After Frank and Kara Speltz got married in 1965, the couple found out they couldn’t have children.
Depressed, Kara, then 28, began calling local adoption agencies in the nation’s capital to see if they could adopt. Private agencies in Washington, including Catholic Charities, said the waiting lists were so long that it would take at least five years to adopt a healthy white baby.
Longing for a child, the white couple, who were involved in the city’s civil rights struggles, began to research how they could adopt an African American child instead. A year after their wedding, they contacted D.C.’s Department of Public Welfare and Junior Village, the city’s overcrowded home for orphaned and destitute children. Both organizations turned them down, saying it was against their policies to allow adoptions between whites and blacks.
“We were shocked and absolutely furious they wouldn’t let us adopt an African American child,” Kara Speltz remembered. “I was so angry that they didn’t care enough about these kids.”
In interviews, they both said they understood the official resistance and social pressures they would face if they adopted a black baby.
At the time, they were involved in community outreach in the largely African American community surrounding St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church three miles from the White House.
Frank Speltz was a former seminary student at Catholic University who left after he was punished for attending a demonstration to end segregation at Washington Hospital Center.
Kara shared Frank’s social engagement and was very active with the Catholic Worker Movement. In fact, the couple spent their honeymoon in 1965 sleeping on the floor of political radical Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker offices in New York City.
After the city rejected their interracial adoption request, a man came into St. Stephen’s with a problem. He said he had a white friend who was pregnant by a black man. The woman felt she was too young and inexperienced to care for the child by herself, and she wanted to put the baby up for adoption. Could the church help them find a home for the baby?
Kara, who now lives in Oakland, Calif., called the woman’s appearance in the church that day “a miracle.”
She was a 20-year-old VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker who had just moved to Washington from Philadelphia, where she had an affair with an African American community organizer.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was numb,” said the woman, now 73, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons.
The relationship was casual, and since she had no commitment from the baby’s father, she realized she would have to deal with the pregnancy on her own. She started contacting local adoption agencies, but because the baby had a black father, “no one would touch my case,” she said.
In segregated, post-World War II America, children of color and mixed-race children were considered “hard to place” in adoption agency parlance. Most agencies at the time used a policy of “matching,” which required that children be placed with families who looked like them or came from the same racial, religious or ethnic backgrounds, according to Matine T. Spence, professor of history at the University of Iowa.
Some white couples adopted Asian or Native American children, but whites officially adopting African American children were much rarer, Spence said. The first recorded case occurred in 1948 in Minnesota.
“Originally, the main impulse behind race matching in adoption was a white-supremacist, segregationist impulse,” Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy said in a 2003 Harvard Magazine interview.
At the time, many states had miscegenation laws barring interracial marriage. Maryland even had a law until 1957 that said it was illegal for “a white woman to bear a child fathered by a negro.”
Still, formal statewide bans on interracial adoption were rare, Kennedy told the magazine: “It was thought to be beyond discussion — it was so obviously wrong that there was no need for a law.”
The District did not have an official law on the books. either. But because interracial adoption was considered so taboo, private and public agencies and judges, which had the authority to approve or reject adoptions, enforced an unwritten policy to bar it, Spence said.
The Speltzes were determined to challenge the District’s segregation rules and have a child of their own, and they worked to earn the pregnant 20-year-old’s trust. After she gave birth in October 1966, she signed papers handing her baby boy, who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, over to the Speltzes.
To make the adoption legal, the Speltzes sought the help of their clergyman, Rev. William A. Wendt of St. Stephen’s, who was involved with a church group trying to expand adoption options for African American children in the District. Frank Speltz also enlisted a radical D.C. lawyer, Landon “Jack” Dowdey, whose clients included members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and an up-and-coming civil rights activist, Marion Barry.
Although the city’s Department of Public Welfare requested basic information on the race of the birthparents and the child, Dowdey’s strategy was to mention race as little as possible in the filing documents. In addition, Frank Speltz had researched an adoption case from the turn of the century in which a black woman adopted a white abandoned child. Maybe that case could help sway the judges?
During the nerve-racking months while the paperwork was moving through the court system, social workers checked on the baby’s home environment.
By then, the Speltzes were living in a commune near Dupont Circle, putting out the radical underground newspaper the Washington Free Press. When the social worker was about to make a visit, they would make the house look as respectable as possible.
“First, all the hippies had to leave the house. Then we would clean like crazy and take down all the posters of Che Guevara,” Kara Speltz said.
The Speltzes never discussed race with the social workers, and it helped that the baby was light-skinned. But they still worried that the adoption would be turned down.
Then, in June 1967, eight months after the Speltzes filed their paperwork, the landmark Supreme Court ruling for Loving v. Virginia struck down state laws against interracial marriage, paving the way for changes in cross-racial adoption laws.
In October 1967, the Speltzes finally got good news: Their adoption — which may have been the first of its kind in D.C. — was approved by a District judge.
“We threw a big party at the commune when we got the news,” Frank Speltz said. “I think Country Joe and the Fish played at the celebration.”
Interracial adoptions began rising across the country, according to the National Council for Adoption.
In 1969, there were 4,336 black children placed for adoption in the United States, with 1,447 of them placed with white families. In 1971, 7,420 African American children were adopted, with 2,574 placed with white families.
Interracial adoption was — and remains — controversial in the United States.
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers asserted that such arrangements constituted a form of “cultural genocide.”
“With that condemnation, the number of white-black adoptions quickly plummeted, according to Kennedy’s 2003 book, “Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption.”
Frank and Kara emphasized black culture in their household so their son would grow up with a strong identity. But they couldn’t shield him from daily racism.
In 1970, the couple separated but were committed to sharing parenting duties. Frank accepted a teaching position in Davenport, Iowa, and his son came to stay with him every three months.
That winter during one of those visits, Frank’s landlord knocked on his door. “I hear your son’s a n-----,” the landlord said. “I never signed up to have a n----- live here.” He kicked father and son out of the house on the spot.
“I tried to protect [him] from incidents like that, but we found that interracial families have to expect these moments and learn how to deal with them,” said Frank, who now lives in St. Charles, Ill.
“We create ripples when we act with courage,” Kara said. “We love [our son] so much. Even though it was scary and difficult at times, we would still do that adoption all over again.”
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