HyCDC-led project reckons with Hyattsville’s racist past
By KATIE WALSH — Children screamed joyfully as they raced over the wood-chip covered ground in Magruder Park, zipping around park benches and plastic playground jungle gyms. Parents cast watchful gazes over their offspring, stepping in to upright toppled youngsters and occasionally dry a tearful eye.
The people who were drawn out to Hyattsville’s largest park on this sunny day came in all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. It’s something Caroline Timbers, whose children Luka and Kaio were erupting in giggles on the swing set, said she appreciates about the park.
“Coming here today you see a huge diversity — families speaking Spanish, we speak Portuguese,” she said. “There’s teenagers of all different races, so it’s a really nice park to come to actually for that reason.”
But this scene would not have been possible less than a century ago.
Magruder Park is just one of the many properties in the City of Hyattsville where restrictive covenants that limit use to “Caucasian inhabitants only” are lurking within their deeds. That dark history is what led to “Mapping Racism,” a combined civic effort and arts project to uncover all properties in Hyattsville with deed covenants like this one. The project was initiated by the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation (HyCDC) and will collaborate with Joe’s Movement Emporium over the next few months.
It may be common knowledge that every property comes with a deed, a legal document that can transfer the property’s title from one person to another. But many may not know that within those deeds are covenants, which determine many things about the condition of the property and are passed on to each successive owner.
Deed covenants are fairly common. Homeowners associations use them to prevent people from activities such as running businesses out of their homes or parking broken down vehicles in their driveways. However, in Hyattsville, a number of properties contain covenants that were intended to limit the future sale of the property to white residents only. They are unenforceable — the Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 followed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 struck them down — but for Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of HyCDC, finding out exactly which properties are affected is still an extremely important task.
“Courts are changing. The complexion of the judicial thinking is changing with the appointments on the bench, and it’s a matter of time before some of these cases get brought up again,” Eisenberg said.
Earlier this year, Eisenberg was conducting land research in his capacity as a board member for the Hyattsville Preservation Association and discovered restrictive covenants in several property deeds sprinkled throughout the community. He’d known about the historic racism of certain properties in the city such as Magruder Park for a while, but this year, inspired by author Ta-Nehisi Coates and his articles about the “hidden architecture of segregation,” Eisenberg decided to to work toward change.
He wrote about the deed covenants in a February “Then & Now” column for the Hyattsville Life and Times. But for Eisenberg, simply writing about them wasn’t enough.
“All of these elements — a history of racism, and an intentional community today that is just diametrically opposed to that sort of attitude got me to thinking about, well, why would anyone keep such a thing in their property?” Eisenberg said.
With that, “Mapping Racism” began to take shape. Eisenberg said the project will have three phases, the first of which has already begun: mapping out which properties have racist deed covenants, a community art project to raise awareness and give life to some of the stories of those deed covenants, and the creation of a tool that would enable a homeowner to remove deed covenants from his or her own property.
Eisenberg said the mapping portion of the project is a little trickier than it seems at first blush. Many homeowners may have signed deeds without realizing they contained racially restrictive covenants because the covenants are only mentioned “by referral,” meaning the documents include language that essentially says, “this deed includes everything else that was included in previous deeds.” In order to discover whether or not a particular property has a racially restrictive covenant, it’s necessary to obtain the original deed.
“Depending on where you live in Hyattsville, you may have a racially restrictive covenant on your property, and you wouldn’t know it because they didn’t tell you, because it wasn’t material to the transaction today,” Eisenberg said.
Mapping of properties with restrictive deed covenants is likely going to take a while, Eisenberg said. The HyCDC team has to title search about 5,000 properties, and he estimated that at about 3,800 hours of research. He hoped it could be wrapped up in 2.5 years and said that they have already identified all the subdivisions that are likely to contain these deed covenants.
In the interim, Phase 2 of the project, the collaboration with Joe’s Movement Emporium, will kick off in January as a part of the performing arts center’s 2018-2019 season titled “Resilient Cultures.”
Brooke Kidd, executive director of Joe’s Movement Emporium, said HyCDC has partnered with the company in the past, and when she learned about the project to root out restrictive deed covenants in the area, she was eager to participate.
“I asked if there was an arts component, and we just started sharing some ideas and brainstorming on how to animate the material and the intent of the project, hopefully to further the reach and engage more of our community to know about this important issue,” Kidd said, who added that she was waiting to find out if her home has a racially restrictive covenant in its deed.
The artistic portion of the “Mapping Racism” project through Joe’s will include a series of workshops as well as dance, music and theatrical experiences at locations throughout the Gateway Arts District. Kidd said many of the details were still being ironed out, but that the artists being chosen for the project all had roots in the community.
One of the groups signed on to the project is the Ally Theatre Company, Joe’s resident theater group. Ty Hallmark, founding and producing artistic director, said the “Mapping Racism” project perfectly aligns with the theater group’s mission, which is to “produce theatre designed to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America.” In fact, it’s not the first time this year the company’s work has dealt with discrimination and segregation in the area: Over the summer, the group debuted #poolparty, a play written by Hyattsville resident Jennifer Mendenhall about the racial history of a private swim club in Prince George’s County.
Hallmark said Ally Theatre Company would be producing a stage show written by playwright Doug Robinson, a theater artist based in the D.C. Metro area, designed to give life to some of the stories of people affected by restrictive deed covenants. Hallmark said Robinson is conducting research on those stories as well as being given research from the HyCDC in order to write a 30-45 minute play, for which the company will produce a stage reading in January and a full production in May.
Robinson said in reviewing some of the research he received from the HyCDC, what has stood out to him was the lengths some families went to to ensure that their children would be able to go to certain schools, even if those schools were not in their original zoning district. He pointed out that the racially restrictive deed covenants not only limited where people could live, but their opportunities for education as well.
Hallmark said Robinson would create a draft of his play by mid-December, a task she said he was uniquely suited to because of his ability to breathe life into a subject some might consider “dry.”
“You have to find the human component,” Robinson said. “Yes, there is a lot of paperwork and legal terminology to dissect and understand, but at the heart of all of that is a person or family who wanted something and was stopped from getting it. All great drama is born of a person’s want or need, and what is needed more than a place to call home?”
With this project, Hallmark said, some of the performances would be at Joe’s, but some would be at a to-be-determined location in Hyattsville, which she was excited about.
“We consider the Hyattsville community a vital and key part of our audience,” she said.
Both Kidd and Eisenberg said the “Mapping Racism” project received several key sources of funding that helped make it possible. Eisenberg said the HyCDC received a $10,000 grant from the Maryland Humanities Council in order to be able to support the research required for the project, and Kidd said Joe’s Movement Emporium had received $13,000 from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation’s Cross-Sector Arts Partnership arts grant with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The third leg of the “Mapping Racism” project — the legal toolkit for homeowners to remove racially restrictive deed covenants from their properties — is still in development. Eisenberg said he did not have an estimate for when that would be available.
But the HyCDC is committed to the mission, no matter how long it takes.
“This is our way of helping to build and rebuild the community,” Eisenberg said. “That’s why it sits with the Community Development Corporation because it’s at this crossroads of legal entitlement and land use, where the land was entitled such that it could not be used by a portion of our community.
“It was wrong then, it’s wronger now, and we should do something about it.”