Profiles in Montgomery County Black History: Dr. Roland E. Barnes

Credit: The Washington Post.

Dr. Roland E. Barnes only spent a short amount of time in Montgomery County in the 1960s. The Army veteran and accomplished educator played a small but significant part in Montgomery County’s fitful moves towards eliminating housing discrimination.

Roland Edward Barnes was born in North Carolina in 1920. His parents, Roland A. and Lillian, moved to Washington in the 1920s. The elder Barnes was a railroad mail clerk; Mrs. Barnes didn’t work, according to U.S. Census schedules. They rented a home after arriving in Washington and then in 1938, the family bought a home on Columbia Road NW.

Barnes attended Miner Teacher’s College. In 1940, he and Frances Johnson, who was attending Howard University, eloped. They had secretly been married more than year before the Baltimore Afro-American reported on it after Mrs. Barnes graduated in 1941.

The couple moved to New York and began teaching careers. Barnes was teaching sixth grade in Manhattan when he was drafted; he served in the Army as a 1st lieutenant. After his discharge, he received a doctorate in education from Queens College in New York City.

In May 1961, the Montgomery County School Board recruited him to become principal of Travilah Elementary School. He and his wife had been living in a home on Allison St. NW in the District’S Petworth neighborhood that they bought in 1955. When Barnes came to work for Montgomery County, his wife, the County also hired her as a special needs teacher. His commute to the elementary school took nearly an hour each way and the couple in 1961 began looking for a home closer to work.

Roland and Frances Barnes owned a home in this row of houses built in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood in 1929 by developer Morris Cafritz.

An advertisement in the Washington Post caught his eye: it was for a new development off of Seven Locks Road. The subdivision would have cut his commute to school down to 12 minutes. He and his wife signed a contract to buy a house under construction on Charen Lane and paid a $1,000 deposit ($200 cash and an $800 note) for the $26,000 home.

The site was attractive: “It was one of the largest lots in the development, with a stand of trees along the property line in the rear, giving promise of some privacy,” according to later court documents.

Roland and Frances Barnes tried to buy this Rockville home in 1961. The developer didn’t want to sell it to African Americans.

Barnes and his wife returned home from a visit to the model home to find a letter from the sales agent along with Barnes’s check and note. It read, “We are sorry but this deal cannot be consummated at this time.” The developer, Chevy Chase-based Abraham Sind & Associates, had informed the agent that, “unwilling to sell a lot in the development to a Negro.”

Barnes hired attorneys who were able to identify the developer and begin negotiations on behalf of the Barnes family. The developer offered several alternatives, including other sites in the subdivision or in Rockville. Sind informed Barnes that the lot originally desired was unavailable, that it had been sold to another buyer.

In an attempt to settle the case against him, developer Abraham Sind offered to sell the Barnes family this home on a nearby lot. They declined and stuck to their demand to have the original home they wanted to buy.

Testimony in the case revealed that the developer didn’t want to sell a home to Barnes or any other African American because Sind and his partners believed that it would result in a loss in their investment. “They feared that if it were known that they had sold or might sell a house to a Negro, it would be fatal to the profitable development of the subdivision,” the federal courts reported in subsequent litigation.

Barnes refused to accept the offer, which he believed was not equitable. He became the first person to file a complaint with the Federal Housing Administration pursuant to Executive Order 11063 that recently had been issued by President John F. Kennedy. The order prohibited discrimination in housing owned or operated by the federal government as well as loans made by or secured by the federal government.

In addition to the complaint, Barnes sued in federal court. The case wound its way through District Court in Baltimore and it was heard by the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court. In 1965 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In 1962, the Baltimore Afro-American reported on the Barnes case. The paper quoted Barnes: “This clause as developed by W.C. and A.N. Miller to keep non-whites and Jews out of Spring Valley and other Miller Developments, was adapted by Sind and Cohen to keep colored out of Seven Locks Meadows.” The Miller company developed large subdivisions in Northwest Washington, Bethesda, and Chevy Chase, including Sumner near River Road.

As an African American living in Washington, Barnes was no stranger to racial restrictive deed covenants. The 1955 deed to his Allison Street NW home prohibited the property’s sale, lease, or transfer to “a negro or colored person.” When the Barneses sold the property in 1963, the covenant first attached to the property by developer Morris Cafritz was gone from the deed.

1955 deed to the Allison Street NW home Roland and Frances Barnes bought in 1955. Source: District of Columbia Land Records.

Meanwhile as the litigation proceeded, newspapers reported that Barnes and his wife rented a home in Silver Spring. As the case was working its way through the courts, in 1963 Barnes took a two-year job in Afghanistan. In 1965, after the Supreme Court declined their case, Roland and Frances Barnes bought a home in Kensington. They lived there until moving to Pittsburgh. There, Frances pursued a career as writer and he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. The couple divorced and Roland Barnes moved to North Carolina where he died in 1997. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Roland and Frances Barnes owned this Kensington home between 1965 and 1971. They sold it and moved to Pittsburgh.

Sources: The Washington Post; Baltimore Afro-American; District of Columbia Land Records; Records of the U.S. Supreme Court; Maryland Archives. #BlackHistoryDay2018

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