What are Covenants?

In the early twentieth century, racially restrictive deed covenants prevented people who were not white from owning or even occupying property throughout urban and suburban areas. They were key mechanisms for promoting and maintaining the racial segregation of cities and neighborhoods across the country. While racially restrictive covenants often included language targeting a range of racial and ethnic groups, they especially targeted Black people during the first Great Migration (1910-1940), when millions moved to cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West to seek new opportunities and to escape the racist violence that permeated the Jim Crow South. Racially restrictive covenants became increasingly common after 1917 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Buchanan v. Warley, which ruled racial zoning practices unconstitutional.

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Restrictive covenants are legally enforceable agreements limiting how owners and renters can use a property as outlined in a real estate deed or contract. Covenants in residential property can apply to a range of details, from the appearance and style of housing (i.e., limitations on building height) to constraints on the kinds of activities that can take place on a property (i.e., raising livestock). However, racially restrictive covenants are clauses that specifically prohibit the purchase, lease, or occupation of a property by a particular group of people.

The use of racially restrictive covenants involved the cooperation of a range of parties, including real estate agents and realty organizations; private individuals buying or selling property; banks and lending institutions; and municipal, state, and federal governments that both validated and enforced their existence. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelly v. Kraemer deemed racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. Yet even after the 1948 ruling, racially restrictive covenants continued to be included in real estate deeds.

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The persistence of racially restrictive covenants symbolized the endurance of racism in housing markets and continued efforts to limit people of color’s access to decent housing in desirable neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1968 Fair Housing Act that racial covenants were made illegal. Today, 54 years after the Fair Housing Act and 74 years after Shelley v Kraemer, racially restrictive covenants remain embedded in deed contracts as evidence of the pervasive racism that structured housing markets and urban development during the twentieth century.

We have evidence that racially restrictive covenants exist within property deeds throughout Milwaukee County. Our project goals of Mapping Racism and Resistance are 1) to comprehensively document and map all racial covenants in Milwaukee County and 2) to uncover the voices, narratives, and actions made by African Americans in Milwaukee in response to them. To learn more about how you can volunteer with the project, visit our Get Involved page!

Racial covenant highlight