“I saw my white privilege on the page”
-student after reading racial covenantsOnce students have been introduced to the idea of discriminatory housing restrictions and racism in housing, this activity is engineered to put the proof in their hands. are blunt, singularly purposed instruments of exclusion. This makes reading deeds an experience that many call transformative. At the time of their use, covenants transformed neighborhoods into segregated pockets of inequality. Today, covenants have the power to transform the reader through their unmistakable language that pierces the notion that racism and segregation happened somewhere else.
This activity gives students the chance to have this experience through primary source research. The activity can be administered digitally or using paper documents available for download here.
Digital Activity Instructions:
Learning the history of racially restrictive covenants through participatory research
The digital covenant activity is administered through the use of Zooniverse.com. This link brings you to the Mapping Prejudice educational dataset. This data set is a collection of 100 property records. These property records are digitizations of the original primary sources; allowing students to interact directly with the documents that produced the racial exclusion and inequality discussed in this lesson.
To begin, have students navigate to the Mapping Prejudice educational data set on Zooniverse. Here, students will be asked to “classify” or “transcribe” deeds. This activity involves confirming that the deed contains racially restrictive language, transcribing it into a text collector, and collecting other pieces of relevant information from the deed. Ask students to navigate to the Mapping Prejudice Zooniverse page and transcribe 5-10 deeds (you may want have students work on a small number in class to give them material for a group discussion and then assign a number to do at home for a longer reflection paper). Throughout this activity ask students to collect the racially exclusionary language in covenants they find in a word document, spreadsheet, or on paper so they can share them with the class following the activity. See the video below for an explanation of how to use the online platform or you can continue on to the “Analog Activity” instructions if you prefer to have students work with physical documents.
This video demonstrates the transcription process. Ask students to transcribe between 5-20 covenants (dependent on the time available and student’s reading level).
Analog Activity Instructions:
Learning the history of racially restrictive covenants through primary sources
The analog activity can be a good alternative for classes where access to technology is limited or working with the physical document is preferred. The process remains largely the same, but students instead use physical copies of the documents distributed by the teacher.
The analog activity replicates the digital process without the need for technology support. However, it is a great deal more flexible in the activity format and delivery. The procedure described below is one suggestion, but it may be modified to fit the needs of the class.
Covenant worksheets can be accessed and downloaded from this google drive folder. This folder contains two versions of the covenant documents: unhighlighted and highlight guided versions of the covenants. The highlighted versions are best suited to classes at lower reading levels. Or if there is less time to devote to the activity, the color-coded versions can aid in speeding up the process.
You may want to give each student a copy of their own deed or multiple deeds to read dependent on time. Students can work in groups or on their own.
- Explain to students the significance of a property deed: “a property deed is like a receipt for the purchase of your home. It proves ownership and purchase. Receipts often contain fine-print spelling out the return policy. Deeds are like that too, except they contain information about rules that apply before the transaction. For example, a deed can contain a covenant that tells you how tall your house can be. And in the 20th century, white people figured out that they could start adding rules about who could buy a house.”
- Distribute the deed examples to students “Let’s say you are looking at homes and for every prospective home you look at you are given the deed to read (obtaining the deed for a requires slightly more effort than that, but for the purpose of this exercise let’s forget about that). For each document I want you to read through it as though you want to know about the property. See what information you can find about who is allowed to buy this home.” If you are using the color-coded versions of the documents you can direct the students to look at the orange highlighted section of the text.
- Ask students to write down or highlight the and their reaction to share in a class discussion.
During the twentieth century, racially-restrictive deeds were a ubiquitous part of real estate transactions. Covenants were embedded in property deeds all over the country to keep people who were not white from buying or even occupying land; their popularity has been well documented in St. Louis; Seattle; Chicago; Hartford, Connecticut; Kansas City and Washington D.C.
Though covenants were everywhere, they did mutate over space and time. Those authored in the first years of the twentieth century have a different flavor than those recorded after World War II. The racial preoccupations of developers in Washington state were different from those of North Carolina. But all of these documents were blunt. For example, one common Minneapolis covenant reads: "the said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased, or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race."
In Minneapolis, the first racially-restrictive deed appeared in 1910, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold a property on 35th Avenue South to Nels Anderson. The deed conveyed in that transaction contained what would become a common restriction, stipulating that the "premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent."