Passover: The very name suggests a surprising fact of ancient Egyptian real estate. One might have imagined the Israelites living far from their overseers, in different camps or on opposite sides of the street. To the contrary, they were neighbors—so much so that God thought it wise, before smiting the Egyptian firstborns, to ask for some directions. Israelites marked their doors with the blood of a lamb, and thus divine justice found its way.
Neighborhoods tell complex stories of cohabitation. To look at the changes in a neighborhood—or even in a building—is to read global, national, and familial histories. Buildings outlast their original purposes: Pyramids become tourist attractions, temple walls become holy sites. Such evolutions in the significance of these structures help us understand the complex dynamics of the places we inhabit and the stories we tell about how we got there.
Consider the synagogues of Baltimore. Along Eutaw Street, in an area of the city once filled with Jews and, per the old adage (10 Jews, 11 shuls), plenty of temples to choose from, there is only one active synagogue left. On every other corner, however, the old buildings remain. These large structures, in Byzantine or Moorish or Neo-Classical style, once signaled the solidity of Bolton Hill’s Jewish community, its affluence, and comfort. That community has all but disappeared, yet the domes of those buildings still rise above the rooftops.
These temples will not conduct synagogue services this Passover but will be filled with the stories, songs, and rituals of another tradition: the African-American church. Despite the many differences between the beliefs and histories of these two communities, some of the most central stories from the Jewish tradition continue to be told by the buildings’ current inhabitants. In particular, Israel’s exodus from Egypt is central to the African-American canon, giving narrative shape to a history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, and the segregation of American cities.
This year, Passover coincides with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot April 4, 1968. King’s final years were dedicated to understanding and improving the way people lived, worked, and learned. Israel’s flight from Egypt often guided his thinking. As we celebrate Passover and commemorate King’s life, a consideration of Baltimore’s oldest synagogues, of the communities who have prayed within those walls, and of the central myth that both communities still share, reveals a story awaiting its redemptive ending.
In the late 19th century, wealthy members of Baltimore’s Jewish community began buying property along Eutaw Street, an elegant thoroughfare lined with large trees and grand mansions. By the end of the century, as Jews continued to move to the area, synagogues went up on every few corners.
Wealthy African-Americans also began buying property near Eutaw Street, erecting civic institutions alongside the opulent synagogues. Visiting the area in 1909, Booker T. Washington commented: “So far as I know there is no city in the United States where the coloured population owns so many comfortable and attractive homes in proportion to the population as in the city of Baltimore.” Washington admired a beautiful neighborhood enjoying good neighborly relations. Although a Confederate statue had been put up only five blocks away, there was promise of progress.
Such hopes were ill-fated. In the first decades of the 20th century (specifically in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision ruling “separate but equal” segregation constitutional), parks, theaters, department stores, concert venues, eateries, hospitals, and cemeteries became increasingly segregated, and the housing market followed suit. Housing segregation was reinforced by violence toward African-Americans who tried to move to white neighborhoods, and white-owned institutions like The Baltimore Sun exacerbated these tensions and fears. “Negroes Encroaching,” cautioned one 1909 headline about housing in The Sun.
City Hall eventually set segregated-housing into law in the 1910 “Ordinance for preserving order, securing property values and promoting the great interests and ensuring the good government of Baltimore City.”
In addition to the laws legalizing segregation, property deeds began including clauses that banned the sale of homes or real estate to African-American or Jewish buyers in perpetuity. Known as “housing covenants,” these contracts were a central tool in preserving the racial, social, or economic homogeneity of a neighborhood. While primarily used by white home-owners to bar minorities, covenants were used by Jews as well, to exclude African-Americans from buying into an area and even to exclude Jewish Eastern European immigrants from moving into wealthier German-Jewish neighborhoods. The city, state, and federal governments helped enforce these exclusionary covenants.
