Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Case of Race

The house that made history. 

My parents were not racists, bigots, or anti-Semites. In fact, Nancy and Ed Ambrose were quite liberal in their politics and eagerly embraced diversity and different cultures. Though occasionally I would have to remind my father that it was no longer politically correct to refer to the waiter at the local Chinese restaurant as a Chinaman (and he would never call him that to his face, thank goodness), it may have had more to do with his old age and dementia than anything else. That said, they both grew up in a dramatically different time than we do now – where Tom Sawyer and Al Jolson were embraced as sources of entertainment. I remember when I was eleven years old my mother told me it was fine with her if I wanted to marry a black man. It hadn’t crossed my mind, at eleven, to marry anyone, but I never forgot that comment. It made an imprint on me for life. 

My father was working for Abex Company when he was transferred to Ohio in 1968; we lived there for four years in the desirable city of Upper Arlington (UA). We lived in the area north of West Lane Avenue, where the developments resembled a checkerboard of ranch houses built on flat, generous lots on street grids that accommodated adjoining recreational areas. Jack Nicklaus lived on my street, one block down – not that we ever saw him out mowing his lawn or handing out Halloween candy.

My mother would probably say those four years were the worst of her life. She had left her friends and volunteer work behind in Connecticut, moving to within five miles of Michigan’s rival football team, Ohio State. That would have been enough for me. Add to that, though, my mother was now living in a red city in a red state – near Woody Hayes of all people – and just 140 miles away from Kent State when the political protestors were massacred in 1970. However, I think her dislike of Ohio was more personal than that.

In 1970, my parents were two of the four white plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Northwest Arlington Association (NWAA) and it’s trustees. An African-American family wanted to buy the house next to us and they were blocked by the NWAA. This lawsuit was an attempt to unravel the association and the racist deed covenants that had been in place since these houses were built. It’s an interesting story about my parent’s views on race that I wanted to share with you. 

A little history: Ben and King Thompson were major real estate developers of Upper Arlington and the surrounding neighborhoods. According to Patricia Burgess in her book Planning for the Private Interest, “Written into the deeds were restrictions, made to be in effect until 1999, stating that no home could be sold or occupied by ‘any person or persons in whole or part of the Negro race or blood’ but people not of the white race could be employed as servants.” 

Upper Arlington has an online archives, UA-Archives, which I found mildly amusing when I searched for "African American" and came up with one article and one image. It referenced several African Americans in UA history, most notably the mailman, Alfred Holt. It then goes on to list gardeners, hired hands, farmers, and chauffers, and identified the white families for whom they worked. This blog post wasn't meant to be about the UA necessarily, but I did research the most recent census taken in 2010 and was struck by how much hasn't changed in the city in the last 40 years: 92.1% White, 5% Asian, 1.6% Hispanic or Latino, 0.8% African American, 0.1% American Indian, 0.2% from other races, and 1.4% from two or more races.

Back to the history part. After 1948, when such deed restrictions were no longer legally enforceable, the Thompsons went about circumventing that law by mandating membership in a community or association as a condition of purchase of sale. Potential house buyers had to gain approval of membership by the association in order to purchase the property. In addition, the association retained first right of purchase on all lots or homes offered for sale. 

Pace, one of the defendants in the suit, suggested Ashley didn't buy the house because he couldn't get the financing. Pace was currently serving a term on the Ohio Real Estate Commission, a group that was/is responsible for monitoring unlawful practices by realtors.

Sample of a deed in 1966, with Association language.
Close up of NWAA language in the deed.
In 1970, our next-door neighbors were selling their home. The Ashleys were an African-American family from New Jersey who wanted to buy the house. The NWAA, referencing the restrictive deed covenant, bought the house instead, nullifying the sale with the Ashleys. Soon afterward, my parents, our neighbors down the street, the Andersons, and the Ashleys filed a lawsuit hoping to end this xenophobic practice in UA. It was not a popular act, and I remember the harassing phone calls and my mother being worried that a cross would be burned on our lawn. She was always a worrier, but since the newspapers printed our address in the paper, she had good reason to worry.

Well, they won! My mother might say it was a fitting end to her four years in Ohio. I would have to agree.

 Sample of a deed in 1976 with no Association language!

Arlington Home Owners Group Dissolved
(clipping from family archives,newspaper unknown)

An association of Upper Arlington home owners has been ordered dissolved, and a Negro from Camden, N.J., has been paid $1,500 from the association's treasury in settlement of a housing discrimination suit filed last March.

The suit in Franklin County Common Please Court charged the Northwest Arlington Association and its trustees – including John H. Pace, chairman of the Ohio Real Estate Commission – prevented Alfred C. Ashley, the New Jersey man, from buying a house.

Because Ashley is black, the suit said, the association exercised its option under a restrictive deed and purchased a house at 2760 Leeds Rd. in the Canterbury Place Addition for $63,500 in June, 1970, after Ashley had offered the same amount for the house.

The suit, filed by Ashley and four white residents of the subdivision requested the dissolution of the association, the award of $15,000 in damages to Ashley, and the removal of the restrictive covenants from all deeds.

Judge Clifford Rader approved the dissolution of the association Monday and declared all of the restrictive covenants null and void.


  1. An amazing story and another insight into the personalities of your parents! Amazing

  2. Thanks Jeff! It was fun to dig into Ohio politics. This was the short story so I'll have to share the long one with you at another time.

  3. Interesting times in which to live. I know I was alive then but wasn't aware of situations like this in my own community. Whew! Your parents and the others were courageous to take a stand. Hurrah for them -- and they won besides!

  4. Hello, I am a teacher in Upper Arlington. My students used your blog post to study this incident last week. I would love to know about your experiences in Upper Arlington and was wondering if you might consider sharing more of your memories.

    1. Wow, that's great! When I did my research I thought there was a lot more left to uncover. What grade do you teach? I'd be happy to share more but I left UA after the 7th grade, so I may not be of much help. My email is

  5. Sarah, I am an historical researcher and I came across your blog on a Case for Race. this directly ties into the book I am writing. I would really like to e-mail you to ask about question about Upper Arlington. My book is about early black pioneers that lived in Perry township.

  6. Hi Sarah,

    I'm in a group for a public speaking class project, and our topic is discussing discrimination in UA. I found your old blog- discussing the lawsuit your parents and others pursued against the homeowners association, and I was wondering if I could talk to you about UA's history of a lack of diversity. Our project in particular is hoping to start a program in UA to discuss these things with students in order to address the issue of discrimination in UA. I'd love to talk through email- but since I am a minor I'd prefer not to leave my email address or full name on a public comment. Anything you'd be able to tell me is great.


    1. Hi Olivia, sure I’d be happy to help in any way I can. Best email is I left Ohio after the 7th grade so not sure I have much to say but sounds like a great project. Hope to hear from you soon.

  7. Hi Olivia,

    I'm so glad to see you are taking on this project - you're wonderful! A book you may be interested in (and what led me to this great slice of history) is Richard Rothstein's book The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How our Gov't Segregated America (May 2017). UA's "lack of diversity" - (as sell as towns/cities across the nation) is - as you know - a euphemism for industry and gov't racist policy, specifically targeted at African-Americans. Thank you for doing this important work!