Restrictive covenants, redlining and contract buying were some of the discriminatory housing practices used to segregate Chicago in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Restrictive covenants prevented Black Americans, and sometimes Jewish Americans from buying, renting, or living in houses in white neighborhoods.
The Chicago Covenants Project, begun in Spring 2021, uncovers deed restrictions officially recorded in Cook County. A team of their researchers and volunteers gather in the Tracts Division in the basement of city hall a few times a month to search land records for racial covenants.
Finding the Tracts Division of the County Clerk’s Office is the first test of a volunteer’s sleuthing skills. The entrance to the first floor staircase is often obscured by a large easel with a sign listing the prices of birth certificates and marriage licenses—no arrow pointing to “Tracts”. I once worked in the Clerk’s office but I still feel subversive slipping past the sign and the security guard to head downstairs.
The Tracts Division is a football-field sized room organized by rows of old shelves filled with real estate index books. Each book is 2 feet by 4 feet. A Project researcher assigns the books by number. My first assignment was book number 420. I lifted it onto the top of the elbow-high bookshelf and leafed through page by page. Thank God I thought to swallow an allergy pill before I left home.
Every deed recorded in Cook County until 1980 is hand written in an index book. After 1980, the records are digitized. Each page could have deeds recorded from 1910 to 1980. I looked only at deeds recorded up to 1950 since restrictions waned after a 1948 Supreme Court decision declaring racial covenants unconstitutional.
The volunteers in Tracts spread out around the room with their assigned books. Looking for covenants line by line is tedious. There’s a small explosion of joy, “I found one!” when one of us spots a handwritten “rac-restr” notation.
Property ownership has long been the avenue to accumulating family wealth. Restrictive covenants helped deny this possibility to Black Chicago for decades, while walling off the city’s segregated communities and perpetuating generations of racial inequity.
The Chicago Covenants Project has uncovered deed restrictions all over Chicago and the suburbs. Organized neighborhood groups supported by realtor associations once signed up homeowners block by block. Between 1933 and 1937, a mailer was distributed door to door to stoke fears about Blacks moving to Chicago’s North Side, where I’ve always lived. It minced no words: “The Near North Side Property Owners Association proposes to ask every property owner in the district to agree to sell and rent to white people only.”
Even the renowned Newberry Library has a racial covenant.
You may be asking, “what’s your point?”
Well. These buried files prove that racial inequity in Chicago was intentionally created by white people—house by house, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
A fact that cannot be erased.