by David S. Rotenstein
In March, District of Columbia Councilmember Trayon White sparked controversy when comments he made in public meetings and via social media repeated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews controlled politics, world financial markets, and even the weather. White, who is an African American man with roots in the historically Black Ward 8 neighborhood he represents, offended some Jews and spurred others to come to his defense, along with many Black Washingtonians.
As the controversy over White’s comments continues to spiral out of control with additional complaints about donations to the Nation of Islam, Facebook videos and public rallies, and public demonstrations by local rabbis, it is worthwhile to take a step back and look at White’s comments from a different angle. Missing from all of the punditry and polemics has been a discussion of the role conspiracy theories play in African American communities like Ward 8 that are scattered throughout the United States.
Though Washington achieved early fame as a sublime Chocolate City, it is a city with a long history of racial bias going all the way back to slavery. It is in spaces where white supremacy and violence force people to question what is real and to search for ways to explain the unexplainable that conspiracy theories like the ones White repeated and Washington’s best known urban legend, The Plan, take hold.
The Plan is a narrative that describes whites wrestling property, political power, and space from blacks. It is a story found in African American communities across the nation, yet it is best known as part of Washington’s folklore repertoire.
Washington’s African American residents have experienced serial displacement since that last quarter of the nineteenth century. The earliest efforts centered on eliminating concentrations of poverty in the city’s famed alleys that emerged as formerly enslaved Blacks found refuge in contraband camps during the Civil War. Between 1880 and 1940, there were several campaigns to eliminate what District officials called insanitary housing conditions and to regulate an informal economy that included restaurants and bars owned by African American entrepreneurs.
Historians, anthropologists, and journalists have collected versions of The Plan since the 1940s. Back then, it literally was a plan by the National Capital Park and Planning Commission to relocate large numbers of African Americans east of the Anacostia River. In later years, it became an amorphous constellation of motifs attached to displacement Washington’s African American residents believed was state sanctioned and driven by private sector interests.
In the 1970s, The Plan jumped from kitchens, living rooms, barber shops, and church social halls to the pages of Washington’s black newspapers and beyond. In this version, slumlords, gentrifiers, and bankers comprised a cabal conspiring to retake the District from the black majority. Post columnist William Raspberry wrote about it in 1971 and over the next few years columnists in the Washington Afro-American newspaper repeatedly wrote about The Plan.
In 1974, Afro-American reporter Bill Watson informally polled readers by asking, “Do you favor white return?” He wanted to see if black Washingtonians believed that there was a “major land grab” that would result in displacing great number of African Americans facilitating the “move of largely young, white, middle class people back into homes in the inner city.”
No one has ever reported attending a cabal meeting nor have they seen an actual Plan document. Yet, for many Washington African Americans, there is a Plan and its success may be seen in the dramatic demographic changes that have swept through the city since the turn of the 21st century.
White’s retelling of conspiracy theories about Jews in control of events and lives fits within this oral tradition. Though logic tells people who don’t come from East of the Anacostia River or any of the other American neighborhoods ravaged by poverty and under assault by gentrification and displacement that there is no such thing as a Plan, the lived experiences of people in those neighborhoods say otherwise.
Each day black Americans are forced to ask what is real, whether it’s the disintegration of established neighborhoods or uneven educational and economic opportunities or the talk about the police that black children get and white ones don’t. For many people living in Black America, there is no logical way to explain the unexplainable. Conspiracy theories thrive in spaces of uncertainty such as these.
I can’t speak to whether the Rothschild family had any direct involvement in affairs affecting black Washingtonians. But I can point to a long history of Jewish businesspersons in our region whose discrimination in housing and public accommodations acted like an invisible hand. This invisible hand wrote racial restrictive covenants that kept entire neighborhoods white and concentrated poverty and limited life chances in others.
The Washington metropolitan area’s Rothschilds had names like Freeman, Gudelsky, Caffritz, and Kay. For these 20th century Jewish real estate entrepreneurs, housing discrimination was the family business. It is illustrated in deed covenant documents filed in District of Columbia land records and neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, where multiple members of the same family affirmed that the property they were developing would never be owned or occupied by African Americans unless the individual was a domestic servant employed by the white property owner.
Discrimination and white supremacy wasn’t a Jewish thing or a Catholic thing or a Protestant thing. It was a white American thing and Washington’s Jewish businessmen navigated a Southern region dominated by Jim Crow. Not all Jewish real estate entrepreneurs discriminated against blacks — a notable exception was Philadelphia’s Morris Milgram who was an open housing pioneer and founder of the Fund for an Open Society. Milgram moved in the DC area in 1964 when he bought a Silver Spring apartment complex and began integrating it. In 1970, the Washington Post hailed Milgram’s efforts with Rosemary Village as a regional model for others to follow.
Milgram, however, was an exception. Until the passage of local and federal open housing laws in the late 1960s, many Jewish developers and apartment property owners continued to discriminate. In 1966, the situation reached a fever pitch when Jewish civil rights activists founded Jews for Urban Justice. The organization demonstrated at synagogues where people like developer Carl Freeman worshipped and in front of Jewish-owned properties to force an end to housing segregation.
Our region and nation have never sought truth and reconciliation with our racist past and we continue to avoid resolving the deeply entrenched structural racism that permeates our society. As a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, I find White’s words hurtful. As a historian and folklorist, they are eminently understandable.
David Rotenstein is a public historian and folklorist based in Silver Spring, Maryland. David has a Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania and he is completing work on a book about gentrification, erasure, and the production of history and historic preservation in an Atlanta, Georgia, suburb. He writes on gentrification, historic preservation, and vernacular architecture. In 2017 he founded Invisible Montgomery, a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.