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Black History Month: Mt. Lebanon's past of not selling homes to minorities is highlighted by Muhammad Ali's effort to buy in Virginia Manor

Wednesday, February 21, 2001

By Laura Pace, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One of Muhammad Ali's most peculiar fights was his attempt to buy a house in Mt. Lebanon. He offered $195,000 in 1971 for the six-bedroom house and 1.3 acres of land at 100 Manor Place in Virginia Manor.

Amid rumors neighbors didn't want the black champion prizefighter as a homeowner and after pressure from owner Carl E. Rieck Jr. to make a snappy decision, Ali forfeited and instead purchased a house in New Jersey.

Dentist Richard R. Vensel bought the stately stone home and part of the land for $110,000 and sold it two years later to James and Helen Smith, who raised their seven children there.

Daniel Smith, who was 10 when his family moved in, remembers his buddies making offhand comments about his home.

"Oh, that's the house Ali wanted to buy," his friends would say. It never went any further than that because no one ever knew anything else about it. "It was the second leading topic of conversation in our house." (The first topic was, "Do you ever get lost?")

Smith also remembers hearing how his tony neighborhood once prohibited blacks. Real estate agents showed Virginia Manor homes only to select people.

Exclusive covenants purportedly recorded with deeds prohibited sales to blacks and Jews, former Realtors and municipal officials said.

Ali's property quest, though not a main event in South suburban black history, was emblematic of the battle for racial equality there. Many residents and municipal officials believe such racism has been tempered by education and acceptance during the past three decades, creating a warmer, more welcoming environment.

"I think it's better than any suburban community I've ever heard of," said Ruth Reidbord, a former Mt. Lebanon planner and a charter member of the municipality's Community Relations Board. She now lives in Squirrel Hill.

"I think there are a lot of enlightened individuals here who want to bring about a change," said Chitra Teredesai, a present CRB member.

That change began with the social consciousness of the 1960s after decades of homogeneity. Early Mt. Lebanon settlers were farmers of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian decent who raised corn and rye, most of which was converted into whiskey, according to the Mt. Lebanon history book "The Way We Were."

The population swelled after the Liberty Tubes opened in 1924. The late James Duff, who went on to become Pennsylvania governor and a U.S. senator, spearheaded development of Virginia Manor. But that upscale neighborhood was off limits to blacks, mainly because of redlining.

Redlining usually refers to the practice of refusing to grant loans to minorities. But in Mt. Lebanon, the term often was used to describe the habits of real estate agents who simply wouldn't show homes to blacks and Jews, Reidbord said. "The publicity was bad. But it was true. A black person couldn't buy a house in Mt. Lebanon. It was very much a closed community."

Covenants restricting the sale of homes in any community to blacks or Jews would have been filed with deeds in Allegheny County records, although the Post-Gazette could find none in the old deed volumes or Mt. Lebanon records. But in 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled the enforcement of racial covenants was unconstitutional, and in 1972, the United States Court of Appeals said covenants could no longer be recorded with deeds.

Title companies stopped sending Allegheny County their covenants in the 1960s, Recorder of Deeds Michael Della Vecchia said.

Mt. Lebanon activists began condemning the racist practices in the '60s, and the League of Women Voters conducted a community survey to gauge public perception. The league's Mary Larson said the study was among the first of its kind in the nation. When results showed redlining continued, the municipality created the Community Relations Board in 1966 to handle fair housing complaints. It also worked to make prospective residents feel welcome.

Reidbord, then a member of several activist groups including the South Hills Association for Racial Equality, said some Realtors went against convention and sold to everyone.

Elaine Wittlin was the first Realtor to sell Virginia Manor homes to blacks and Jews. She said the owner of one home experienced economic difficulties and needed to sell quickly, but when Wittlin tried to get a black family inside to see it, the listing agent wouldn't schedule a walk-through.

Wittlin finally broke with accepted practice and called the homeowner, who agreed to show the home to the black family and the sale went through. But Wittlin started getting threatening phone calls, and one of the neighbors moved out. But the nasty calls stopped after the new family settled in.

Once an independent Realtor, Wittlin started Metro Real Estate Services and three years ago, sold the company to Coldwell Banker.

