A historian is unearthing records of where Portlanders of color couldn’t legally live

Nobody knows how many lots had so-called “restrictive covenants.” Greta Smith wants to start finding out.

by Michael Andersen | Nov. 29, 2017

From the 1920s to 1940s, federal maps divided U.S. cities into red (“hazardous”), yellow (“definitely declining”), blue (“still desirable”) and green (“good”), based in part on what associated records called “infiltration” of “subversive races.” This “government conducted propaganda campaign,” in the words of Richard Rothstein, interacted with racially restrictive covenants in many “good” areas and survives in today’s rules about where apartment buildings aren’t allowed. (Image via Mapping Inequality)

Two or three generations ago, white Americans who worried about one aspect of change in their neighborhoods — the race of the people who might like to live there — had a simple tool at their disposal.

They could get a clause inserted in the deeds of local homes that forbade the property from ever being sold or rented to (for example) “people of the Negro or Mongolian race.”

“Restrictive covenants,” as such explicitly racist clauses are known, could be voluntarily added by mutual agreement among a group of landowners, or they could be added under pressure from real estate boards or neighborhood associations.

From the covenant on one Seattle property. Source: University of Washington.

“The heyday would have been in the ’20s, but they’re still in people’s title deeds — it’s just that they’re not enforceable any more,” Portland State University historian Greta Katherine Smith said in an interview. “You can see how these color lines have been maintained, how they were first drawn and how the process was really solidified in our homes and neighborhoods.”

Racial covenants became popular nationwide after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial zoning in 1917, and continued to carry weight even after the court declared them “unenforceable” in 1948.

In the process, millions of American families were largely locked out of the most common way to accumulate wealth: buying a home on credit, then maintaining and improving it — maybe even renting it to someone else.

A home remodel in northeast Portland, 2016.

Smith is working on a master’s degree in public history. She’s spreading the word about her project (which looks specifically at restrictive covenants in Portland) because it’s so hard to track down the evidence she needs: The history is hidden in tens of thousands of title deeds.

“At present, I have found 5 restrictive covenants located in Mocks Crest, Palatine hill, Ferncrest, and two in Laurelhurst,” Smith said. “These I have found by doing archival research.”

Any landowner should be able to consult the deed to their property to see if the now-invalid text is still in it. But it’s rare for anyone to look through those papers.

“It’s going to have to be a slow, systematic process,” she said. “If we can get word out that there is research being done around the restrictive covenants, when title officers run across one that they can get a scan of it to us.”

Smith said she became interested in the subject due to its history in Tulsa, her hometown — where legally enforced segregation precipitated a 1921 riot in which many white residents destroyed a relatively wealthy neighborhood of mostly African-Americans.

In addition to the huge damage to individuals, those decades of explicit discrimination scarred cities in different ways. As Richard Rothstein documents in his new book The Color of Law, zoning for “single family” districts was designed in part to further prevent racial integration, drawing economic and cultural lines beyond which people of color would be implicitly unwelcome even after explicit racism was removed from the law.

You can see that legacy today in the map of Portland above. Because of current zoning rules, the blue and green districts remain nearly off-limits to any housing type except the freestanding house — and Portland’s 1959 ban on miniplexes expanded that to most of the yellow areas, too, several years after racist covenants became invalid.

“It’s not special to any one place … it’s pretty much every single city in America,” Smith said of racial segregation. “It didn’t just magically happen, you know. It was a planned thing, cultivated. And I don’t think a lot of people know that.”

If you have knowledge of a restrictive covenant, contact Greta Smith: gresmith@pdx.edu.

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