Accession No. 2004.13 Donor: Constance Tobriner Povich Description: Walter Tobriner and Fair Housing in Washington, D.C.
Fighting Persistent Housing Discrimination
Walter N. Tobriner was a native Washingtonian and lawyer whose career was distinguished by his service to his hometown. While serving on the Board of Education from 1952-1961, he was responsible for carrying out desegregation of D.C.'s public schools. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Tobriner to the city's Board of Commissioners. At that time, the Commissioners were D.C.'s governing body whose three members were Presidential appointees. Tobriner served as its president for six years.
During that same period, Tobriner was Chairman of the National Capital Housing Authority. Ending housing discrimination in Washington, D.C. was among his priorities. In the early 1960s, real estate agents, developers, banks, and landlords had a "gentlemen's agreement" not to sell houses to non-whites.
In addition to fighting this informal discrimination, Tobriner sought to end discrimination in housing contracts. Some house deeds and neighborhood-association agreements included restrictive covenants that prevented residents from renting or selling to certain minorities. Even after the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants unconstitutional in 1948 (Shelly v. Kraemer), a handful of prominent developers and neighborhood associations continued to include these covenants in contracts with homebuyers.
Consequently, many African-American, Jewish, and other District residents, as well as several foreign visitors, were unable to rent or purchase housing in some buildings and neighborhoods. It was an issue that had both a local and global resonance. Tobriner argued this point in his testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962:
"In certain sections of our city, persons are still denied equal access to housing for no reason other than that of their religion or the color of their skin. With the emergence of a score of African nations, the problem of African diplomats in finding housing has added a new dimension to what is already a matter of concern."
Many African states had won independence from their European colonizers over the previous decade. In Washington, their new diplomats were unable to rent or purchase homes in the same neighborhoods as their counterparts from other countries.
Tobriner brought about fair housing ordinances aimed at ending this discrimination. But it was only in 1968, the year after he left the Board of Commissioners, that federal law followed suit. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
A Regional Dimension: Restrictive Covenants
Housing discrimination was not confined to Washington, D.C. As thousands of Jews migrated to suburban Maryland and Virginia in the 1940s−1960s, many encountered restrictive covenants in deeds and contracts. Although legally unenforceable after 1948, even deeds for some new homes included such clauses.
This 1949 covenant in a deed for a house in Bethesda, MD stipulates that the property could not be sold or even leased to African Americans, "Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, and Syrians." However, this restriction did not apply to servants living in the house.
Many homeowners have since had restrictive-covenant clauses legally removed from their deeds. Still, the deeds for some houses throughout the Washington area continue to include similar clauses – although they are legally unenforceable. The current owner of this house in Bethesda decided to keep the clause in her deed as a testament to the history of housing discrimination in the D.C. area.
Have a story about facing housing discrimination in the D.C. area? We want to hear it: firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 789-0900
Object #: 2011.7 Donor: Leo M. Bernstein Family Foundation Description: Leo M. Bernstein Archival Collection, which includes biographical materials, correspondence, family history, professional & community recognition, photographs, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia about the life and work of Leo M. Bernstein, D.C. banker, real estate broker, Zionist, civil rights promoter, philanthropist, American history enthusiast and collector.
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1915, Leo Bernstein graduated from the city’s Central High School. He received an informal education in real estate while working with his father’s real estate investments. The 1906 deed for his grandfather’s kosher butcher shop and home at 816 Sixth Street, NW, is in the collection. He founded his own real estate company at age 18. Within a year, Bernstein challenged racial and religious covenants, which barred the sale of properties to persons of color or to Jews, selling a house in a “whites only” neighborhood near Howard University to an African-American professor.
While working in real estate, Bernstein went to night law school, graduating in 1936 from the Columbus Law School (now Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law). Over the next few decades, Bernstein owned and ran several D.C. banks. Seen here, Bernstein (right) and D.C. Commissioner Gilbert Hahn, Jr., raise the District of Columbia flag at the D.C. National Bank headquarters at 18th & K Streets, NW, in 1971.
Bernstein enjoyed collecting historic documents, especially those relating to American presidents; furniture; and other objects, exhibiting some of them in the lobbies of his banks. This interest led him to become involved in historic preservation in the Shenandoah Valley communities of Middletown and Strasburg, Virginia starting in 1960. There, Bernstein helped save and restore several buildings, including the 18th-century Wayside Inn. As documented by itineraries, correspondence, and photographs, Bernstein organized and hosted family reunions and getaway weekends for friends and colleagues there and at other hotels he owned in the region. Among the groups Bernstein welcomed was the Washington Board of Rabbis, which met at the Wayside Inn many times during the 1970s and 1980s.
As a young man, Bernstein was active locally in the cause of Zionism. In a 1999 oral history, Bernstein told of secret meetings attended by community leaders like Abraham Kay, Joe Cherner, and Morris Pollin: “Before Israel was a state, we had many Haganah meetings. We were getting ready to help Jews get into Palestine. They needed money for guns, ammunition and ships. We met at my office at 718 Fifth Street.” One highlight of the collection is a 1948 letter from Joseph Cherner, president of the Louis D. Brandeis District of the Zionist Organization of America, appointing Bernstein chair of the Embassy Building Committee, charged with finding a suitable building for the first Israeli Embassy.
Donation of Collection
Bernstein passed away 2008 at the age of 93. The following year, the Jewish Historical Society started a major archival project funded by the Leo M. Bernstein Family Foundation to organize and preserve this extensive collection of Bernstein’s business and personal papers. The Society completed the project in 2010 and was honored to accept the Leo M. Bernstein Archival Collection when the Foundation formally donated it last month.
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