Deed Covenants 101

In the first half of the 20th century, an era marked by both rapid urbanization and successive migrations of African-Americans north from the clutches of Jim Crow, border and northern cities in the United States erected an elaborate architecture of racial segregation.  After the Supreme Court struck down explicitly racial zoning on equal protection grounds in 1917 (Buchanan v. Warley), local realtors, developers, and homeowners turned to an alternative mechanism: the race-restrictive deed covenant. 

Deed covenants attached conditions or restrictions to real estate transactions, often in lieu of zoning and building codes (which were not well established until after 1945) by specifying lot set-backs, building materials, garage placement, utility easements and the like.  But in northern and border cities, covenants increasingly focused on controlling the “nuisance” of African-American occupancy.  The “uniform restriction agreement” in wide use in St. Louis by the early 1930s sought to “preserve the character of said neighborhood as a desirable place of residence for persons of the Caucasian Race” holding that homeowners could not “erect, maintain, operate, or permit to be erected, maintained or operated any slaughterhouse, junk shop or rag-picking establishment” or “sell, convey, lease, or rent to a negro or negroes.”

These restrictions were used extensively in cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis. In these settings, realtors, developers, and white homeowners all responded to the “threat” posed by African-American migration north. But they also became standard practice in new subdivision development, and cropped up even in settings–like Johnson County, Iowa–where such a “threat” was nonexistent.