbors of Middle Eastern and Chinese descent. “It’s a good sample of red and blue signs when politics comes along. Everyone gets along.”
A similar reaction came from Jenny Girard, vice president of the Greenway Downs Citizens Association—one of Falls Church’s oldest and most active neighborhood social groups. “Our neighborhood is fortunate to have a well-documented history on our website, but I believe there are a lot of residents who may still not know about this unfortunate part of our history.”
Moon agrees that modern-day homeowners aren’t responsible for social policies of long before their time. “But we can educate ourselves and take advantage of a 2020 law passed by the Virginia General Assembly that makes it easier to remove offensive language from deeds. Moon’s work shows here that “every jurisdiction is unique.”