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Racial Covenants in Silver Lake

September 24, 2000

The story on the Silver Lake Hills ("An Oasis Above the Lakes" by Marilyn Tower Oliver, Sept. 10) described so well what many of us experience daily in this beautiful part of Los Angeles.

In the article, Margaret Chase, a longtime Silver Lake Hills resident comments, "The people in the neighborhood have always been friendly. The area also didn't have racial restrictions, as many places did in the 1940s."

While the area is tolerant of diversity, I'd like to point out that the land on which my Silver Lake Hills home is built was originally co-owned by Antonio Moreno, the silver-screen idol who developed many of the streets here collectively known as the Moreno Highlands. The land title deed, put into place Oct. 1, 1940, states: "No part of said premise shall be sold to, conveyed to, leased to or rented to, nor shall the same ever be used or occupied by any person of either the Negro, African or Asiatic race, or any person not of the Caucasian race, whether by the owner, tenant or any other person, except, however, that these covenants and conditions shall not prevent the employment upon said premises of Negro, African, or Asiatic servants."

The deed also required that future buyers obey these conditions, otherwise their ownership would be revoked. As set by Moreno and his partners, these racial covenants were to be in effect until Jan. 1, 1974.

In Shelley vs. Kramer (1948, 334 U.S. 1), however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial land deed covenants unconstitutional. Nevertheless, racial prejudice still prevailed in the neighborhood.

My friend, retired Superior Court Judge Delbert Wong, the first Chinese American judge in the U.S., was told by a real estate agent in 1954 that the land he wanted to purchase was not available to Chinese. He recalls that this practice was common during the 1950s among Realtors who played their part in trying to keep non-whites from moving into Silver Lake.

Wong, who was a lawyer at that time, didn't give up: He went to the Hall of Records, looked up the owner, contacted him and apprised him of the situation. The owner claimed no knowledge of such conditions of sale and instructed his agent to sell the land to Wong, who still lives there in his mid-century modern home.

Many other Asian Americans faced this prejudice, and some circumvented the bias by asking Caucasian friends to purchase real estate on their behalf, transferring ownership once the sales went through.

We who live in the Silver Lake Hills area are lucky to be in such an accepting neighborhood, but it wasn't always so. I believe it is vital to understand why certain social realities exist--particularly in the ongoing struggle for civil rights--otherwise we take the hard-earned gains for granted and risk falling back to discriminatory ways.

I bring up this bit of local history as a reminder of how bigotry can find its way into our daily lives and as inspiration to people who continue to face similar battles.

ARTHUR DONG

Silver Lake Hills

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