Confronting the Covenants: Hidden Racism at Home

NPR’s Morning Edition this past Sunday included a segment on racially restrictive deed covenants <>. NPR noted that the covenants were not legally enforceable and that they were widespread throughout the United States.

Robert Fogelson, author of Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930, discussed restrictive covenants at length. Other authors on the history and sociology of American suburbs also have written on restrictive covenants. In my work over the past 25 years I have done projects in quintessential American suburbs that involved primary documents research, including land records (deeds, etc.). These communities include Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Chevy Chase (Maryland and the District of Columbia).

I live and work in Silver Spring, a Washington suburb. My subdivision, Northwood Park, was created in 1936 and my home was built in the subdivision’s first year of existence. When we bought the house in 2002 our deed contained all the expected legalese, along with the clause, “Subject to covenants and restrictions of record.” It wasn’t until I began doing some research on the history of our subdivision that I discovered that some of those covenants and restrictions prohibited anyone of a “race whose death rate is at a higher rate than that of the White or Caucasian race.” Put in place in a stand-alone document recorded in Montgomery County land records, they were executed, “For the purposes of sanitation and health, and to prevent irreparable injury to Waldo M. Ward [the majority landowner] … and the owners of adjacent real estate.” Garden Homes, the company selling the lots and homes, executed the covenants almost six months after the first sales and signatories to the covenants included all of the people who had bought property up to that point.

Northwood Park is the subject of my paper in progress, “ The Greatest Publicity Stunt Available to Developers”: Washington’s 1939 World’s Fair Home.”

1936 Restrictive Covenants filed for Northwood Park (click to enlarge).

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