Alum Fights for Housing Justice in Annapolis

July 10, 2020 | By Les Poling

annapolis alum rachael langston st johns
Rachael Langston (A19). Photo by Tbel Abuseridze (A20).

The summer after her junior year, Rachael Langston (A19) was awarded a Hodson internship that allowed her to work at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a nonprofit with a stated mission “to advance social and economic justice by empowering communities through innovative, collaborative, neighborhood-based legal representation and advocacy”—including slumlord issues, tenant abuse, and other matters related to housing rights.

“I was working on behalf of tenants against slumlords, and on the whole issue of affordable housing,” she recalls. After that, “I knew that I wanted to keep thinking about housing, and specifically public housing.”

Her stint at Brooklyn Legal would eventually lead to another Hodson internship, this one at the Donahue Law Firm in Annapolis, which ultimately turned into a full-time position. But Langston’s post-grad career path isn’t the result of a decades-long aspiration to work in the legal system. It’s a broader pursuit of justice, one informed by a variety of life experiences and people—some of whom also inspired her to go to St. John’s College.

Langston’s mother is a tutor at St. John’s in Annapolis, as well as the associate dean for the graduate program. “I grew up around tutors,” Langston explains, something she says helped inform her decision to leave high school a year early to attend the college herself. “I had a lot of role models through the years that I was close to. I was excited to go to St. John’s and read all the books that the people around me were talking about.”

One of those role models was her godmother, Margaret Winter (A66), associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project—an initiative dedicated to curbing mass incarceration and ensuring imprisoned people are treated humanely. In 2012, Winter won the St. John’s Alumni Association Award of Merit, a recognition of her pioneering work. “I saw her changing things for the better in a major way,” Langston recalls. “Early on, I knew that was something I wanted to do.”

For Langston, that didn’t necessarily mean working in law. In fact, while at St. John’s, she first interned at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, working in the protection of marine areas. But after her time at Brooklyn Legal Services A, she was keen to work in public housing issues. After her senior year, she had an internship lined up that focused on architecture, public housing, and affordable housing. When it fell through, the Hodson committee told her they would support an alternative internship—if she could find one.

During that time, Langston was following along with a legal case regarding Annapolis public housing in the Capital Gazette. “I was inspired by the case,” she recalls. “I really cared about it—it was about the issues I was interested in, in my community.” When she had to find a new internship, she scrolled to the end of the Gazette article, found the name of the law firm, looked it up on Google Maps, and then walked over to ask for an internship. Within days, she was working at the Donahue Law Firm.

In early 2019, Joseph Donahue sued the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis and the city itself on behalf of 28 residents, alleging decades of racial discrimination against Black residents who live in public housing that, according to the lawsuit, has since fallen into disrepair—held by the city to lower health and safety standards than other properties. Given the broad nature of the suit, it involved a deep dive into the history of segregation and discrimination in Annapolis. That’s where Langston came in. “I was researching the history of Annapolis, the history of the Black community, and the history of various urban renewal projects that had happened in the second half of the 20th century,” she says; all part of the firm’s search to uncover the alleged history of housing discrimination in Annapolis.

The case has since advanced to federal court in Baltimore, Maryland Legal Aid has joined in the suit, and Langston is now working as a law clerk; in addition to historical and legal research, proofreading, and other duties that aren’t specific to that case, she’s assisting in the litigation between 52 Annapolis public housing residents and the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis, as well as the city of Annapolis. Because the case is ongoing, she’s not allowed to speak on it in detail. That being said, she hopes it serves as a reminder to those living in Annapolis, Johnnies and other residents, that the fight for civil rights is enduring—and local. “There’s a history [in Annapolis], starting with slavery and extending all the way to today, and I think that it’s important to uncover that and to look into it,” Langston notes. “I found it very surprising and eye-opening to find out about all of the places that used to be homes and Black-owned businesses that have been replaced by parking garages and office buildings.”

“It’s important that you try to be aware of and get to know a more diverse vision of Annapolis than what you might see at surface level,” she adds.

While she’s enjoying her current work for the Donahue Law Firm, Langston isn’t entirely certain what the future holds, or if it will even have anything to do with law. So far, the legal field has helped her pursue dual passions of working in civil rights and housing; still, she says, she’s hungry to look at those issues from a variety of different angles. “I’d like to learn more about policymaking and activism, and organizing—just various ways of understanding and impacting the affordable housing situation,” she says. “The civil rights aspect is what I’m most committed to, whether it’s through housing or law.”

Given that she graduated less than two years ago, there’s plenty of time for further career exploration. For now, Langston is content to keep using her legal position to advocate for quality affordable housing in Annapolis—and she’s dedicated to seeing this fight through to the end.