Decades of racist attitudes, restrictive covenants and government actions segregated city neighborhoods
Why is Curtis Park so white?
U.S. Census Bureau data show Curtis Park is the fourth-whitest of 50 neighborhoods in the city of Sacramento, after River Park, East Sacramento and Land Park.
These four neighborhoods, all largely developed by the middle of the 20th century, are today between 70% and 87.7% white, while the city as a whole is less than 34% white. That didn’t happen by accident.
A combination of factors – dominant whites’ racial intolerance, real estate developers’ decisions to restrict access, lenders’ overt discrimination and government policies promoting racial boundaries – created middle-class neighborhoods that were for “whites only.”
At a time when “Black Lives Matter” signs have appeared throughout the neighborhood in reaction to police killings of Black men and women nationwide, Viewpoint has examined property records, court cases, historical documents, academic research and newspaper accounts in an attempt to explain how Curtis Park came to be the neighborhood it is today.
The Rutland family
Consider, in particular, the Rutland family. Today, Ginger Rutland and husband Don Fields live on Donner Way. But when Ginger was a child, that was not possible for her African American family. Her father, Bill Rutland, came to Sacramento from Ohio in 1952 for a civilian executive position at McClellan Air Force Base. He sought to buy a home in a new subdivision near the base, but was turned away.
In “When We Were Colored,” Ginger Rutland’s play based on her mother’s 1964 memoir, Ginger’s character explains what the family discovered upon arrival in Sacramento: “While California may have been integrated technically, by custom and practice, neighborhoods were strictly segregated. … Dad had to find a house for us, no easy task for ‘Negroes’ of that era when racial discrimination in housing was everywhere and it was legal.”
In the play, Bill Rutland tells of a white co-worker who bought a new three bedroom house near McClellan with a $250 down payment. Why, his wife Eva asked, didn’t they get such a house?
“Cuz they won’t sell to Coloreds in that neighborhood. I know. I tried. …
Only reason I got this house was that one day I went out on my own, saw some Orientals playing across the street from this house that had a for-sale sign on it.
Figured if they’d sell to Orientals, they’d sell to Colored. And they did. But the Colored agent couldn’t even broker the deal. Had to get a white agent to arrange the sale even in this mixed neighborhood.” “This mixed neighborhood” was Highland Park, the part of Curtis Park north of Second Avenue that the federal government had ranked as “declining” more than a decade earlier.
Eva Rutland’s response: “Doesn’t seem much different from Georgia, does it?”
In the beginning
Today’s Curtis Park can be traced to two owners – a Mexican land grant to John Sutter in 1840, roughly north of Castro Way, and U.S. government control of land south of Castro Way that it had seized from the Mexican government. All of it had been taken from the Nisenan people, whose ancestors had lived in the Sacramento area for thousands of years.
The shape of the neighborhood has been described as a “rough trapezoid,” the result of early wagon and stage roads to Stockton (Franklin Boulevard) on the east, Freeport Boulevard on the west, Sutterville Road on the south, and the city limit (now Broadway) on the north. Throughout the 19th century, most of the land remained divided into several family farms.
The first neighborhoods south of the city were Highland Park, where the Rutlands would later settle, and Oak Park. Both were subdivided in 1887 with the promise of streetcar service from downtown.
Curtis Park began to take shape at the start of the 20th century, with the 28th Street Tract in 1904, Curtis Oaks in 1907 and West Curtis Oaks in 1910. In 1911, with what was called the Oak Park annexation, Sacramento more than tripled its land mass and increased its population from 44,000 to more than 60,000 by annexing the land to its south and east, encompassing Land Park, Curtis Park, Oak Park and East Sacramento.
In the early decades of the 20th century, California was about 95% white and Hispanic, less than 4% Asian and about 1% Black. In Sacramento, the Black population totaled only 675 persons as late as 1920.
Segregation by covenant
During World War I, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a zoning ordinance intended to promote racial segregation in Louisville, Ky., was unconstitutional because it denied a white man his right to sell his property to a Black man.
The real estate industry, seeking to preserve housing segregation, got around the Supreme Court’s ban on segregationist ordinances by promoting “restrictive covenants,” private agreements in property deeds to prevent subsequent sales to non-white buyers. For several decades, the National Association of Real Estate Boards required real estate agents to honor restrictive covenants and provided templates for local real estate boards to draft restrictive covenants to ensure neighborhoods would be segregated.
