Mara Cherkasky had a going business from her Northwest Washington home, doing historical research on the city’s neighborhoods and producing brochures and antique-looking signs for the likes of the Smithsonian Institution, the Jewish Historical Society and Union Station Redevelopment Corp.
But three years ago, Cherkasky and business partner Sarah Shoenfeld, owners of Prologue DC, won a $30,000, three-year grant to produce a map of Washington’s restrictive covenants — language found in deeds that prevented property owners from selling to African Americans, Jews and other minorities.
It hasn’t gone quite as planned.
“We didn’t realize how much time it would take when we started doing it,” Cherkasky says of the project she and Schoenfeld call “Mapping Segregation in Washington, D.C.”
Beginning in the 1920s, Washington was one of many American cities to implement a practice known as redlining — a series of measures preventing certain groups from buying property in particular neighborhoods, obtaining a bank loan or insurance. Many of these practices extended to Jews. The word redline refers to the color outlined on maps of areas deemed riskiest for mortgages.
Cherkasky, who wrote her master’s thesis on redlining, says her research consists of going to the website of Washington’s recorder of deeds and go one by one through the records that stretch back to 1921. For earlier deeds, she heads to the District of Columbia Archives and searches through 500-page books, known as libers. It is a tedious process, she said, adding that the reason Prologue has no competition is that “nobody is crazy enough to want to do this.”
“You open them up one by one and scan them to see if there’s restrictive covenant language in there. After a while certain words jump out at you,” she says. “And then we enter the information in a spreadsheet.”
Such key words usually refer to race. A December 1928 deed for a property in Northwest Washington’s Wesley Heights neighborhood states that the property “shall not be sold to any person of the Semitic race, blood or origin which racial description can be deemed to include Jews, Hebrews, Armenians, Persians and Syrians.”
“There are loads of them around American University,” she says. In addition to the covenants, Jews were denied bank loans and real estate agents would not show them certain properties.
According to the website Greater Greater Washington, the areas of the city where Jews faced the most discrimination were in Northwest Washington near Rock Creek Park, as well as in Maryland’s Chevy Chase suburb. After covenant restrictions were loosened in the 1940s Jews began moving to the suburbs and building their own neighborhoods, such as Kemp Mill in Silver Spring.
There is a link to the map Cherkasky and Schoenfeld’s research is continuing to create on the Prologue website, Prologuedc.com. It shows shaded squares in neighborhoods where the covenants existed. On the left side of the page is a scrollable historical summary of legal cases leading up to the decision in the 1948 Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge that decided restrictions were unenforceable under the 14th Amendment.