Look no further than American suburbs to find some of the starkest legacies of Jim Crow. Segregated through redlining and disproportionately benefiting from state subsidies, American suburbs fixed the geography of white supremacy. But when we look at American suburbia, we must also look beyond America’s borders. It turns out that thousands of average British people helped shape housing discrimination in the United States through their investments in land in the early twentieth century. The outlines of the history of these transnational investments — still not fully uncovered — can be glimpsed in the case of Baltimore.
Beginning in 1891, the Roland Park Company developed a two thousand acre district in northern Baltimore that still consists of the city’s wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods. The Company created some of America’s first restrictive covenants, which barred blacks from purchasing or occupying a house. Hedges and walls surrounded the district to block the views of nearby black-owned property. Developers, planners, and elected officials from across the country cited the Roland Park Company District as a national model. Decades later, its officers played important roles in making federal housing policy during the New Deal. And the very existence of Roland Park Company depended upon British capital.
In the months before the Roland Park Company’s incorporation, its Baltimore agent began purchasing parcels of land five miles north of City Hall, beyond Baltimore’s grid and its booming population. The land belonged to what Baltimoreans called “country estates.” These farms and mansions located atop one of the city’s high hills were formerly run with slave labor. By the time the Roland Park Company started to assemble its tract in 1891, some of the slave-owning families had left, but the descendants of slaves remained scattered on the hillside and in a majority-black village along a nearby river.
No British investors appear in the incorporation papers or shareholder rolls of the Roland Park Company itself. The Company put forward a decidedly local face in order to avoid appearing like the product of “alien interests.” Of the five signatories that incorporated the company, three were local landowners. Another listed a Maryland address, though he had only recently moved from Kansas City to helm daily operations of the Roland Park Company. The final founder represented British capital. Roland Ray Conklin, also of Kansas City, co-ran the Jarvis Conklin Mortgage Trust along with his partner, Samuel Jarvis, who joined the Company during its first meeting, hours after its founding. Together, Jarvis and Conklin managed the American investments of a British firm, the Lands Trust Company Limited.
Jarvis and Conklin had purchased interests in each piece of land the agent had bought. At that first meeting they “offered” to sell this land to the Roland Park Company in exchange for stock. The deal had been pre-arranged by all parties involved. Through the transaction, the Roland Park Company officially took hold of the property and began to develop a suburb. Meanwhile, Jarvis and Conklin came to own — on paper — 7,527 of the company’s 10,000 shares. In actuality, they managed these shares on behalf of the British investors.
The Lands Trust Company Limited, founded in London in 1888, pooled capital from shareholders in order both to purchase land and to fund land speculation abroad. Its business plan depended upon its displacement of people of color. The Lands Trust focused on “the more newly settled parts of the United States or in the Colonies where from the influx of population they are rapidly enhancing in value.” Baltimore fit the description. As the Roland Park Company evicted the descendants of slaves, it sparked a migration of affluent white residents northward from downtown Baltimore.
The three biggest shareholders, Jarvis, Conklin, and an Englishman named Alfred Fryer, only owned about 3,000 of the 50,000 shares in 1893 when the Roland Park Company broke ground in Baltimore. Four hundred small investors held the rest. These small investors included Emma Dixon, a Yorkshire widow who bought five shares of Lands Trust stock for five pounds. Dixon could have learned about Lands Trust through several different channels. She might have opened up The York Herald in 1889 and saw the company’s advertisements. A family member might have alerted her to the investment opportunity; twenty-five of the sixty female shareholders were related to other Lands Trust shareholders. Several widowed shareholders functioned as “executrix” to their late husband’s estates, including the company’s largest shareholder after 1893, Anna Fryer. Others worked in the same industry, leading to a preponderance of Manchester cotton spinners on the books. From music professors to ministers to mustard manufacturers, a wide cross-section of society from all corners of the British Isles sank their hard-earned money into suburban colonialism in the United States. Their contributions, sometimes as small as one pound, flowed into Baltimore.
The structures underpinning Jim Crow finance multiplied at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1893 Jarvis Conklin Mortgage Trust and the Lands Trust Company Limited operated in eleven states. But in spite of the increasingly complex and extensive networks of financiers and intermediaries, the effects of transnational capital were still felt on the small scale. In Yorkshire, Dixon received a check for a 3% dividend on her five pound investment. Meanwhile, the sewers she helped fund in Baltimore emptied into a popular swimming spot for black children down the hill from Roland Park. As they swam in contaminated water, the children’s lives became intimately intertwined with Dixon’s, though they never knew she even existed.
Small British investors made segregated suburbs possible and even desirable for developers. The Roland Park Company turned to planning and restrictive covenants because they needed to guarantee long-term returns on investment on a large tract of land. They were not alone. Transnational capital initiated a fundamental shift in American housing development in the 1890s in which a growing wave of subdividers eschewed the practice of building a few houses at a time in favor of planning entire communities. While not a new concept, the proliferation of planned suburbs changed what type of housing held the highest property value in the United States: the segregated tract of single-family houses on winding streets. British investment in the late nineteenth century — not the end of World War II — marked the beginning of mass suburbanization in America.
By raising the question of who bankrolled Jim Crow, American suburbs can be resituated from uniquely American places to but a single stop in a global circuit of capital — an outgrowth of the high degree of international financial integration at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, American capital also funded colonial undertakings elsewhere: The Lands Trust also invested in South African diamond mining while Jarvis and Conklin became the first businessmen to raise the American flag in Cuba after the Spanish-American war. Housing discrimination in the United States must therefore be understood not just in a national context but in a longer history of race and empire. Just consider it this way: the federal government may never have endorsed redlining if British investors had not broken ground in the suburbs decades earlier.