Episcopal Diocese of Maryland presents dialogue on reparations

By NOELA LU | November 7, 2019

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COURTESY OF NOELA LU

Speakers chronicled the history of racial injustice in Baltimore.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission hosted the “2019 Trail of Souls Dialogue on Reparations” on Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. 

Featured speakers included: Morgan State University School of Community Health and Policy Associate Professor Lawrence Brown; President of the D.C. chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians Rev. Gayle Fischer-Stewart; and Messiah College Assistant Professor of Theology Rev. Drew Hart.

Episcopal Bishop of Maryland Eugene Taylor Sutton and Maryland Institute College of Art Professor of Spoken Word Kenneth Morrison also spoke at the event.

Sutton opened the discussion on reparations by arguing for the need to reframe slavery as a form of thievery that continued long after the Fourteenth Amendment was passed. 

He contended that reconciliation will never occur unless large-scale restitution to black individuals occurs first. 

“In 1619, persons of African descent were robbed of their humanity, of their dignity, of their livelihood. Then, our nation did everything in its power to make sure that people of African descent would not get good education, would not get good jobs, would not get good housing, would not get good healthcare – essentially, robbery,” Sutton said.

In a spoken word poem, Morrison explored how the implications and applications of slavery have evolved since the 17th century. 

Like Sutton, Morrison argued that manifestations of slavery continue to play out in society through systemic racial discrimination, citing disparities in incarceration rates between black and white individuals. 

“Slavery, like water, takes the shape of its container. So, in the 18th century, it’s shaped like a cotton gin. [Today] it looks like a black boy serving two years for selling weed and a white boy raping a sleeping woman and given a question instead of a sentence,” Morrison said.

Later in the event, Brown shifted the conversation from slavery to the role of racial zoning laws and white churches in establishing and perpetuating racial segregation in Baltimore City, arguing that a dialogue on reparations is incomplete without addressing racial segregation. 

He began the conversation on the history of racial segregation in Baltimore by detailing City Ordinance No. 610, the first residential racial zoning law in American history. No. 610 passed in 1910 and prohibited black individuals from moving into blocks occupied by a majority of white individuals and vice versa. 

Brown emphasized that though this law could be seen as equitable because of its compliance with the Fourteenth Amendment, it had deeply racist implications in the city. 

Given that Baltimore was comprised of mostly white individuals in the early 20th century, No. 610 disproportionately affected black individuals attempting to move into majority white blocks, with little to no effect on white individuals. 

Not only were black individuals effectively forbidden from entering these majority white blocks, Brown explained, but black schools and churches were also barred from entering.

“Racial zoning in Baltimore City wasn’t just impacting homes, it was impacting churches and schools as well. This is a good lesson on how laws can appear to be race-neutral at face value, but the impact can be very pernicious in terms of promulgating and propagating racism,” Brown said.

Brown then described how, in 1912, Edward Bouton, the general manager of the Roland Park Company at the time, pioneered the use of racially restrictive covenants, which were essentially housing deeds that  prohibited white homeowners in Roland Park, Guilford, Homeland and Northwood from selling their houses to black individuals. 

At the mention of these racially restrictive covenants, several members of the audience nodded their heads in agreement. 

One audience member spoke up, noting that up until the 1970s when she moved to Northwood, the community had a covenant that barred black individuals from moving in unless they were domestic servants.

Brown stressed the importance of recognizing that white churches were not only complicit in following the racial zoning law and enforcing restrictive covenants, but actively pushed for further racial segregation. 

In 1924, five white churches signed property agreements that prevented their properties from being used or occupied by black individuals within the next 10 years. In that same year, another five white churches lobbied Baltimore City Mayor Howard Jackson to prevent black individuals from moving into their white communities. 

The reverends from these churches argued that black individuals would not only destroy the financial value of their churches, but also reduce the religious usefulness of their teachings. 

Brown theorized that this deep fear of the presence of black individuals in their communities was rooted in the churches’ support for white supremacist theory, which was grounded in the presumption that black individuals have no souls. 

“So if [black people] are moving into the community, then beasts are moving into the community, criminals are moving into the community. These aren’t people,” Brown said.

According to Brown, the presence of white supremacy ideals within white churches extended through the 20th century and into the 21st century. 

He detailed how many black soldiers who fought in World War II struggled to find adequate housing in Baltimore after the war because pro-segregationists — ministers, pastors, city policymakers and others — strongly opposed the presence of colored war homes in their communities. 

“Soldiers fighting for the United States, fighting for freedom and democracy, had to face white supremacy right here at home. The church was involved in making racial segregation come alive,” Brown said. 

Brown argued that the presence of white supremacy within white churches can even be seen through demographic voter statistics on the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016. Whereas only 31 percent of people who never went to church voted for Trump, 56 percent of those who regularly attended church voted for Trump. Further, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.

Brown concluded his portion of the event by stressing that not only must white churches in Baltimore acknowledge and take responsibility for the role they played in upholding racial segregation, but they must also take action to actively undo the policies that allowed racial segregation to occur in the first place. 

He said that reparations should not involve sending money to black communities and helping pay for housing or college for a select group of people. Instead, he suggested, reparations should push to reverse the policies that caused the systemic damage seen today. 

“Baltimore City is in the condition it’s in today in part because white churches played a role to concretize Baltimore apartheid. If anyone owes reparations, it’s the church. If you helped concretize racial segregation, you have to move to help desegregate,” Brown said.

Kelly Webber, a member of the Episcopal Service Corps and an intern at the Public Justice Center, voiced her appreciation that the dialogue on reparations was centered on Baltimore. 

“It was really interesting,“ she said. “I wasn’t entirely sure coming in because I thought, ‘You know, it’s one day. Are they actually going to go in-depth on anything?’ The fact that everything was very specific to Baltimore — it was a lot of new information that I wasn’t expecting.”

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