UI Historian Reveals Iowa City's Racially Restrictive Covenants

Historians in the News
tags: racism, housing, urban history, Iowa


Juneteenth is commonly celebrated as the end of slavery following the Civil War. However, outside of the introduction of a wage, there was little expectation of a social or material change in the conditions of the newly freed. 

Historians point to these material and social constraints as primary factors motivating the Great Migration, the movement of about six million Black Americans out of the South to places such as Iowa City. During the half-century of migration from 1916 to 1970, Iowa City employed a number of systems both tangible and social that made settlement more difficult for Black and Latinx people.

A new University of Iowa project presents an exhaustive account of racially-restrictive deed covenants and subdivision restrictions in Iowa's Johnson County in that early period. These covenants were a formal restriction excluding housing from people "other than the Caucasian race" or for the "sole use and benefit of the Caucasian Race" or preventing "any sale ... to Jews or colored people."

Colin Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Iowa and the lead author on the project, said although these deeds were widespread during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, it was too time-consuming to do a comprehensive analysis of them until recent efforts to digitize deed books. 

"We knew they were pretty common, but until recently, we were not aware how common or where they were because they were buried in deed books," Gordon said. 

Any given property has reams of documentation tracking its history. Using the digitized archive and some search terms, Gordon and his research team were able to track three decades of the racially-restrictive deed covenants and subdivision restrictions.


Read entire article at Iowa City Press-Citizen