The segregation of American cities accelerated when the federal government created the modern home-loan industry. During the Depression, the Home Owners Loan Corp. and Federal Housing Administration were formed to help stabilize the housing market. To avoid taking on risky loans, they developed a system of assessment that reflected and reinforced prevailing prejudices. Jewish, black, or immigrant neighborhoods—or even neighborhoods at risk of being “infiltrated” by such groups—were systematically avoided by lenders. These areas were “redlined,” and properties or property owners residing within the reddened region of a map were refused government benefits. Such was the fate of almost all black neighborhoods in Baltimore.
The FHA enabled a generation of middle-class Americans to buy homes, and it was wildly successful in doing so; it was also successful in denying these benefits to generations of African-Americans. From the start of these programs until 1962, less than 2 percent of the $120 billion in home loans underwritten by the federal government went to minorities. The most famous product of FHA development, Levittown in Long Island, contractually barred African-Americans and Jews from buying. The standard Levittown lease stipulated that homes cannot “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” Such discriminatory contracts and covenants were ruled unlawful in 1948 but William Levitt, the developer of these suburbs and the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, still did not allow African-Americans to buy homes in his developments.
These deep-rooted structures of injustice were the target of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign,” which hoped to attain affordable housing, good education, and stable employment for every American. King diagnosed a national crisis of income inequality and housing segregation, and believed a dramatic federal program, similar in scale to the FHA’s home loans, would be needed to fix systemic failures.
On April 3, 1968, King stood before a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and imagined a scenario in which God asked him which historical epoch he’d have liked to live in.
If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt, and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land.
King’s use of Exodus was part of a long tradition of African-American engagement with the story of Israel’s flight from Egypt. In Claiming Exodus: A Cultural History of Afra-Atlantic Identity, 1774-1903, Rhondda Robinson Thomas calls the biblical account of the Exodus “the central cultural metanarrative of the Afro-Atlantic community.” This story, buried within a biblical tradition introduced to enslaved African-Americans, became central to the group’s religious and cultural identity as they struggled and fought for freedom.
In this speech, King extended the Exodus metaphor, meditating upon his own role as a leader in this struggle for freedom. He considered Moses’ fate: After guiding his people across the desert, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, but could only see it from Mount Nebo.
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” King admitted. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead.” There were threats to King’s life and warnings of assassination attempts. Concerns over King’s safety were growing. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
The next evening, King was killed.
In the wake of King’s assassination, riots, uprisings, and protests spread across the country. In Baltimore itself, six people died, hundreds were injured, and more than a thousand businesses were destroyed. Jews, for whom Kristallnacht was a living memory, fled urban centers. With American cities still burning, the Fair Housing Act was signed into law.
Synagogues across Baltimore City were sold one by one, many of the buildings subsequently bought by an African-American community that could not and would not leave a city beset with problems. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation became a Berea Temple Seventh Day Adventist Church; Anshei Sfard Congregation a Lamb of Life Baptist Church; Beth Isaac a Beacon of Light Citadel-Praise. The old buildings retain many of their original architectural details: On the exteriors, crosses appear alongside Stars of David, and signs about the week’s church services are set beneath old stone tablets. The buildings’ interiors, designed for Jewish congregations, still have gallery seating where the women would have prayed and bimahs set in the center of the sanctuaries.
A holiday of historical reflection, Passover commemorates ancient red marks; to recall the blood our ancestors painted on their doors is to recall Israel’s liberation from Egypt. In Baltimore, and in towns and cities across the country, red marks of another kind—the red lines of HOLC and FHA maps—are part of a story of salvation yet to come. These red marks and red lines belong to histories that will be recounted in homes, synagogues, churches, and synagogue-cum-churches this week, in celebration of Passover and commemoration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
As neighbors move apart and communities lose comity, stories diverge. The story still shared, however, is one of being freed into an unredeemed world.
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David Sugarman is Tablet’s Deputy Literary Editor and Special Projects Editor.