"There's been a big acceptance since I had the difficulties that I had," she said. "That small-time, closed-minded Realtor is gone."

Despite reforms, blacks did not flock to Mt. Lebanon. Only 106 residents were black in 1970, when Mt. Lebanon had a population of 39,356.

Early in the decade, rumors Ali was looking for property in Virginia Manor created controversy and stirred up more of the ugly publicity that the activists had been fighting.

But he did not give up. Three years later, he and his then-wife, Belinda, bought a home at 350 Orchard Drive for $32,000, with no resistance from neighbors.

"He likes Pittsburgh because he thinks it's a nice, sleepy little town," an Ali associate told The Pittsburgh Press in 1974, though Ali did not live there. He bought the home for his aide, Horace Davis.

Ali defaulted on the mortgage. The Tudor house deteriorated and nearly ended up in a sheriff's sale. Another family bought the home in 1985 just barely saving it from auction.

By 1990, the number of black Mt. Lebanon residents had increased to 155, or one-half of 1 percent, although the general population had plummeted by nearly 6,000 in 20 years. Asians outnumbered blacks by more than 5 to 1.

Residents found race in the news again on April 28, 2000, when Richard S. Baumhammers was accused in the shooting deaths of five people and the wounding of another. All victims were racial and ethnic minorities, including Anita "Nicky" Gordon, 63, who was Jewish. She lived next door to Baumhammers and his family in Virginia Manor for decades.

Although 2000 census data aren't available, school officials said black enrollment in 1999 was nearly 1 percent of its student body.

Those diminutive figures bothered residents who cited Mt. Lebanon's "lack of racial diversity" as a weakness during the summer 2000 workshops for the current municipal long-range plan. The minority population there has never exceeded 2.3 percent. Yet residents also listed "diverse, tolerant, well-educated citizens" as one of the town's strengths.

"To some extent, diversity draws diversity," said resident Bill Bates, who bought his Mt. Lebanon home in 1978 with his wife, Maggie McDermott. "Word-of-mouth is always the best advertising in my mind."

Bates is black, McDermott, a Mt. Lebanon native, is white, and their three children are biracial. Although he said his family would be more comfortable if the municipality were more diverse, "the reputation of Mt. Lebanon, historically, is going to take some time to change."

Neighbors always have made them feel welcome, and Bates said he is treated as an equal. "The people have really opened up their arms. I feel very comfortable there." Real estate agents were friendly to the couple, and no neighborhood was off-limits to them. "I think the timing was such that it worked well. Ten years before, it would have been different."

It has not been perfect for Bates, a Marconi Communications Inc. vice president. He was biking through Mt. Lebanon in the early '70s when someone threw a jar of pickles at him from a fourth-floor apartment. "They just missed me. That was more than coincidence." Walking to the bus stop, even while wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, he sometimes heard people lock their car doors.

Mt. Lebanon often wears a polished veneer, but even municipal officials do not pretend the environment is perfect.

Residents, including CRB members, continue the education. Local churches regularly conduct diversity forums. The public library has culturally expansive materials, the CRB sponsors community meetings and the municipal magazine features articles on other races, religions and customs.

"We really make a special attempt to get more people of color in the magazine," said Susan Fleming Stroyd, editor-in-chief of Mt. Lebanon Magazine.

CRB members are proud of Mt. Lebanon's acceptance of Sanders consent decree homes.

Unlike some communities, Mt. Lebanon did not challenge the federal court order, which mandated black residents of certain housing projects be relocated to single-family homes throughout the county.

Municipal officials complained when six houses were proposed for Mt. Lebanon, saying it was more than their fair share. But the transition has been smooth for Sanders residents and the community.

Although Mt. Lebanon's population has shrunk, Reidbord believes education has made the difference. "A lot of those old-time people just die off," she said.

Others must be taught.

"They just never saw the way in any other light," said CRB member Teredesai, who was born in Bombay.

To that end, the CRB plans a May 6 Walk to Celebrate Diversity that will include a 2-mile stroll with a theme of "You Belong Here."

Teredesai said activists and boards would keep repeating their message until it is part of everyone's heart.

"As long as you keep on plugging away, there is going to be some change. I believe in accentuating the positive and it will eventually make its way into the minds of the people."

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