Racial Zoning Endures: White Baltimore’s War Against Black Lives 100 Years After Buchanan vs. Warley

On this day, 100 years ago, the Supreme Court decided that racial zoning was unconstitutional in its Buchanan vs. Warley decision. By striking down racial zoning, the Supreme Court obstensibly took a tool of racial segregation away from white supremacists.

Baltimore’s White leaders had pioneered the use of racial zoning under Mayor John Barry Mahool on December 20, 1910. The next mayor to assume office Mayor James Preston — arch-racist and a pro-segregationist booster — would tout Baltimore’s ordinance nationally as an effective tool to keep Black people out of White neighborhoods, helping the municipal apartheid policy spread to multiple cities. Even after Buchanan vs. Worley was decided, however, cities ignored the November 5, 1917 decision and kept right on racial zoning anyways as City of Atlanta did as Richard Rothstein argues in The Color of Law.

Baltimore Mayor John Barry Mahool (from the Maryland State Archives)

Baltimore on the other hand, pursued a different path to maintain its residential War against Black Lives. Baltimore’s White leaders knew they were legally barred from government enforcement of racial zoning. So a new phase of the residential war would be waged by Baltimore’s White “improvement” or “protective” neighborhood associations.

Racist White churches, neighborhood associations, business groups, and the city’s Real Estate Board all lobbied Mayor Howard Jackson to start a Committee for Segregation in January 1924. Many such White neighborhood protective associations mobilized vigorous campaigns for the deployment of racially restrictive covenants to keep Negroes from moving in to White neighborhoods (e.g. Bolton Hill, Forest Park, Greenmount East). During WWII in the 1940s, White churches and civic groups would organize mass protests to stop colored or Negro wartime public housing from being built in White neighborhoods like Armistead Gardens, Lakeland, or Mt. Winans. White protesters would heckle Mayor Theordore McKeldin who would ultimately agree with their racist demands.

On this 100th anniversary of the Buchanan vs. Warley decision, Baltimore should reflect on the legacy of White mayors, city council, Real Estate Board, clergy/churches, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, and neighborhood associations in creating the hypersegregated reality that destroys Black neighborhoods and bedevils Black Lives.

One hundred years ago, the Supreme Court helped take away racial zoning from pro-segregationist forces. But White Baltimore would adapt and adopt new strategies of intensifying racial segregation. These efforts created Baltimore Apartheid and our more recent mayors have maintained it. Recent mayors including William Donald Schaefer, Kurt Schmoke, Sheila Dixon, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and Catherine Pugh have passed policies and enacted practices that structurally advantage the White L and structurally disadvantage the Black Butterfly.

Racial zoning has not been defeated in spite of the 1917 decision. It has endured in all but name — whether via snob zoning in the White L, expulsive zoning through the industrial pollution of Black neighborhoods, or the continued reinforcement of the city’s 1937 Residential Security Map through public redlining (i.e. TIF, PILOT, and tax break allocations) and through private bank redlining in the Black Butterfly. Even the new formal zoning code for the city (TransForm Baltimore) enshrines and preserves snob zoning in communities like Mt. Washington, Roland Park, Guilford, and Homeland while bestowing inequitable upzoning codes for Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development Company in Port Covington.

On this 100th anniversary of the end of explicit racial zoning, we must commit ourselves to defeating all forms of racial zoning once and for all. Racial zoning is simply racist zoning that privileges White neighborhoods, underdevelops Black neighborhoods, and undermines Black Lives.

Source: Racial dot map by Dustin Cable, formerly with the University of Virginia