Developer J.C. Carly, one of the founders of the Sacramento real estate board, introduced restrictive covenants into his South Curtis Oaks subdivision, starting in 1920, to prevent home purchases by non-white buyers. “Restrictions” were a common selling point in real estate ads in 1920s newspapers, one of which promised, “Strict race restrictions guard you against unpleasant neighbors.” Deeds for properties in the Heilbron Oaks subdivision in 1923 required that “no NEGRO, JAPANESE or CHINESE, or any person of AFRICAN or MONGOLIAN descent shall own or occupy any part of said premises.” Deeds in South Curtis Oaks had similar language.
Racially exclusive restrictive covenants were legal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1926, because they were private agreements. Nothing in the Constitution, the court said, “prohibited private individuals from entering into contracts respecting the control and disposition of their own property.”
Even where restrictive covenants were not in effect, local prejudice prevented racial integration of the suburbs. In 1921, Tome Takatsuki, president of the Japanese Growers’ Market, purchased a house at 2632 21st St., which “aroused indignation in the neighborhood” of Highland Park, according to The Sacramento Bee.
The local district attorney, in concert with the California Japanese Exclusion League, threatened to sue to challenge the purchase, prompting Takatsuki to sell the home back to the real estate broker who had sold it to him just a few weeks earlier.
Segregation by FHA
The federal government became directly involved in enforcing racial segregation in the 1930s, after the Roosevelt administration created programs to promote homeownership: Home Owners’ Loan Corp. (HOLC), which refinanced existing mortgages to prevent foreclosures; and Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which insured bank mortgages. “Because the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites only requirement, racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program,” author Richard Rothstein notes in his 2017 best-seller, The Color of Law.
To assess lending risk, HOLC surveyed 239 cities throughout the country and developed “residential security maps,” grading neighborhoods from A to D and color-coded green, blue, yellow or red. “Grade A” neighborhoods, marked in green on maps, tended to be relatively new, single-family and all white. “Grade B” neighborhoods, marked in blue, were also all-white. They were considered “still desirable,” though the dwellings may be somewhat older and may include two-family homes. “Grade C” neighborhoods, marked in yellow, were considered “declining.” The bottom classification, “Grade D,” marked in red, was primarily inner-city neighborhoods with multi-family dwellings and large minority populations. The federal government would not insure home loans in the red areas, hence the origin of the term “redlining.”
In 1937 and 1938, HOLC surveyed the Sacramento area. Three tracts in East Sacramento and Land Park received the highest grade, A+. All three tracts had deed restrictions, residents’ occupations were “professional and business executive type,” and no residents were in the categories “Foreign-born families,” “Negro” or “Relief families.”
Most of what is now Curtis Park – Curtis Oaks, West Curtis Oaks, South Curtis Oaks and Heilbron Oaks – received a B grade or “medial blue.” The survey noted that deed restrictions “are operative except in early development.” Like the “green” neighborhoods, these somewhat older subdivisions had no “Foreign-born,” “Negro” or “Relief” families. Favorable influences included a “Homogeneous population of upper middle-class social and income levels.”
In contrast, the areas of Curtis Park adjacent to the Western Pacific Railroad yard, along 24th Street and Portola Way, and the area between the railroad tracks and 21st Street received a C grade, yellow on the map. Most of Highland Park, where the Rutlands would settle more than a decade later, was grouped with the part of Oak Park immediately to its east. The area received a “low yellow” grade, “owing to age and obsolescence.” Other “detrimental influences” included “Danger of subversive racial infiltration and encroachment of business.”
The areas of Sacramento considered least desirable, indicated in red, were largely in the urban core – what was then known as “the West End,” the oldest part of the city west of the state Capitol, as well as the current Alkali Flat and Southside Park neighborhoods.
During World War II, with the rise of anti-Japanese hysteria in California and increases in numbers of Mexican farm workers and Black workers in the defense industry, petition drives sought to protect the all-white character of some city neighborhoods, including Land Park and Curtis Park. Where deed restrictions were about to expire, efforts were made to renew them. Where deed restrictions had never existed, such as in Curtis Oaks and West Curtis Oaks, new restrictions were added to ensure that “such property shall be restricted to persons of the Caucasian Race forever.”
