DECLARATION OF OPEN OCCUPANCY

June 30, 2019

Micah 2:1-5

This morning we celebrate the founding of our congregation, the Union Memorial Church which as founded back in 1896. Each year on this Sunday in June I share a story from our past, for knowing what our forerunners did in the past helps us know what we can and ought to do in the future.

This story starts back in the Great Depression, when nearly one quarter of all adults were out of work. Families struggled to earn enough to buy food, clothing, and housing. President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisors wanted to make it easier for hard-working families to afford to buy a decent house. In 1934 the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration, whose purpose was to help secure loans for families so they could buy houses.

Taking out a loan is a risk, both for the bank and the person taking out the loan, because the person may not be able to pay back the money borrowed from the bank. They might lose their job, or get sick, or not be able to work, in which case the bank loses the money they loaned out and the person loses the house. The federal government wanted to lower the risks that banks would incur putting out money for people to buy houses, so over the next few years the federal government, with help from the Home Owners Loan Cooperation, came up with a strategy for measuring the degree of risk for people taking out loans for purchasing houses. The government evaluated the degree of risk associated with buying houses in major cities throughout the United States and to record these degrees of risk, they created color coded maps of those major cities. These color coded maps spelled out the level of risk a bank would incur giving money for customers to buy a house in different parts of these cities.

The parts of the towns that were colored green were the most desirable parts of town, the places with the lowest risks for the bank to loan money for mortgages because the value of the property in those districts stayed high. Blue shaded sections showed the still desirable parts of towns. Yellow sections showed “definitely declining” parts of cities and the sections colored red showed the least desirable parts of town, called on the map “hazardous.” These redlined parts were the places where the Federal Housing Administration would not insure banks for giving out loans for people to buy houses. If someone wanted to buy a house in a redline district, provided the buyer could find a bank to give a loan, the buyer had to pay higher interest on the mortgage, much higher to offset the risk that banks incurred. 

If you are interested, you can look on line at the Home Owners Loan Cooperation map for Stamford and Darien published in 1943 [see the map at https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/#36.71/96.93&opacity=0.89 or search for "Mapping inequality".] Most neighborhoods are color coded, although curiously Glenbrook has no color coding. There are three red line districts in Stamford: one on the Richmond Hill district, and two in the downtown areas. Interestingly there are two redline districts in Darien: one is along West Avenue beyond the border with Stamford and the other is south of the railroad tracks in Noroton. By clicking on any section of the interactive map, you can read the reasons why the agency rated any section into one of the four categories. The charts will tell you what kind of houses were there, how many people lived there, and notably what kind of people lived there. A recurrent national trend in most cities, including Stamford, was that people of color tended to live in or near the redlined districts on the maps, the areas where few banks offered loans to buy houses.

At the same time that the Federal Housing Administration was refusing to secure loans for people purchasing houses in redlined districts, they were giving lots of loans for people to buy houses outside of cities, in new suburbs, such as the famous Levittown on Long Island. But only certain people could qualify for those loans. The Underwriting Manual of the Federal Housing Administration said that "incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities." That policy meant that the federal government insured loans for white people to buy houses in the new suburbs but would not insure loans for African-Americans to buy houses in the same suburbs. The FHA subsidized builders who were mass-producing entire subdivisions for whites, with the stated requirement that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans.

The federal government, as well as the Veterans’ Administration loan policies, insured that enforced segregate housing continued through the forties, the fifties, and into the sixties. By the last fifties and early sixties people of conscience began speaking out against this national government policy of promoting and enforcing discrimination in housing. For example, in 1960 the Connecticut legislature amended the State’s Public Accommodations Act to include a ban on discrimination because of race, color, or creed, in the sale or rental of private housing where there are five or more contiguous units, in other words, in multifamily units.

Concurrent with the passage of that legislation, several concerned citizens of Stamford hosted a series of monthly public meetings in 1960 to address fears and concerns about allowing people of color to purchase property in previously all white neighborhoods. At their meeting in the First Presbyterian Church on August 15, 1960, the Rev. Simon Montgomery, pastor of a downtown Stamford parish, told a crowd of over 350 folks that he had traveled throughout the United States and found that “Stamford and Evanston, Illinois are the “two worst cities he has seen for Negro housing.” (Stamford Advocate, August 15, 1960p. 2) He urged that everyone in Stamford work to correct this “ungodly situation.”

Another speaker at the event was T. Carter Dodd, president of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches, an association of churches that our founding pastor, the Rev. Samuel J. Evers had helped to establish back in 1938. Dodd said that the Council had been studying the problem of housing discrimination in Stamford for several months. He stated that the Council was ready to “get off the ground with a strong program on this problem very soon.”

In April of the following year, in 1961 the Council held their “strong program on this problem.” The Rev. Dr. Thorpe Bauer, Pastor of the Union Memorial Church, and Mrs. Lange, a member of the church’s Board of Education, attended the meeting in Darien. At the meeting the Council issued a statement against discrimination in housing, entitled “The Declaration of Open Housing of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches.” Pastor Bauer promptly brought this statement back to the next meeting of our Church Council. They in turn voted to call a special meeting of this congregation in May to hear and act on the Declaration.

The next part of my story is hearsay, for I have not confirmed it in any written sources. Some years ago, The Rev. Ron Evans, former pastor of the Darien Congregational Church, told me that the pastors of the churches who belonged to that Council all agreed to read the Declaration on Open Occupancy to their congregations on an agreed upon date. But, when the date came, most pastors passed.

On page 5 of the Annual Report of the Union Memorial Church for the year 1961, we read that the Church Council called a special meeting after worship on Sunday, May 21, Charles W. Bradbury presiding. The purpose of the meeting was for the congregation to act on the Declaration of Open Occupancy of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches. After the Rev. Thorpe Bauer led in prayer, copies of the Declaration were distributed and Charles Bradbury read as follows:

We, the Christian and Jewish delegates of the Stamford-Darien Council of Churches, of varied racial backgrounds, desiring to speak to the groups we represent and to the community at large on the urgent issue of adequate housing for all in Stamford and Darien, declare:

1)  The equality of all men before God and the right of every man to be accorded justice by his neighbor.

2)  We affirm the right of every man to rent or purchase housing without discrimination of race, creed, or color.

3)  We appeal to the conscience of all to support the principle of open occupancy.

Mr. Raymond Ellis made a resolution, seconded by Mr. Edgar Thompson that the members of Union Memorial Church in the church meeting assembled, do hereby subscribe to the Declaration of Open Occupancy. When the moderator called for a vote, the motion was unanimously carried.

In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, prohibiting  on the books at least discrimination concerning the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. I am well aware that laws on the books do not change prejudices in people’s hearts or their practices about whom they want for their neighbors, as some of you may be able to testify.

Yet I am pleased to have learned and to share with you that in 1961 our congregation was ahead of the learning curve in applying Jesus’ directive that Christians are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27).  In our times we are still learning about loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, whatever may be their color, gender, language, sexual orientation, mental health, religion, or birthplace. I am proud to be part of a church that has taken and still takes seriously the divine mandate to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” As we learn, celebrate, and share Christ’s love, may we carry on the outlook that the former members of this church displayed nearly sixty years ago.