White male property owners?

Is that provocative enough? Too provocative? Too provocative since race and racism are the issues of the week? (We haven’t heard of any new transvaginal ultrasound requirements this week, have we?) Too provocative since this is only about property ownership and not race or sex?

After my post yesterday, I saw a surge in readership (nothing to do with search engine optimization or anything like that, just one retweet and finally admitting this blog’s existence by way of facebook), so in case any of those new readers stuck around, let me explain that I usually focus on local issues, and generally hyper-specific at that. Lots of things come across in old documents as I compile them for work.

Which brings me to the issue of property ownership.

In the olden days, voting was restricted to white male property owners. Gradually, thankfully, voting rights were extended so that now all adults (except for felons and in some cases ex-felons) may vote. Without recalling any of the American history I learned in high school (key recollections from 11th grade American history: 1st of day, teacher had a fork in his shirt pocket, and “Hugo” referred to Hurricane Hugo), nevertheless I know that by the time of World War II, every citizen over the age of 21 at least technically had the right to vote. I don’t remember when things like Jim Crow laws were finally struck down. And I really don’t remember at which point in the expansion of voting rights property ownership was removed as a requirement.

This is relevant, I promise!

Because today I came across a document from 1955 establishing a Board for which real property ownership (in DC) was a criteria for serving on.

Organization Order 112, Establishment of Board of Appeals & Review, August 11, 1955. The Board of Appeals & Review was the precursor to the Office of Administrative Hearings, though it’s unclear to me what the role of the Board members was in adjudicating cases. On the one hand , the Board “shall consider and make final determinations,” but on the other hand, they were to hire one or more hearing officers who would conduct “all hearings on matters coming before the Board.” Maybe it’s just unclear to me because I’ve never gotten to be the judge that was, for a time, my career aspiration.

I ask the question about the parallel of Board members to judges because property ownership was (again, if I remember correctly, etc etc) for some time also a requirement for being a judge. I know even less about when this stopped being a requirement in DC or elsewhere.

So I leave you with the questions that first came to mind when I noticed this: WHY was property ownership a requirement? Why wasn’t residence enough? In 1955, what did this mean for the racial composition of the Board?

Do you have any ideas? Please share them in the comments.

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2 Comments on “White male property owners?”

  1. This actually has been in contention for hundreds of years, with no direct relation to racism.

    The issue has to do with the role of government and who pays for it. The primary revenue source for general municipal operations historically has been property tax, with other projects funded through special duties and excises.

    If municipal accounts are primarily funded through property taxes, the arguments went, “mere residents” could not be trusted to appreciate the fiscal consequences of certain official actions. In Federalist times the context even included the right to vote or hold elected office.

    Benjamin Franklin, et al, won out with the view that popular selection was a basic human right in a democracy, but eligibility for appointments (including judicial ones) was allowed to have extended requirements.

    Similar requirements are still in effect today, by the way, but official residency is the standard rather than property ownership. The intention is still preventing disinterested parties from having a voice in matters of no direct consequence. More than one District Councilmember would not be in office today (maybe ever!) if votes could be cast into other wards.

    Of course, other laws prohibiting blacks (and sometimes Asians and indigenous people) from owning certain properties in incorporated areas had the effect of preventing them from holding those positions too. 1955 would have been at the dawn of the civil rights reformation, so a lot of the things we now hold self-evident about collateral racism weren’t yet accepted. But in places where only economics determined the ability to own taxable property, by requiring that these positions were filled from within the community, these laws also served to protect home rule and self-determination in places where otherwise the voice of the people would have been drowned out.

    We’re better off now, but it wasn’t as bad as it seems.


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