The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A haven for interracial love amid relentless racism: Columbia turns 50

It was an informal wedding in 1968, months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage.

There was red punch flowing from a fountain and a cake. The bride wore a knee-length white sheath dress with lace sleeves, her black hair piled high. The groom, in horn-rimmed glasses, wore a black suit with a white flower in his lapel.

He was white, and she was black. They would become the first interracial couple to marry in Columbia, Md., which in the 50 years since its founding has been a haven for families like theirs.

“There were a lot of ‘firsts’ going on at that time,” said William “Mickey” Lamb, now 76, sitting next to his wife, Madelaine Lamb, 67. He is a retired graphic designer; she is a retired Rouse Company bookkeeper.

Madelaine’s mother and father, who were active in the civil rights movement, invited hundreds of guests.

“Her parents knew a lot of people on both sides of racial lines. It was a very integrated party,” William Lamb recalled.

The newlyweds moved into an apartment in Wilde Lake, Columbia’s first “village.” They later moved to a house in Oakland Mills Village, where they raised two daughters.

At the time, restrictive covenants banning blacks and Jews were still common in the Maryland suburbs. Some communities, including Chevy Chase, were considered “sundown towns,” forbidding blacks from being in their borders after dark. Resistance to integration and the civil rights movement remained fierce in many parts of the country.

Before Loving v. Virginia, another interracial couple fought in court for their marriage

By contrast, Columbia was designed by its founder, developer James Rouse, to welcome minorities and interracial couples. Years before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin or religion, Rouse was secretly buying up thousands of acres of farmland in Howard County to create an integrated, planned community.

On Aug. 22, 1967, he sent a memo reminding real estate agents and developers that Columbia would be a “truly open city.”

“Simply stated, we are ‘colorblind.’ This means that every person or family coming to Columbia to seek a lot, an apartment, a house; to start a business; to golf, tennis, ride horseback, sail, swim, or use any other facility open to the public will be treated alike regardless of whether the color of his skin is white, black, brown, or yellow,” Rouse wrote. “All people will be shown the courtesy and attention by sales personnel that is appropriate to their interest regardless of color.”

No covenants, agreements or understandings would be “extended to any person or family that he will be ‘protected’ against having a neighbor of a race different from his own.”

Rouse’s goal was to create a modern suburb in the Baltimore-Washington corridor with a small-town feel, built around neighborhood villages and village centers that would feature miles of bike paths, a network of community pools and residents of all races and income levels.

Today, Columbia has nine villages and a village town center and more than 100,000 residents. Last year it was named the country’s best place to live by Money Magazine, which praised Columbia’s economic and social diversity, and its prized school system.

Milton Matthews, president and CEO of the Columbia Association, said Columbia has lived up to Rouse’s vision. “If you look at the demographics, it’s probably one of the most racially balanced communities in the country,” Matthews said, “especially for its size.”

According to 2010 Census figures, 57 percent of Columbia’s population was white; 25 percent was black or African American; 11 percent was Asian; 4.5 percent of the population was listed as two or more races; and 8 percent identified as Hispanic of Latino.

“Columbia was a place where people intentionally came so that they could live together as one,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) explained during the March kickoff of 27 weeks of 50th birthday celebrations. Its residents arrived “believing diversity is not our problem, it is our promise. They are the James Rouses of the world, the ones who are bold enough to open the doors for all people.”

Thurgood Marshall’s interracial love: ‘I don’t care what people think. I’m marrying you.’

Bob and Phyllis Sinex married in 1989 and moved to Columbia in 1993 when she was pregnant with their second son.

As an interracial couple, “I was certain we would run into some resistance,” said Bob, a retired teacher. “We have on very rare occasions, but none in Columbia.”

Columbia isn’t a racial utopia. Almost two decades ago, white parents unhappy with Wilde Lake’s schools caused a furor by chartering a bus to send 55 children to a new, less diverse elementary school in Fulton. Last year, in the days after Donald Trump’s election, two Columbia high schools were rattled by students posting racial slurs and threats on social media.

But for many interracial couples, Columbia was an oasis of tolerance.


It was pouring down rain in D.C., when Barbara Russell married Charles Russell.

“We walked out of the courthouse; friends threw rice,” Barbara Russell, now 76, recalled. “I think it became rice pudding.”

It was Sept. 14, 1966. She was white. He was black. It was still illegal for them to marry in Maryland, where they lived and worked with the Social Security Administration. They had to travel to D.C. for the ceremony.

They were living in Baltimore when Barbara became pregnant with her first child. They began looking in vain for a two-bedroom apartment.

“There were no open-housing laws then. There was lot of discrimination in housing,” Barbara Russell recalled. “We didn’t know what we would do. Our plan was: I would rent an apartment, and Charles would move in with me.”

One Sunday, as they were visiting friends in Montgomery County, they passed a sign on Route 29.
“It looked interesting,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s go look.’ ”

The road led to Bryant Gardens apartments, the first apartment complex built in Columbia.
“We went in, and the Realtor there supervising said, ‘Are you interested in renting an apartment,” Russell said. “We could hardly believe it and said, ‘Sure.’ She said how much it would cost. We said where do we sign?”

“We didn’t know anything about Columbia, whether the rental agent was colorblind or what.”
But the two-bedroom apartment was now theirs for a rent of $160 a month. They moved in in July 1967.

“Our son, Charlie, was born in September 1967,” Russell recalled.

Charlie was Columbia’s first baby.

Rouse was delighted that the first child born to a family living in Columbia was bi-racial.

“Jim Rouse embraced us,” said Russell, 76, a retired county administrative analyst who is now divorced from her husband. “We got invited to everything. We felt included from the beginning.”

Still, not long after moving into Columbia, Russell was invited to a League of Women Voters meeting to discuss a proposal to build subsidized housing in nearby Ellicott City.

When it came Russell’s turn to speak, she told the group that she strongly supported integration for the proposed housing project.

A white woman was aghast and turned to Russell and said, “You wouldn’t want to live next to a black person would you?”

Russell looked the woman in the eye and said emphatically, “I sleep with a black man.”

The Russells had a second son, David.

“People would say your kids won’t fit in anywhere,” Russell recalled. “They are not black and they are not white. When we moved to Columbia, we found a whole city based on diversity. We said, ‘Hallelujah’ ”

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