“[T]he lot hereby conveyed shall not be sold, transferred, conveyed, leased, or rented to persons of negro blood.”
That’s language taken from a 1932 deed for land in Duke Forest. Here’s another, from a plot off of Cole Mill Road: “No person of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on above lot.”
These are racial covenants—racist restrictions written into legally binding land deeds. They began to pop up in response to the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley in which the justices ruled that racially restrictive zoning laws violated the 14th Amendment. With local governments having lost the power to segregate housing, individuals decided to take matters into their own hands using racial covenants.
Throughout the United States, these covenants targeted African Americans, the Irish, Jews, or anyone else considered to be an ‘other.’
“These restrictive covenants were mechanisms to try to control the influence of these populations,” says J.T. Tabron, an assistant register of deeds for Durham County.
In Durham, they were mainly targeted at people of African descent and concentrated in affluent white neighborhoods like Duke Forest or Hope Valley, Tabron says.
Tabron is part of the “Hacking into History” team, a group dedicated to educating Durham residents about the history of these racial covenants. It started in 2019 when his teammate Alexandra Chassanoff began to wonder whether racial covenants were ever used in Durham.
“[I] went down to the deeds office one day, pulled open a deed book, and pretty much right away found a deed with a racial covenant clause on it,” says Chassanoff, an assistant professor at NCCU School of Library and Information Sciences.
Chassanoff started working with Tabron as well as John Killeen, a neighbor and executive director of the nonprofit DataWorks. Their original idea was to host a community engagement workshop to raise awareness about the history of racist language in Durham land deeds.
Part of the reason they are so dedicated to this cause is that these deeds have lingering effects. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants violated the Constitution, but they were still routinely written into land deeds until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
While no new racial covenants could be written into deeds, those that already contained them were part of a permanent record—prospective homeowners still run into them today. This brings up a psychological effect, Tabron says.
“You start to wonder if the people who live there now still feel that way,” he says.
Aside from the psychological effects, these racial covenants also have contributed to the racial wealth gap. For decades, Black Americans were relegated to dilapidated neighborhoods, often close to railroad tracks, incinerators, and the like.
“There’s a long legacy of disinvestment and prevention of accumulating wealth through housing,” says Killeen, citing the Brookings Institution’s estimate of $156 billion in cumulative lost wealth for Black households due to racist practices.
Many have never heard of racial covenants. To combat this, groups across the nation are working to raise awareness about these racist restrictions and their modern implications—of which Hacking into History is one.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic made their original idea of a community engagement workshop a bit more difficult to execute. Instead, they started moving in a different direction—a crowdsourced project to identify and map land tied to racial covenants in Durham.
Documents in the Durham County Register of Deeds office were already digitized. All that was left was to isolate land deeds containing racist language. They started by using machine learning to identify about 4,000 documents containing keywords like “white,” “colored,” or “African.”
Machine learning isn’t perfect, however. Deeds that mention “White street” or “Black Orchard Farms,” for example, might’ve ended up in the mix.
“In order to actually confirm that these deeds have a racial covenant clause on them,” Chassanoff says, “we needed human participation.”
Sifting through thousands of deeds would have been a daunting task for their small team, so they turned to Zooniverse, a citizen science platform that allows anyone to get involved with research projects on topics ranging from steelpan drum vibrations to dark energy in space.
So far, they’ve gotten about 250 volunteers involved and transcribed about half of their 4,000 documents. They aim to be done by summer 2023, Killeen says.
The team is currently working on a resolution for Durham’s city council in the hopes that city planners and developers will take the historical housing patterns caused by racial covenants into account when planning new infrastructure.
“Our hope is that people will have a better understanding of why Durham looks the way that it does, and why there are communities that are in disrepair,” says Tia Hall, the team’s community facilitator and former member of Durham’s racial equity task force.
“With a full understanding, we can make decisions and movement around the development and building of our city.”
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