On Sacred Ground
By Amanda Szakats
As a facilitator of the Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground program, my fellow group members and I delved into America’s history of race and racism. Like many white people, I had not studied or thought too deeply about the lasting impact of white supremacy on today’s racial disparities, particularly in the arena of housing.
Yet, these disparities had gnawed at me since moving from a diverse area in Dallas to Northern California in 2000. Why were East Bay cities such as Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, and Walnut Creek so white, I wondered? When we purchased our house in Pleasant Hill, in 2001, I had one clue as to the reason. I was shocked to see that the original deed from 1949 barred all non-Caucasians from purchasing the home and even allowed neighbors to sue the owner if he or she sold or rented the home to a non-Caucasian. The deed mentioned that the 1968 Fair Housing Act voided that provision. I expressed my surprise to my real estate agent, a white man near retirement. He shrugged. “That’s just how things were back then,” he said.
As part of the Sacred Ground curriculum, I was introduced in Week 7 to the concept of redlining. I was not surprised that private realtors and home builders would discriminate based on race, but I was stunned that it was the policy of the Federal Housing Administration for years to not back loans for housing built for or sold to non-whites. I read the book “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein, which tells the history of government-imposed housing segregation. With this background, I set out to find out Pleasant Hill’s history of racial exclusion. I used newspapers.com to research articles on the topic and went to the county recorder’s office to look at housing deeds. Not only did I ascertain widespread use of racial covenants in FHA/VA-funded homes in Pleasant Hill, which started developing small tract housing in 1942, but I also discovered another story. I found what initially seemed to be an optimistic tale of how religious organizations, including the national Episcopal Church and the Diocese of California, led by Bishop James Pike, bound together in the early 1960s, in an organization called the Fair Play Council, to advocate for the end of discrimination in housing. This fight culminated in the passage of California’s Fair Housing Act in 1963, five years before the federal Fair Housing Act. However, I quickly realized that the passage of the Housing Act was not the happy ending. What followed was swift backlash, in the form of a voter proposition known as Proposition 14, which revoked the California Fair Housing Act. Sadly, the proposition passed overwhelmingly. It was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Following my research, I had discussions with church staff at my church, Church of the Resurrection in Pleasant Hill, and fellow Sacred Ground facilitators on how to share this information and broaden the discussions we had in Sacred Ground to a wider audience. We decided on a Zoom forum. I contacted the president of the Tri-City NAACP, Johnicon George, whom I had met through a mutual friend, to ask for suggestions on speakers. George connected me to Bill Martinez, a local assessor working on a white paper on housing reparations. I also corresponded via email with Richard Rothstein, the author of the Color of Law, who told me he was working on a national program on housing reparations with religious leaders. He connected me to the Rev. Natosha Reid Rice, an Episcopal priest in Atlanta. George, Martinez, and Rev. Rice all agreed to participate in the panel to discuss historic and current day housing discrimination. The Episcopal Diocese of California agreed to sponsor the forum and advertise it. The panel took place on Nov. 3 with more than 20 attendees and can be viewed here. Along with another Sacred Ground facilitator from my church, Phil Matthews, we also held a forum on immigration in the Bay Area. That forum can be viewed on the same page. Two more forums are planned for 2022, one on Asian American history in the Bay Area, and one on Native American history in the Bay Area.
Amanda Szakats is a member of the vestry at Church of the Resurrection in Pleasant Hill and was a facilitator for Sacred Ground. A former business journalist, she now teaches English as a Second Language to adult immigrants.