Eek! It’s been SEVEN whole months since I last posted. I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.
Also, I officially started my digital humanities fellowship at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. And separately, the City appointed me to its Historic Resources Committee. Both will hopefully mean that this work stands a better chance at existing, not just as exhibition and digital scholarship, but also in local curricula and policy, while guiding serious actions around longterm repair.
And there’s some even bigger news: Earlier in the year, I’d given the City Circuit Court Clerk’s office an empty fresh new external hard drive. And on May 16, I picked it back up, only now the drive had approximately 152,249 pages of property records on it! It’s amazing how something so tiny and compact can contain so much. These records span from 1888, when the city first incorporated and when it started keeping its own separate records, all the way through 1964 — 76 years worth of records that cover not only the largest housing boom, but also the implementation of Jim Crow and racial terror policies in Charlottesville.
I can’t stress enough just how HUGE it was to get all of these records in digital form. Before that, we were facing a lengthy process of digitizing each of these 152,249 pages by hand. And don’t get me wrong, I was prepared to do exactly that, but this just saved us months and months of work.
With that said, though they were in digital form, all these thousands and thousands of property records were in a .TIF format, and I need them in a .PDF format, so that we can scan them with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which will allow us to search for certain terms and language within the deeds.
The good news is that there exists just such a program, and it’s called ABBYY Fine Reader. With that I was able to upload batches of .TIF documents, 500 at a time. And then I converted those 500 separate documents into one single .PDF document, and—this is the best part—the program actually scans that single .PDF with OCR throughout all 500 of its pages, making it all entirely searchable.
So far I’ve scanned 188 deed books (1904-1957) like this. Each of these has about 500 pages of records, which means I’ve scanned a total of about 94,000 pages.
I started scanning with the 1904 records because that’s the first year records were typed, which means they’re recognizable by OCR. Before that, all the records were written and documented in cursive longhand, which isn’t recognizable by OCR, so while we now have digital copies of all those, I still need to go through and search by hand all records from 1888-1904 — about 7,500 records.
What’s more is I still have 92 digitized deed books, spanning from 1957-1968, to scan. It’s only a 10 year period, but it encompasses 46,000 pages of records, marking a period of remarkable home ownership and construction. And I’ll be getting to that soon, but I stopped here, at 1957, because these initial 94,000 scanned records can give us a good sized 53-year window into the advent of racial covenants in the city, and because, as discussed in an earlier post, in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court found these racial covenants to be unconstitutional. Of course, they still show up in deeds post-1948, and I plan on investigating and digging into whether (a) they were inserted and upheld after 1948, or (b) they were still in deeds, but rendered unenforceable.
FUTURE POST: Chronicle the stories of the first African Americans to move into homes that contained racially restrictive covenants.
For our initial purposes of looking at the landscape of just how far-reaching and where exactly these covenants were, this time period, and this large number of deeds gives us a good starting place, and is easily updated as we move through the remaining 27 years (1888-1904 & 1957-1968).
So with these 94,000 pages of property records, I then began to search for racially restrictive clauses and language, one-by-one. The wonderfully kind and generous folks at Mapping Prejudice in Minneapolis had offered to let me use a script they wrote, which automatically searches documents for a set of specified terms. Buuuut, I’m not that tech-savvy, so I ended up searching all of these records individually. And good gracious did I find a lot. Thousands. And it’s really interesting to look at the frequency:
• From 1904-1926: There are about 160 racially restricted deeds in the city
That means an average of about 7-8 per year
• From 1926-1932: There are about 176 racially restricted deeds in the city
That means an average of about 30 per year
This is a four-fold increase over 1/4 the amount of time.
Now of course, some of those may be repeats—people selling properties again—so they show up in the deed books again and again, but we’ll find all of that out when we start mapping them.
Regardless, this glimpse still drastically pales in comparison to what happens in the 17 following years from 1936-1953, when the frequency blows up.
It’s the height of covenants. A single property record can easily span 2-3 pages in its entirety, and during this time period, one racially restricted property occurs in every eight pages of property records, which means that as many as 1 out of every 3 properties being sold is restricted to white people.
The other interesting thing that occurs is the type of language being used in the covenants. There are a couple key shifts over the years, but most often it’s remarkable how similar the language is, almost verbatim, from deed to deed. I’ll explore more of that in the next post!