Racial covenants, still on the books in virtually every state, are hard to erase Racial covenants made it illegal for Black people to live in white neighborhoods. Now they're illegal, but you might still have one on your home's deed. And they're hard to remove.

Racial covenants, a relic of the past, are still on the books across the country

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If you own an old home, you might be surprised to learn about its past. Check your deed or even a homeowners association document and see if you discover some really ugly language - a racial covenant, a document that decades ago prohibited Blacks and some ethnic and religious groups from owning that property. An examination by NPR and member stations in Chicago, St. Louis and San Diego found these covenants still exist in property all across the country. NPR investigative correspondent Cheryl W. Thompson explains.

CHERYL W THOMPSON, BYLINE: It all started with backyard chickens. Inga Selders wanted to know if there were provisions preventing homeowners from having them in Prairie Village, a tony suburb of Kansas City.

INGA SELDERS: I was trying to pass an ordinance so backyard chickens would be allowed here.

THOMPSON: The city council member combed through property records for two days looking for specific language. She stumbled across something, but it had nothing to do with chickens.

SELDERS: I heard the rumors, and there it was. It was disgusting. It made my stomach turn to see it there in black and white.

THOMPSON: What Selders found in her homeowners association property record was this.

SELDERS: Ownership by Negroes prohibited.

THOMPSON: You can find similar language across the country.

MICHAEL DEW: Neither said lots nor any portion thereof shall ever be lived upon or occupied by any person other than...

SHEMIA REESE: Of the Caucasian race and to maintain the value of their respective properties.

SELDERS: None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned or occupied by Negroes as owners or tenants.

THOMPSON: Along with Selders, that's Shemia Reese in St. Louis and Michael Dew in San Diego reading covenants they found, racially restrictive covenants written mainly to keep Black buyers from moving into certain neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable in 1948. Federal law banned them 20 years later. But the offensive language still exists.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: LaDale. You need anything?

LADALE WINLING: Sure. Like, two things, maybe three.

THOMPSON: One place you can find them is in the basement of the Cook County Recorder's Office in downtown Chicago.

WINLING: ...Anything that didn't say race restrictions...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, 'cause it's like...

THOMPSON: LaDale Winling just got off the elevator there. He's a Virginia Tech historian who's doing research for a new book.

WINLING: ...Hundreds of these. You know, but it's, like, also hundreds of books.

THOMPSON: Winling pores through some of the ledgers that contain deeds, thousands of them. Some date back to the 1800s.

WINLING: I'd be surprised to find any city that did not have restrictive covenants.

THOMPSON: It's impossible to know how many remained, but those who study the issue, like Winling, say there are millions.

WINLING: The way that covenants came to dominate and were used in the first half of the 20th century was as a result of real estate developers' work in cities that were facing new arrivals from the Great Migration.

THOMPSON: The Great Migration - when Blacks started fleeing the racist Jim Crow South around 1915 and settling in Northern and Midwestern cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. There they met a different kind of discrimination.

WINLING: Kansas City is one of the kind of classic cases where J.C. Nichols begins putting covenants on his upper-middle-class country club district developments, and they become very popular.

THOMPSON: J.C. Nichols was a city planner and real estate developer who attached covenants to properties.

WINLING: And he says to colleagues, you should think about this, too; people demand them now on my very successful developments.

THOMPSON: Everybody followed. Chicago created a covenant template for developers to use in communities. In St. Louis and across the country, developers baked racial restrictions into plans for subdivisions, all to ensure that Blacks wouldn't move in.

COLIN GORDON: We still live in deeply segregated cities.

THOMPSON: Colin Gordon is a history professor at the University of Iowa who's documenting racial covenants in the U.S. While they can't be enforced, he says they still matter because covenants helped create the racial wealth gap that exists between whites and Blacks.

GORDON: One has three generations of homeownership and home equity under their belt, and the other doesn't. It's a huge difference to your opportunities.

THOMPSON: The challenge now is figuring out how to bury the hatred without erasing history. Trying to remove a covenant or its racially charged language can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

MARIA CISNEROS: So the process was pretty onerous.

THOMPSON: That's Maria Cisneros. She's a city attorney for Golden Valley, a Minneapolis suburb. She found a racial covenant while doing a title search on her home in 2019. She went to the county recorder's office to remove it.

CISNEROS: I am an attorney, and I work in local government, and I'm familiar with all the systems. But it still took quite a bit of effort for me to find the covenant and then to draft the appropriate form and file it and have it recorded.

THOMPSON: Officials told Cisneros, who is white, that the covenant's racist language couldn't be removed. Instead, they would attach a note denouncing it. In Missouri, there is no easy way to amend a racial covenant. It takes the hiring of someone who's done it before, like Kalila Jackson, an attorney in St. Louis with the Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.

KALILA JACKSON: If you called a random attorney, many of them probably would say, oh, well, this is unenforceable; you don't have to worry about that. That's only half the story.

THOMPSON: In 2016, Jackson helped Pasadena Hills, a small town just north of St. Louis, amend a covenant from 1928. Residents of the now mostly Black town tried for decades to remove a provision barring them from living there.

JACKSON: It was people in the community who saw it and were sick of seeing it and took action and said, this doesn't represent our community.

THOMPSON: Jackson says state lawmakers need to take action to rid covenants from property records - at least 91,000 just in St. Louis City and St. Louis County. The Missouri Legislature tried and failed earlier this year.

JACKSON: The reason why they have to be addressed and they need to be addressed today is because they're still affecting our tomorrow.

THOMPSON: At least a dozen states have enacted laws to make it easier to remove or amend the offensive language from property records, including Illinois. Its law takes effect in January.

Cheryl W. Thompson, NPR News.


MARTINEZ: This project was a partnership with member stations WBEZ, KPBS, St. Louis Public Radio and inewsource, a nonprofit investigative news organization in San Diego.


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