by Ann Kessler
The history of DC real estate is marred by restrictive covenants that prohibited the sale of property to Jews, Black people, and other frequent targets of discrimination. Forest Hills was, by comparison, more welcoming. At one point the neighborhood even earned the nickname “Hanukkah Heights,” so it’s long been assumed that Forest Hills deeds were free of the clauses that specified who was not allowed to buy, rent or lease property in our community.
That, unfortunately, is not true. A review of the original deeds for properties in Forest Hills reveals that there were racially restrictive covenants in many of them.
I used the research method developed by Mara Cherkasky and Sarah Shoenfeld for their Mapping Segregation in Washington DC project to find that racially restrictive covenants were in use in Forest Hills during the 1920s.
The DC Recorder of Deeds has a full text database of deeds issued between August 5th, 1921 and October 28th, 2000. One can search by owner’s name or the square and lot of a specific property. My search revealed that beginning a century ago, the location of the lot and which square it occupied in our neighborhood of approximately 39 squares, determined how restricted you were in choosing a buyer for your property.
Newspaper articles and real estate ads of the time made no secret of the fact. At the time of Hedges & Middleton’s development of Forest Hills in 1925, there were restrictive covenants included in some deeds. As The Washington Post reported then: Forest Hills “…has all improvements and is amply tested by sensible and conservative deed restrictions.” A 1929 ad by realtors Shannon & Luchs called the neighborhood “…a restricted, high-class detached residential section” and also said “…this should make any one looking for a high-class residence in a restricted section act at once.”
While it is true that Jews were not banned from buying properties in most of Forest Hills, for some reason they were specifically forbidden to acquire homes in square 2274, bounded by Linnean Avenue, Garrison Street and 30th Place NW. J. Edgar Hoover lived there. His 1940 deed for 4936 30th Place NW (square 2274, lots 0013 and 0014) read:
“That said land or any building which may be erected thereon shall never be used, occupied by, sold, demised, transferred, conveyed unto or in trust for, leased rented or given to any person or persons of the Semitic race, blood or origin, which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians, or to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood or extraction, however this agreement shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants of the owner of the said land, his heirs and assigns.”
It should be noted that the 1942 deed for the Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson house across the street from Hoover on 30th Place had no restrictions at all, being in square 2275 rather than 2274.
Another square demonstrating racial discrimination is square 2276. There it was the Chevy Chase Land Company of Montgomery County, Maryland using the same language denying Jews, Black people and others the right to buy a house.
Interestingly, lot 0004 in square 2276 (3116 Fessenden Street NW) would be sold to the distinguished Black journalist, Carl T. Rowan, in 1970.
A search of the deeds for some other Forest Hills squares shows discrimination against Black buyers, but not Jews. Thus it depended on which entity or person you chose to buy your property from whether there were restrictions against people of “African descent.” This discriminatory wording could vary by grantor (that is, the person selling the land). Several of these original 1920s sellers owned a large number of lots and were obviously real estate speculators. Names like George B. Bryan, Allan C. Minnix, and Adam P. Ruth appear in the deeds for lots in whole squares of Forest Hills.
Some of the Allen C., Hazel C., Mary C. and William S. Minnix 1927-1929 deeds in square 2269, for instance, read: “Subject also to the covenants that said land will not be sold, rented or conveyed, the whole nor any part thereof or any structure thereon to any person of African descent.” The George B. and Nannie W. Bryan deed for square 2251, lot 0001 in 1931 contained similarly worded language. The Adam P. and Della C. Ruth 1933 deed in square 2255, lot 0001, reads “That said land shall never be sold, rented, leased or conveyed to or in trust for any negro, colored person, or person of negro extraction.” Thus the language varied but the intent did not. The owners of these lots in Forest Hills had to promise not to sell to Black people.
It should finally be pointed out that these restrictions were not found in every deed in Forest Hills. Indeed, they were not found in the majority of the deeds. However, the fact that these clauses were in any deeds, while a reflection of the past history of discrimination in housing, is upsetting. Restrictive covenants were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948’s Shelley vs. Kraemer decision. While it did not end discrimination, we can be relieved that these discriminatory and hateful deeds are gone.