I ran across a startling deed recently. In the record, Monroe and Robert B. Warren, of Washington, DC, were selling land to Harry E. Mockbee in May 1927. After the typical legal language came this ominous phrase (click to enlarge):
“…Subject to the further covenant that said land and premises shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for or occupied by any negro or colored person or any person of negro extraction.”
This is the first time I’ve actually come across a racially restrictive covenant while doing deed research. They are defined as “a legally enforceable contract imposed in a deed upon the buyer of the property.” I knew a little about the history, primarily from a few books I’ve read: “Not in My Neighborhood,” by Antero Pietila (focusing on Baltimore) and “Family Properties,” by Beryl Satter (focusing on Chicago). Although frequently used against African-Americans, they were also used to keep Jewish people from certain areas in cities like Baltimore.
We’ve all seen “A Raisin in the Sun” which portrays a black family attempting to move into a white neighborhood. But, an even better introduction to the topic can be found in the 2004 National Book Award Winner, “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age,” by Kevin Boyle. The book tells the riveting true story of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose purchase of a home in Detroit in 1925 resulted in attack by a white mob and the death of a white man. If you read any book on this subject, read this one first. You will not put it down, especially since the author does such a beautiful job with Ossian’s history.
Initially, covenants became popular in response to the large migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities, essentially forcing racial segregation. On May, 1926, in a case called Corrigan and Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court, by its refusal to hear the case, tacitly affirmed the legality of these covenants. Their use skyrocketed, and particularly in large cities, the result was that blacks were forced into certain “black” areas, whether they could afford to live elsewhere or not. The Federal Housing Authority institutionalized this racism with their Underwriting Manual which denied mortgages based upon race and by practicing “redlining”: deciding which neighborhoods to approve mortgages in.
In 1930, J.D. Shelly, a black man, bought property in St. Louis in a neighborhood covered by a racial covenant. He convinced a white owner to sell to him anyway. A neighbor sued, and the case wound its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resultant ruling, Shelley vs. Kraemer, held that the covenants could not be enforced without violating the 14th Amendment. However, it only meant that states could not enforce the covenants; people could and did privately continue to make them and voluntarily follow them.
Still the 1948 Shelly ruling put racial covenants on Death Row. NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston put together a legal strategy to fight these cases all over the country. Still, it wasn’t until The 1968 Fair Housing Act that their use was deemed illegal.
There is so much important black history that is left out of the “official” story of America. Huge obstacles awaited black people every step of the way it seems –in education, labor, and housing were just a few. I am amazed that we made it through, and know the resilience and strength that must have taken. A generation of people are coming of age who have no knowledge of these obstacles. How would others have fared if after enslavement and Jim Crow, they were prevented from equal education, prevented from certain jobs, prevented from equal pay at the jobs they did hold, prevented from living where they wanted, prevented from marrying who they wanted and preventing from partaking in the fruits of society that depended on that labor? These people who placed their lives at risk by challenging the system and buying homes in “white” areas should absolutely be regarded as civil rights heroes.
What I find interesting is that some communities in the deep South, especially in rural areas, blacks lived alongside whites. My grandmother did in Tennessee. You can see it in the census records.
One of the beauties of genealogy is the history you learn. Let’s keep getting educated and telling others the real story of America.