UCC DeKalb

Part 2: Baltimore’s Neighborhoods

Part 2: Baltimore's Neighborhoods

It wasn’t all due to White Flight, though. Meissner explains that “the movement came slowly as people died. You have to understand that Baltimore is unique. You had row housing, which meant that every house on the block is attached to the house next to it. You had no yards. Your light on the second floor was dependent on the back window and a skylight. You could hear your neighbors when they were fighting.  You could hear your neighbors when things were going well and the music was set at phenomenal volume.  It was a difficult situation, but we were the second most stable neighborhood in the city of Baltimore. People came and they lived in those houses until they were married 50 years, or until one or both died. Their children tended to move around them, but the next generation always moves a little further out. Convenience and work—it wasn’t all White Flight at that point. So that began to happen, and our neighborhood was picked by realtors to break that open for the blacks.

“Some of the more unscrupulous realtors weren’t concerned about integration. They could make more money if it became black because the blacks rented; they didn’t own the property.” Those who wanted to buy the house paid two mortgages: house and ground. “You paid off the mortgage on the house, but the ground it was on was owned by someone else. And ground rents took precedence over house ownership. So if you didn’t pay your ground rent, the owner of those ground rents could confiscate your furniture to make up for the payment that wasn’t made. There were some disadvantages, and that was one of them.

“But initially, Baltimore was one of the highest home ownership cities in the country because you could do it in stages. It’s cheaper to buy a house than a house on the ground. The ground rents were a good investment. They were low percentage but good investments. “

We had to bring the Church to the neighborhood, that if the Christian faith was to mean anything, it’s got to mean something where you live.
— Bob Meissner

The realtors began to send out cards to people indiscriminately: “’Sell your home now before the blacks come.’  Only they didn’t use ‘black.’ They used the words ‘n----rs are coming.’”  It was at that point that Huber church and other churches as well began to “do civil rights in pieces.” Meissner goes on to say, “Our civil rights involvement was at multilevels. It eventually became organized, where we had power at each level.  But one of the things, when the churches organized, we formed a mission corporation called Homestead Montebello Churches, Inc. We had with us a volunteer Jesuit seminarian who had a real estate license. 

Meissner says, “He was a neat, neat guy. He and I fit in well. We were buddies together. He knew how to get at the realtors, and one of his ways was they send you a card. You just write on the postcard ‘Refused’ and they had to pay the postage to get it back.”

Eventually, each of the churches in the area was losing members. They needed a fairly stable base for functioning. “In our neighborhood, and this was after I’d been there three or four years, maybe five, we brought the churches together. Originally we were doing things like unified Bible study, Vacation Bible schools, and things like that. But we began to realize that we had to really penetrate the neighborhood. We had to bring the Church to the neighborhood, that if the Christian faith was to mean anything, it’s got to mean something where you live.  So we put together Homestead Montebello Churches, Inc., which included—listen to this conglomeration—UCC, Presbyterians, the Methodists were in it, and then also the Southern Baptists, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Roman Catholics—we had a real ecumenical mix. 

“Then we were able to begin—we really began to work on services. When the neighborhood went black, the city services went downhill. Your garbage wasn’t collected as nicely or it wasn’t collected on time. Or they didn’t observe the speed limits on the four-lane streets that ran in front of the churches. So initially we began working for services and then moved to legal. 

“For instance, in our parish, we had planned parenthood for those who were interested in counseling. We were able; I used whatever resources we could get.” This kind of activity didn’t happen early and all at once. It evolved over time.