Frank Lyon and Racist Covenants in Lyon Park (Part II)

By John Ausink

Frank Lyon, our namesake, considered by some to be a suburban visionary, encouraged residents to become engaged in neighborhood affairs by donating land for our private park and contributing to the construction of the community center. But “Lyon’s Legacy,” a 2021 advocacy piece for Missing Middle initiatives published by Arlington Now says:

Frank Lyon, by pen and by brick, would succeed where [Robert E] Lee by sword had failed. The developers and planners of Lyon’s day embedded white supremacy so deeply in the foundation of our county that it has not yet today been driven out. 

Part of this claim is based on the existence of racially restrictive covenants for the sale of homes, but this and other sources reference the same 1976 article that cited one county deed with Frank Lyon’s name on it as the seller in a tract called Moore’s Addition. As a long-time resident of Lyon Park with an interest in local history, I decided to see if there were more such deeds from other parts of Lyon Park.

First some background:  Lyon’s ancestors came to Virginia in the 1730s. His grandfather was a general contractor in Petersburg who enslaved Black workers. Lyon’s father was a “distinguished and scholarly lawyer” who raised a company at Petersburg for the Confederate army. Lyon had three children who survived to adulthood; his son John was killed in WWI. While working as a stenographer Lyon attended Georgetown Law School’s night sessions, receiving a Master of Laws degree in 1890. In about 1902 he started practicing law in Alexandria (now Arlington) County, and became a partner with R. W. Moore, who was making real estate investments near Clarendon. 

We’ll focus now on Lyon’s covenants in land deeds. The map below marks the current boundaries of Lyon Park with a black dotted line to orient you to the numbered areas discussed below. 

Lyon was involved in real estate as early as 1904. In a “deed of dedication” from that year, in which Lyon proposes to subdivide an area he called Lyon’s Addition to Clarendon (the triangle labeled number 1 in the map), the parties agree that:

Liquor shall never be sold or dispensed from any building built on the property

The property won’t be used for any business that constitutes a nuisance to others (I was amused that he mentions a soap factory as an example)

There is nothing in this deed that mentions race. However, things get ugly after that. 

Lyon, Moore and others purchased a large tract of land that became known as Moore’s Addition to Clarendon. Section 2 of Moore’s addition, labeled 2 and bounded by red in the map, was subdivided in 1910. The subdivision deed makes no mention of race; however, when Lyon sold a lot in Moore’s Addition in 1919, the deed includes the liquor and soap factory restrictions above, but also adds:

…neither said property nor any part thereof nor any interest therein shall be sold or leased to any one not of the Caucasian race

Nor shall any house costing less than $2,000, other than an outbuilding, be erected thereon.

This is the deed cited by so many, but I wanted to see if there are more. I started with a home on N. Edgewood St. in Lyon Park Section 7 (labeled 7 in the map). The 1922 deed includes the racist covenant. It also states that no dwelling of value less than $4,000 can be built—but this restriction expires in 1930. I don’t know if the financial constraint was added to exclude lower-income Whites or was an additional barrier to Blacks. 

Next, I looked across Washington Blvd in the area labeled 5 on the map (section 5 of Moore’s Addition), where a 1922 deed for a plot on N. Cleveland St. disallows liquor, requires $4,000 buildings, includes the racist restriction, but adds that no two-family houses or apartments shall be erected prior to 1930.

Finally, I checked our own home on 2nd St N. in Lyon Park Section 6. A 1926 deed for the property includes the racist restriction but for some reason limits it, “for a period of 99 years from September 1, 1923.” This deed also forbids two-family houses or apartments but does not include the alcohol exclusion—for which we are grateful.

At this point I wondered if Ashton C. Jones, who created Ashton Heights in 1921, also barred Black residents. The 1921 deed of dedication for the sub-division does not include any restrictions, but a 1923 deed for land for a house on N. Kenmore St. includes the racist covenant without the 99-year expiration and makes it explicit that violation of this restriction will immediately result in a reversion of the property to Ashton’s company. 

When it comes to racist covenants, then, Frank Lyon was not alone in Arlington. I found it puzzling, though, that the Lyon’s Addition deed of 1904 did not include the racial covenant, so I did more research. I learned that there were many racist attempts to block Black residents, not just via housing deeds.

In 1912 the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation permitting all cities and towns to adopt residential segregation ordinances. However, in 1917 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (based on a Kentucky case) that such residential segregation ordinances were unconstitutional. I haven’t found documentation, but I assume Lyon’s 1904 deed didn’t have the racial exclusion clause because he could legally exclude Blacks via other means. After 1917, since local government could not designate a neighborhood as Whites-only, an exclusionary clause for an individual plot could serve the same purpose. 

In 1924 Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage, and in 1929, the city of Richmond used the Act to prohibit a person from living in a neighborhood where he or she was not permitted to marry any member of the majority population—thus excluding Blacks from White neighborhoods. In a short time, however, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found the ordinance unconstitutional.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the U.S. Supreme court in Shelley v. Kraemer (a case from Missouri) ruled unanimously that restrictive covenants couldn’t be legally enforced by state or federal courts because of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, this ruling applied only to government enforcement of these covenants, and as private agreements such covenants could still be used. Thus, restrictive covenants would continue to be broadly used across the U.S. until they were outlawed with the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. This is reflected in the 1944 and 1960 deeds for our house, which include the phrase, “This conveyance is made subject to the restrictive covenants included in the chain of title to this property.” 

As a land developer, Frank Lyon exploited the racist housing restrictions of his time, incorporating the exclusionary covenants allowed in Virginia and other states, which constrained where Black citizens could live, go to school, and build wealth. How should we react to this history?