The ghosts of covenants past

What do longtime residents in the Washington metropolitan area think when they encounter signs with the name of a real estate firm with a long and complicated history. On River Road, just south of Bethesda’s Macedonia Baptist Church, there was a home for sale in early 2018 and a sign out front caught my eye as I was driving to a meeting at the church.

The real estate firm whose signs are found throughout Bethesda and Chevy Chase is one of several established by W.C. and A.N. Miller and their successors to subdivide land, build homes, and then sell them. The firm’s website traces its history to 1912; Maryland incorporation records show that one entity affiliated with its founders —the W.C. and A.N. Miller Development Co. — was formed in 1942.

I wonder if this firm (and its 20th century contemporaries still in business today) has ever been called to answer for its decades of discriminatory suburban residential development and the lingering effects those practices that are found throughout Montgomery County?

Typical W.C. and A.N. Miller racial restrictive deed covenant. This one was filed in 1947 for the sale of a residential property in the Sumner subdivision near Macedonia Baptist Church.

In the mid-1940s, the firm subdivided former agricultural properties southwest of River Road and began selling home sites. Each sale included this racially restrictive covenant: “No part of the land hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by or sold demised transferred conveyed unto or in trust for leased, or rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of negro blood or extraction or to any persons of the Semitic race blood or origin which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians and Syrians except that this paragraph shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants ….”

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial restrictive covenants unenforceable in 1948, the Miller firm was still under fire for discriminatory housing practices. In the 1950s, open housing advocates repeatedly described the company’s role in housing discrimination in the Washington metropolitan area. Some of those accounts were memorialized in 1959 before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


When the District of Columbia was accepting bids for urban renewal in the city’s Southwest, people in 1961 queued up to testify in opposition to a Miller-affiliated firm receiving a construction contract. The chief claim was the Miller firm’s discrimination against “minority and racial groups,” the Washington Evening Star reported.

Washington Post headline, October 26, 1961.

Historians who study twentieth century housing and discrimination aren’t the only people who can see the contemporary signs and connect them to Montgomery County’s racialized housing past. Harvey Matthews, an African American man who grew up on River Road in the 1950s, still has strong memories of the firm and its founders more than half a century after his family was displaced.

Harvey Matthews, November 2017.

“I can’t think of any home that through my teenage days that a black person owned that W.C. Miller built,” Harvey said. “I think that was one of his codes of not selling his homes that he built to black families.”

Even if the Millers did sell to African Americans, income inequality and area African Americans’ inability to accumulate wealth would have prevented many from even considering living in a Miller subdivision. “Black folks had less because they didn’t really have to deal with W.C. Miller. We couldn’t afford any of his homes or nothing like that,” Harvey recalled.

The company’s discrimination against African Americans, Jews, and others wasn’t just limited to home sales, Matthews explained. “He [Miller] didn’t hire blacks to do any of his painting or any of his home remodeling or building his homes while he was building his homes.” Harvey also said, “Every once in a while we thought that we could do some of his labor work and that was rare because he didn’t maintain a black workforce or blacks in his workforce back during that time.”

This is the history of housing and suburbanization in Montgomery County. It’s a history with which there has been no reconciliation, no reparations, and no justice for the survivors like Harvey Matthews and the other children of Montgomery County’s African American communities.

Note: Originally published on the Save Bethesda African Cemetery Facebook page.

Death and displacement

Concrete grave marker in an abandoned African American cemetery, Montgomery County, Maryland.

My latest article for The Activist History Review explores more than a century of serial displacement in two Washington area neighborhoods with a common connection: Bethesda’a Moses Cemetery.

People who lived in communities destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification frequently frame their narratives about displacement as theft. Their homes, businesses, and churches, they believe are stolen by capitalism. Spaces for the dead are among those stolen and erased.

For the rest of the story, read The Moses Cemetery: Where Serial Displacement Meets History.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein