Unearthing racial covenants on the North Shore

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By Jennifer Smith at The Commonwealth Beacon

Housing and racial justice partnership explores racial discrimination in property deeds

Not many people take the time to dig through a century of property records on a house or parcel of land, but an ugly history might be buried there.

A property deed in Lynnfield states the “premises shall not be conveyed to or be occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race.” In Beverly, a deed would not permit ”colored persons” to own or live on a parcel.

These deeds and hundreds of others were identified through a collaboration between The North Shore NAACP and Beverly-based affordable housing nonprofit Harborlight Homes. The groups scoured property records for racial covenants – now unenforceable provisions in property records which barred people of color and sometimes poor European immigrants from owning or occupying land.
Across 10 North Shore communities, their project unearthed about 560 racially restrictive covenants, part of a patchwork of discriminatory laws that still inform Massachusetts housing policy and contribute to generations of racial wealth inequality.

“Knowledge is not only power, but it could be a uniter,” North Shore NAACP president Kenann McKenzie-DeFranza said on The Codcast, “And demystifying how we have come about as communities helps us to know how we might move forward as communities.”

The Dirty Deeds Project sought to challenge the notion that racial segregation through property law was accidental, McKenzie-DeFranza said.

“So the objective isn’t necessarily about unearthing shameful information for the sake of creating tensions,” she said. “It’s to say we have a common starting point by which we understand how we have evolved as a community. And real estate in particular is perhaps one of the sources of wealth in our communities. Therefore, considering how being able to manufacture ways to keep people away from ways to gain wealth, equity, property and ownership helps us to better understand how some groups became more privileged in their access than others.”

Finding the covenants involved peeling back decades of property records, which may be public but are hardly straightforward to decode, said Jean Michael Fana, the advocacy and education manager for Harborlight Homes.

An individual looking to go through records will quickly find that “property lines aren’t really as static as we might think they are,” Fana said on The Codcast. Properties split and combine over the years, creating branching chains of deeds, one of which may have a racial covenant buried within it.

The University of Minnesota libraries developed a program called Mapping Prejudice, which can read through documents and search for common words and phrases that indicate racial covenants. Fana said the Dirty Deeds Project used that program on the North Shore to identify the language, after which volunteers verified each deed by hand.

If anything, the 500-plus deed estimate might be low, Fana said. Not all property records or chains of title have been digitized, and similar projects across the country have unearthed hundreds of racially restrictive covenants impacting tens of thousands of homes in certain cities. Racial covenants are part of “a tapestry of policies” that “took away the choice of private individuals,” Fana said.

After courts upheld these covenants for about half a century – using private property contracts as a way to get around bars on racial segregation through state law – the US Supreme Court ultimately struck down racial covenants for violating the constitution’s equal protection clause. Though racial covenants began dropping off in the 1950s, Fana and McKenzie-DeFranza point to class-based proxies for race like red-lining or strong preference for one-family homes as part of the same legacy.

“The mechanism may have changed, but the underlying motivation is still being served through other ways,” Fana said. “And that’s why I reference that tapestry of policies because, yes, this thread was pulled, but not all the threads.”

When the covenants are revealed, homeowners and officials face a complicated choice – leave the racist language in place for the historical record or strike it out.

John O’Brien, who stepped down as Southern Essex register of deeds at the end of 2023 for health reasons, decided to include a note on deeds found to have restrictive covenants, which Fana said is “a very different decision” about how to use institutional power than generations of officials who propped up racial restrictions.

This project partnership could be a model for other Massachusetts housing and social justice projects, McKenzie-DeFranza said. It considers the history of community formation and Bay State participation in slave trading and discrimination, trying to “call in” people as partners in community healing rather than “call out” people for benefiting from policies they predated them.

“The objective is to say, this is something interesting about where you live and the property you own,” McKenzie-DeFranza said of homeowners just learning about their complicated deeds. “Historically, it’s valuable for us to know this, but if you feel like you’re wanting to do something that might feel restorative to your family, here’s a step you can take. That is a microcosmic act for what we are asking for collectively: If we can give people the tools and information to know how they might adjust something or how they might make a bigger social change because of what they know about ancestral behavior, we do it together.”