In thinking about sources and methods for this project, I came to the conclusion early on that we have to be comprehensive. We have to find every single racially restrictive covenant in the property records. But first, we needed to figure out the “when” — what is the period of time we should be looking at?
For years, people in the 20th century had been legally challenging racially restrictive covenants. But it wasn’t until May 3, 1948, that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, which found that these covenants violated the Equal Protections Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional and could not be enforced.
(For the next 20 years — until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law — it was illegal to enforce racially restrictive covenants, but white people found other ways to make sure black residents were not given the same access to neighborhoods. Rest assured, this project will explain how that period unfolded here in Charlottesville as well, and what mechanisms — realtors, banks, private sales — were used to discriminate against our black neighbors.)
But for the purposes of racially restrictive covenants, though many are still contained within property deeds to this very day, it’s safe to end our search in 1948 when they were effectively banned.
So when did they begin? It’s a question I’m still actively pursuing here, but I’ve narrowed it down considerably. Throughout the country, these covenants began to be found in property deeds and agreements as early as the late 1800’s.
In Charlottesville, for the last year that I’ve been researching these deeds, the earliest I had ever found was 1903 in a deed for 22 properties located in what is today the Martha Jefferson neighborhood.
“It is also agreed that the land herein conveyed, is not at any time to be sold to, or owned by negroes.”
According to property records, in 1903 the Locust Grove Investment Company sold these 22 properties to George B. Marshall, who owned properties all over the area, for $5 cash and 39 shares of the Locust Grove Investment Company’s stock that Marshall transferred back to the company.
Today, houses in the immediate neighborhood are commonly valued between $600,000 and $800,000, and some for as much as $1.2 million.
And that’s as far as I had gotten in the great search for the city’s original covenant. But today, all that changed as I was mapping this 1903 covenant….
On the left is the original 1903 plat. Pictured on the right is what that plat looks like when I georeferenced it. The red colored-in areas are the 22 properties that were part of that 1903 sale, which all contain racially restrictive covenants. As you can see, not all the properties referenced in the bill of sale are in fact pictured on the accompanying plat (see the grouping of red plots hanging off the left edge of the plat).
I knew those were the right properties, because the deed describes them in detail, but it raised the question: Is there a plat that precedes this 1903 one? Usually, if there is, it is referred to, so you can track it back. But there was nothing in this one, no mention of anything prior. So down the rabbit hole I went, spot checking properties in the general vicinity of those dangling ones. And sure enough, after a couple of searches, I found the following…
It’s a plat and a bill of sale for 140 properties in what was then called the Locust Grove addition, and it’s….from 1897. So I then took a look at the language in the deed, which is written in heavy cursive, as was standard for that time…
And sure enough, if you look about halfway down the page, you’ll see the following…
“It is also agreed that this land is not at any time to be sold to or owned by negroes.”
Here is what it looks like when it has been georeferenced and overlayed with today’s parcels…
All’s to say that, as of right now, we’re looking at every racially restrictive covenant in housing deeds between the time period of 1897-1948.
Next up: How do we make sure we capture every single covenant?