LIANE HANSEN, host:

A historic neighborhood in North Carolina is struggling with a racial legacy that plagues many communities across the country: discriminating language written into original home deeds. The restrictions are no longer enforceable, but the words remain a painful reminder. And in Charlotte, North Carolina, they're causing new trouble.

From member station WFAE, Julie Rose reports.

JULIE ROSE: Myers Park has wide, tree-lined streets, sweeping lawns, and historic mansions worth millions. It's the kind of neighborhood where people take pride in the pedigree of their homes.

You live here?

Mr. JOHN WILLIFORD: Yeah.

ROSE: Can I ask you a quick question?

Mr. WILLIFORD: Sure.

ROSE: Steam rises from the coffee John Williford cradles in his hand. He's supervising some work in the front lawn. When I ask about his 75-year-old house, he runs inside to get the original deed.

Oh, look, youve got it framed even.

Mr. WILLIFORD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. See, it was 1935.

ROSE: The deed includes restrictions the original developers of Myers Park wrote to preserve the park-like feel of the neighborhood. But the first one on the list is jarring. It says: "This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only."

Williford certainly doesn't agree with that, but...

Mr. WILLIFORD: That's - I mean, the deed is just the deed to the house and that's - I mean, things were different back in 1935, certainly than they are now.

ROSE: And not just in the South. Seattle historian James Gregory and a team of University of Washington students have amassed a database of thousands of deeds with racist wording.

Professor JAMES GREGORY (History Department, University of Washington): Racial-restrictive covenants became common practice in cities across the country - dozens of cities in the North, the South, the West for, you know, a quarter of a century. This was the thing to do.

ROSE: Sometimes they read "Whites only." In Seattle, Gregory says Asian restrictions were common, and Hispanics were the target in Los Angeles. In 1968, Congress outlawed racial deed covenants. But Gregory says their impact endures.

Prof. GREGORY: Restrictive covenants have had a long shadow.

Ms. MARY CURTIS (Writer): There are not a lot of African-Americans in the community.

ROSE: Writer Mary C. Curtis is one of the few living in Charlotte's Myers Park neighborhood. She bought a home here in 1994, despite the racial legacy.

Ms. CURTIS: It didn't matter. I'm going to live wherever I want to and where the school was great, but that's just the way it is. And I think people should know that history - and it's not that long ago.

ROSE: The truth is, most people don't know about the racial covenants in their deeds. Homebuyers rarely see the original deed, and real estate attorneys hardly ever point out the race restriction. In Myers Park, it wasn't even an issue until the homeowners association posted a sample deed on its Web site -including the racial wording. The president of the North Carolina NAACP, William Barber, complained to the city.

Mr. WILLIAM BARBER (President, North Carolina NAACP): If you saw that, it could in fact create what we call freezing - making people think twice about one. It could create psychic harm - what in the world is this? It could create discouragement.

ROSE: Leaders of the Myers Park Homeowners Association say they only meant to remind homeowners of the other deed restrictions, like the one that prohibits fences in the front yard. But the dispute may soon end up in court. The NAACP wants the racist clause removed from the deeds.

The attorney for Myers Park, Ken Davies, says it's not that simple.

Mr. KEN DAVIES (Attorney): That is a completed legal recording, and we have no authority to go back and tell the registrar of deeds to eliminate this or that from whatever deed we don't like. And everyone knows that it's something that is a historic relic.

ROSE: And it's so difficult to remove that in most cases, only a state legislature can do it. A few states have tried. In California, the price tag was the issue. Imagine what it would cost to have an army of people with bottles of Wite-Out go through tens of thousands of deeds at the courthouse. Instead, most communities are content to keep the words buried in paperwork until a controversy brings them temporarily back to light.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.