Picking up where I left off — with wanting this project to be as comprehensive as possible — after figuring out the “when,” that is, the set of years that we need to look at to get a truly thorough understanding of how prevalent racially restrictive covenants were in Charlottesville, we then needed to figure out the “how,” that is, how to find the clauses in each of these deeds.

In the scope of an entire deed, racial restrictions are contained in a tiny sentence.

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“No property in this subdivision shall be sold to any person not of the Caucasian race.”

And while the human eye enjoys a good old fashioned word-search puzzle, we increasingly are becoming aware of our ocular shortcomings. What’s even better than a manual search-and-find method is what’s called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which allows users to look through entire documents for specific words using a search function. How much easier would it be to search batches of documents all at once for any mention of the word, “Caucasian,” for example?

So then the question became, how do we scan documents with OCR and — this part is key — on a small budget? (The best OCR technology tends to be pretty pricey.) After a long and novice exploration of scanning possibilities, we found the wonderful and free Adobe Scan, which runs every document it captures through OCR. This cuts down hugely on the number of steps it takes to get documents to a searchable stage — armed with nothing more than a smartphone, we can simply point, click, and upload batches of property records to the cloud. 

The catch, of course, is that there are tens of thousands of property records that we need to scan. So, it’s going to be a slog, but doable. And worth it.

Many of the property records we’re seeking are in the city courthouse. And that’s great, because the city has already digitized all of those records and made them individually available to the public. Currently I’m in talks with their digital security provider about getting them as several large batches, by year, which would be about 51 batches of documents in total, which we’ll then need to scan through OCR. But that’s a relatively light lift compared to the records that are at the County courthouse. The County? Ah yes, the County.

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If we’re trying to capture city properties as they exist today, which we are, then we had to address the fact that what we consider the City of Charlottesville today has not always been the City of Charlottesville. At various stages in our history — 1790, 1860, 1873, 1888, 1916, 1938, 1963, 1968, and 1988 — the City has annexed much of the surrounding Albemarle County.

And unfortunately, the County courthouse has not digitized its early 20th century records yet, so that means we have to scan them all by hand, one at a time.

Thankfully, I’ve had some tremendous help so far. I’ve had several Charlottesville High School and UVA students reach out and help me scan records for a day. My girlfriend, Nell Boeschenstein, also helped. What’s the saying? A couple that scans together, stays together.

The Albemarle County property records room

But the largest amount of help on this front has come from Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor in UVA’s History Department and the director of undergraduate programs at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African studies.

Andrew taught a class last semester called “From Redlined to Subprime: Race and Real Estate in the U.S.” in which he had 77 students log 2 hours each at the County courthouse scanning and uploading records for this project. All in all, they scanned about 33 deed books, amounting to more than 16,500 pages of property records ranging from Aug. 12, 1909 to June 1, 1936 — nearly 27 years worth of records, all scanned, all run through OCR, and all ready to start searching for racially restrictive covenants. Amazing.

No doubt, we still have more to go, but this is a serious dent, and we’re well on our way to being able to flag every single racially restrictive covenant in the city. And then the fun part begins, because once everything’s scanned with OCR, not only can we map those deeds, but we can then start telling the story of how these covenants came to be, and why they were so widespread — the roles of the banks, the lawyers, and the development companies.

One thought on “Scanning, scanning, scanning

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