Unenforceable Racial Covenants are Still Part of Property Deeds Across AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: racism, housing, urban history, housing discrimination, Fair Housing, real estate, restrictive covenants
Inga Selders, a city council member in a suburb of Kansas City, wanted to know if there were provisions preventing homeowners from legally having backyard chickens. So she combed through deeds in the county recorder's office for two days looking for specific language.
At one point, she stumbled across some language, but it had nothing to do with chickens.
"I heard the rumors, and there it was," Selders recalled. "It was disgusting. It made my stomach turn to see it there in black-and-white."
What Selders found was a racially restrictive covenant in the Prairie Village Homeowners Association property records that says, "None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negroes as owners or tenants." The covenant applied to all 1,700 homes in the homeowners association, she said.
"There's still racism very much alive and well in Prairie Village," Selders said about her tony bedroom community in Johnson County, Kan., the wealthiest county in a state where more than 85% of the population is white.
The racially restrictive covenant that Selders uncovered can be found on the books in nearly every state in the U.S., according to an examination by NPR, KPBS, St. Louis Public Radio, WBEZ and inewsource, a nonprofit investigative journalism site. Although the Supreme Court ruled the covenants unenforceable in 1948 and although the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed them, the hurtful, offensive language still exists — an ugly reminder of the country's racist past.
"I'd be surprised to find any city that did not have restrictive covenants," said LaDale Winling, a historian and expert on housing discrimination who teaches at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
When the Great Migration began around 1915, Black Southerners started moving in droves to the Northeast, Midwest and West. Their hope was for a better life, far away from the Jim Crow laws imposed on them by Southern lawmakers. Blacks soon realized, though, that segregation and racism awaited them in places like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, particularly in housing. They often were forced to live in overcrowded and substandard housing because white neighborhoods didn't want them.
Chicago, which has a long history of racial segregation in housing, played an outsize role in the spread of restrictive covenants. It served as the headquarters of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, which was a "clearinghouse" for ideas about real estate practice, Winling said.
"This was kind of ... like a nerve center for both centralizing and accumulating ideas about real estate practice and then sending them out to individual boards and chapters throughout the country," he said.
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