“Forever,” as it turned out, didn’t last long. The U.S. Supreme Court, having a different ideological makeup from two decades earlier, ruled in 1948 that racial restrictions were unenforceable.
“The Constitution confers upon no individual the right to demand action by the State which results in the denial of equal protection of the laws to other individuals,” the court wrote.
Still, the real estate industry resisted integration. In 1950, almost 70% of the city’s minority population was concentrated in the West End – 87% of Hispanics, 75% of Asians, and 60% of Blacks. New suburbs were built to the north, east and south of Sacramento, available to qualified white buyers with $250 down payments. Minorities need not apply.
Enter Bill Rutland and his fellow Black executives at McClellan, affluent enough to afford the new suburbs but denied entry based on race alone. One of Rutland’s colleagues at McClellan, Oliver Ming, ran into the same obstacles to Black homeownership in 1953 that the Rutlands had experienced the previous year. Ming applied to buy homes in new developments near McClellan, in Rancho Cordova and in Parkway Estates. All of his applications were rejected.
But unlike the Rutlands, who had settled for an older home on 27th Street in the racially integrated Highland Park neighborhood, Ming sued the local real estate board, homebuilders, several real estate companies and the agents who had rejected his applications.
After four years of litigation, Ming won a declaratory judgment. The trial judge’s decision described the ways local real estate firms had discriminated against Blacks – “by avoiding talking to Negro inquirers; if that failed, by seeking to disqualify such inquirer on financial grounds; if that also failed, by denying authority to accept a deposit and referring the inquirer to the main office; or if no other excuse was handy, by explaining that the owner had forbidden his sales agent to sell to Negroes.” However, the judge awarded damages of just $1.
Whites statewide remained stubbornly committed to racial segregation. Although the California Legislature in 1963 passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, prohibiting landlords from rejecting applicants because of ethnicity, religion, sex, marital status, physical handicap or familial status, 65% of California voters the following year approved Proposition 14, an initiative sponsored by the California Real Estate Association to overturn the housing law and make housing discrimination legal again. Gov. Edmund G. Brown, who opposed the ballot measure, called it “a provision for discrimination of which not even Mississippi or Alabama can boast.” The California Supreme Court ruled two years later that the initiative was unconstitutional. But only with the congressional passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 did racial discrimination in housing become illegal nationally.
The previously all-white neighborhoods gradually changed. As late as 1970, East Sacramento remained 97% white, while Curtis Park and Land Park combined were 92% white.
By the mid-1980s, Ginger Rutland and husband Don Fields were able to purchase a home on Highland Avenue without resistance. They looked first at houses in McKinley Park, but “we didn’t like the vibe,” Ginger says. “It was a little too white. Curtis Park was a little more inviting in terms of the ethnic makeup.” About eight years later, wanting a larger house, they moved to Donner Way.
Sitting on her front porch, Ginger Rutland points to the nearby homes now occupied by Blacks and interracial couples.
“Actually, there are a lot of Black people dotted throughout Curtis Park,” she says. “It’s not the white enclave that it was.”
Indeed, the same database that ranks Curtis Park as the city’s fourth whitest neighborhood at 70% white, also shows that its population is now 14.8% Hispanic, 8.5% Asian and 4% Black.
And yet the legacy of racist housing policy affects today’s homeownership numbers. Those who were denied the opportunity to purchase homes on the same basis as whites in previous eras were unable to accumulate comparable home equity to pass on to future generations.
The Census Bureau calculates that home equity represents about one-third of the average household’s net worth, which for whites averages about $140,000 while for Blacks the figure is less than $13,000.
Even today, resistance to integrated housing remains a campaign issue with which President Trump attempts to appeal to white suburban voters. Over the summer, the Trump administration announced the rescission of an Obama administration rule promoting the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s goal of eliminating racial discrimination in housing. The president told supporters Democrats want to “eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”
But here we are again. To paraphrase Eva Rutland: Doesn’t sound much different from where we’ve been, does it?
Today, Ginger Rutland seeks ways to help other members of minority groups become homebuyers, whether in Curtis Park or elsewhere, so they too can acquire the home equity that historically has led to family wealth.
“I want to know what we as a community can do to repair those damages that have been done,” she says.
William Burg, Mat Cusick, Dan Murphy, Jim Rose and Ginger Rutland provided research assistance.