August 31, 2021

Protecting the Physical Legacy of Hurd v. Hodge and the Hurd Family

A picturesque, Edwardian-style rowhouse located on tree-lined Bryant Street NW in Washington, D.C., was once home to James and Mary Hurd, a middle-class Black American family whose experience was at the center of the 1948 case Hurd v. Hodge. This case was the Washington, D.C., companion to the St. Louis and Detroit cases known collectively as Shelley v. Kraemer, the landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed federal court enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in home deeds. In July, the landmark’s physical and cultural legacy was protected with a preservation easement.

History of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood and Hurd v. Hodge

In the 1920s, the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., became a center for legal challenges to racially restricted covenants. The neighborhood’s proximity to Howard University attracted potential Black buyers, but multiple blocks remained restricted for Black residents. Local courts continually enforced racial covenants barring Black residents from certain areas of the neighborhood. The civil rights attorneys at the Howard University School of Law had substantial experience in challenging housing discrimination cases in courts across the country, which prepared them for the Hurd case that would take place on their doorstep.

In 1944, the Bryant Street NW house was purchased and resold to James and Mary Hurd, making the Hurds the first Black family to own and occupy a home on the block. James Hurd owned a nearby salvage yard and often sold supplies to Raphael Urciolo, the real estate broker who sold the home to the Hurds. After subsequent homes on the block were sold to Black families, the Hurds’ white neighbors, Lena and Frederic Hodges, sued both the Hurds and Urciolo for violating the restrictive covenant in place.

An image of a group of brick rowhouses in Washington, D.C. The Hurd House is the one in the middle, a red brick exterior with a green tree in front partially obscuring the facade.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Exterior of the Hurd House in the Bloomingdale Historic District in Washington, D.C.

As with many restrictive covenant cases, the basis of the Hodges’ argument was that permitting Black residents to live on the block would reduce their property value. The District Court ruled in favor of the white neighbors and ordered the Hurds and other Black families to vacate their homes. With the support of Howard University School of Law and numerous advocacy groups, famed NAACP special counsel Charles Hamilton Houston represented the Hurds in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Houston’s legal prowess earned him the slogan "The Man Who Killed Jim Crow."

The case used extensive contextual evidence, known as the Hurd brief, which provided a broad and innovative look at the consequences of segregated housing on Black families and communities. In 1948, the Supreme Court determined that the enforcement of restrictive covenants by the lower courts violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. As Washington, D.C., is not a state, the unanimous opinion also cited the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which stated that “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.”

Though the struggle against housing discrimination by no means ended and the widespread use of racial covenants continued, the outcome of the landmark case meant that racial discrimination in housing could no longer be enforced by the courts. The ruling served to strengthen legal battles for civil rights that would emerge in the years to come.

The Preservation of the Hurd House

The Hurd family continued to live in the house for 43 years before selling it in 1997. Designed by local architect Joseph Bohn Jr., the property is a contributing building in the locally designated Bloomingdale Historic District and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 for its historic and architectural significance.The house is also included in the District of Columbia’s Inventory of Historic Sites and featured in the District’s Civil Rights Tour.

In May of 2021, the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to advise John Henson's (the owner) estate on preservation protections prior to its sale of the Hurd House.

A scan of a headline that states the outlawing of restrictive covenants from the Afro American a Baltimore Newspaper. The paper is dated May 1948.

photo by: Afro-American. Accessed via DC Historic Sites

Headline from Baltimore's Afro American highlighting the success of the case to outlaw racial covenants.

In addition to its historical significance, the property retains a high degree of architectural integrity. The National Trust determined that a preservation easement was the most suitable tool for the long-term preservation of the property.

A preservation easement, also known as a conservation easement, is a voluntary legal agreement in which a property owner agrees to permanently protect a historic property’s character-defining features. An easement does not prohibit changes to the property, but instead ensures that such alterations do not compromise the character-defining features of the home.

While the property’s location in a locally-designated historic district affords it certain protections, the preservation easement provides additional targeted protection of both the interior and exterior of the home and prevents demolition in perpetuity. The restrictions included in the easement will extend to all future owners of the property.

At the end of July, the Hurd House was sold to a new owner with a preservation easement in place administered by the National Trust. The Hurd House remains a private residence not open to the public.

The Hurd House holds both local and national significance in the nation’s civil rights history. The house embodies the story of the Black D.C. family at the center of the legal battle against discriminatory housing policies as well as the innovative legal strategy utilized by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to undermine the legal basis for segregation. Now permanently protected with a preservation easement, the building will remain a tangible connection to Washington, D.C.’s civil rights history for generations to come.

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Kelli Gibson is the manager of the Easement Program at the National Trust. Her interests include the adaptive reuse of historic institutional buildings and the preservation of sites significant to Black American culture.

kgibson@savingplaces.org

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