I ran across a startling deed recently. In the May 1927 record, Monroe and Robert B. Warren, of Washington, DC, sell land to Harry E. Mockbee. After the typical legal language comes this (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 come across a racial covenant, a product of Jim Crow segregation laws that flourished across the country. A racial covenant is defined as a legally enforceable contract imposed in a deed upon the buyer of the property.
I knew a little about the history from a few books: Not in My Neighborhood, by Antero Pietila (focusing on Baltimore) and Family Properties, by Beryl Satter (focusing on Chicago).
They were frequently used against African-Americans and Jewish people and others deemed “undesirable.”
The play A Raisin in the Sun 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.
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.
A Brief History
Initially, covenants became popular in response to the large migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities. States and localities responded by creating laws that segregated cities by race. In a 1926 case, Corrigan v. Buckley, the U.S. Supreme Court tacitly affirmed the legality of these covenants. Their use skyrocketed.
The result was that blacks could only live in certain “black” areas, whether they could afford to live elsewhere or not. In other words, federal, state and local policy created segregation by race. It was not a natural occurrence.
The Federal Housing Authority institutionalized this racism with their Underwriting Manual. The FHA would not guarantee loans for black families unless they bought in areas marked red in their maps. This began the ugly practice called redlining.
In 1930, a black man named J.D. Shelly bought property in St. Louis in a neighborhood covered by a racial covenant. He convinced a white owner to sell the property to him anyway. A different neighbor sued, and the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The resultant ruling, Shelley vs. Kraemer, held that these 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 Shelley ruling put racial covenants on the road to ending. NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston conceived a legal strategy to fight these cases all over the country. Still, their use wasn’t completely outlawed until The 1968 Fair Housing Act .
There is so much important history that is left out of the “official” story of America. A generation of people are continuing to come of age without important aspects of US history like this.
The people who placed their lives at risk by challenging the system (like Ossian Sweet) are nothing less than civil rights heroes. There is a historic marker at the house now that you can see here.
One of the beauties of genealogy is the history we learn. Let’s keep learning and sharing others the little-known aspects of American history.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.