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Covenants With Ourselves

Joe Holley

Among the satisfactions of writing Washington Post obituaries, basically biographies in miniature, is the opportunity to explore how people take the hand they've been dealt -- fate, family circumstance, luck, place, etc. -- and craft a life for themselves. That, plus the license to be curious -- nosy, if you will -- means that hardly a day goes by that I don't discover some fact, some tidbit of information about the past that I didn't know existed.

Here's an example. Writing the obituary for Cissy Karro, I came across the story of the Bannockburn Cooperative, a group of homeowners, mostly Jewish, who formed a housing cooperative in Bethesda in the late 1940s. Mrs. Karro and her husband were charter members.

The group purchased an old golf course and built houses for themselves not only to practice cooperative principles but also to thwart restrictive housing covenants in already existing Bethesda neighborhoods and other suburban communities -- covenants that prevented Jews, blacks and other minorities from owning property in certain neighborhoods. In 1947, nine Bethesda families banded together to seek the ouster of
Dr. Aaron Tushin, his wife and their three children (ages 14, 11 and 1) from their home for violating a commmunity covenant that read, "Said property shall never be used or occupied by Negroes, Jews, Persians and Syrians." Tushin was Jewish; his wife was not.

." The neighbors told a judge that Tushin's continued occupancy of the house on Wilson Road was causing them "irreparable damage," although in a burst of magnanimity they agreed that the family could stay, but the Jew would have to go.

As a native Texan, I was well aware of housing covenants, but writing Mrs. Karro's obituary, thinking about how she crafted her life, got me to thinking about those nine families and the choices they made. I could imagine the flurry of phone calls, the evening meetings around someone's dining table ("Coffee anyone?"), the impassioned statements of resolve as they stoked their shared outrage and agreed to hire a lawyer. Still, I had trouble imagining someone actually deciding, "This is what's important to me. This is what I'll fight for."

Fortunately, community pressure forced the nine families to withdraw their ridiculous suit. The covenant would remain on the books for some years.

By Joe Holley |  December 3, 2007; 12:40 PM ET  | Category:  Joe Holley , bethesda
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Weird covenants like that were still around in the early 70's in NoVa.

Posted by: wiredog | December 4, 2007 2:09 PM

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