One of many pieces of America’s shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.
According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property’s deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.
As the interactive map’s text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews — “In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park,” says the text.
These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.
Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.
Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring “that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon.” As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.
Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms
Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions — often unsuccessfully — in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.
In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased — just what the covenants’ creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.
There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.
How covenants from the past still hurt people today
While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation — except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.
Badger writes, “Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn’t accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children.”
Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:
.@DaniDougPost I bought a house in DC, which was possible only thanks to 2 things: a VA loan, and family inheritance.— Emily Badger (@emilymbadger) May 5, 2016
And the money that passed on to me came directly from a good govt job that was not equally accessible to blacks in his time.— Emily Badger (@emilymbadger) May 5, 2016
If you're trying to buy a home, I highly recommend having a grandparent who was white in 1940.— Emily Badger (@emilymbadger) May 5, 2016
Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.