Registry of Deeds officially acknowledges over 500 racial covenants

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By Paul Leighton at The Salem News

SALEM — The Southern Essex Registry of Deeds has officially acknowledged more than 500 properties in Essex County contain racial covenants that once prohibited people of color and other groups from owning them.

John O’Brien, who retired on Dec. 31 after 47 years as register of deeds, said he issued a register’s notice listing all the restrictive deeds as his “final act” in office.

“I said this is my last hurrah and I want to do something good and let people know that we certainly don’t tolerate this,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said he took the step after hearing about the ”Dirty Deeds” project, a collaboration between Harborlight Homes and the North Shore Chapter of the NAACP to identify racial language in recorded deeds on the North Shore.

The project has identified at least 559 racially restricted covenants in 10 communities, including Beverly, Danvers, Gloucester, Haverhill, Lynn, Lynnfield, Marblehead, Nahant, Peabody and Saugus. The project is part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness of the existence of such covenants and their legacy of discrimination.

Although the covenants are no longer legally enforceable, O’Brien said he felt he should “go one step further” and publicize their existence.

Many of the deeds have language that says “no person other than a member of the Caucasian race” can own the property, “not to be conveyed to or occupied by colored persons,” or “not to be sold or occupied by persons of negro or Jewish blood.”

Other banned ethnic groups included Greek, Italian, Polish, Armenian, Russian Armenian, Turkish and Spanish.

O’Brien said he had no idea of the existence of the racial covenants until Harborlight Homes and North Shore Chapter NAACP brought it to his attention last year. The restrictive language is often included deep in the chain of deeds attached to individual properties, and he said he doubted that many homeowners are aware of it.

“We wanted to at least put a notice out that if somebody looked at their chain of title they’d be able to see what was happening, and that the language was null and void, but that this language did exist,” O’Brien said. “We can’t remove the document. That’s part of the official record. But we can certainly let people know about it.”

O’Brien said there are likely more racial covenants that have yet to be found.

Jean Michael Fana, advocacy and education manager for Beverly-based Harborlight Homes, said the organization is “deeply grateful” to the Registry of Deeds, O’Brien and registry manager Nancy Doherty for partnering on the project.

“Our hope is that acknowledging this historic harm against African-American and other potential homebuyers is a basic step toward redress of the wrong and something the North Shore can build on in supporting a more equitable regional community,” Fana said in a news release.

Kenann McKenzie-DeFranza, president of the North Shore Chapter NAACP, said the project with Harborlight Homes has allowed them to amplify an issue that undergirds a common goal with the NAACP around increasing opportunity for all. “We know that it is essential to understand our past, so that we do not only avoid recreating those acts of exclusion in the future, but understand how to disentangle and dismantle policies that emanate from those times.”

O’Brien, 72, retired as register of deeds on Sunday due to health reasons. His six-year term does not expire until the end of 2024, but he said he could no longer fully perform the job because of his health. O’Brien announced in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s disease and suffered from short-term memory loss.

Dorothy Hersey has been appointed acting register to finish out O’Brien’s term. Hersey has worked for the Southern Essex Registry of Deeds for 19 years, including as first assistant register since 2019. A new register is scheduled to be elected in November. Hersey said she will not seek the office.