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Group brings details of Chicago's racist housing history to light
Down in the Cook County clerk's records room, the Chicago Covenants Project works on a citywide map showing every property once subject to a restrictive covenant.

Thursday, September 29, 2022
Crain's Chicago Business
by Dennis Rodkin

A group of volunteers comes to the basement of the Cook County building every couple of weeks to scour 20th-century property records for remnants of Chicago’s history of segregation.

The Chicago Covenants Project is an effort to find and document every race-restricted covenant that was in place when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them illegal in 1948. A well-known tool of segregation, race-restricted covenants attached to a property’s title prohibited it from being sold or rented to Black people.

Amassing a comprehensive map of all the covenants in Chicago, and later in the suburbs, has value today, according to LaDale Winling, who runs the Chicago Covenants Project. That’s because “the neighborhood conditions created by covenants and segregation continue to impact people who live there now, generations later,” says Winling, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Among many examples, Winling notes that neighborhoods where segregation isolated Blacks tended to get fewer trees planted and maintained over the years, so that now “they’re heat islands in the time of climate change.”

At the moment, with just 8% of Chicago tract books examined for covenants, the potential practical uses of a complete map of all the covenants that once carpeted the city aren’t yet known. Activists and government officials will have to digest it before putting it to use. Research on redlining has led to books, museum exhibits and an artist’s installations in front of Chicago houses that were redlined, all part of boosting civic understanding of the role past mistakes play in present circumstances.

Going forward, a comprehensive map could influence future policymaking on issues such as economic justice and reparations and could be a factor in attempts to make up for years of disinvestment. Knowing the precise contours of the covenanted properties also will help city officials, activists, historians and even real estate agents connect racist covenants of decades ago to bleak conditions that persist in places like the 16 blocks bounded by Garfield Boulevard, 57th and Halsted streets and Racine Avenue.

A covenant covering every property within those boundaries took effect in November 1938, the Chicago Covenants Project found. Today, the blocks contain boarded-up greystones, poorly maintained brick two-flats and single-family houses, and weedy vacant lots—a familiar scene in long-neglected parts of the South and West sides.

These conditions “started somewhere,” says Desmond Odugu, an associate professor of education at Lake Forest College, who has also studied race-restricted covenants in Chicago but is not involved with Winling’s effort. “This thing we call race-in-place is welded into many factors in life: what kind of nutrition you get, what kind of access to grocery stores and schools and transportation you have, all these key factors in how you survive and thrive.”

Dennis Rodkin

A handwritten notation of a race restriction agreement appears at the bottom right in this image of a tract book stored in the basement of the Cook County Building.

To date, Winling’s volunteers and Maura Fennelly, a Northwestern University doctoral candidate in sociology, have gone through about 220 of the roughly 2,500 tract books in the Cook County clerk’s basement records room.

They have found about 500 covenants, which Winling estimates might cover 5,000 individual Chicago properties. Covenants were not generally placed only on a single property, but on an area, such as Maryland Avenue from 63rd to 64th streets. Winling and Fennelly say they can’t predict the final count, as they believe covenants were most concentrated in areas bordering places where large numbers of Blacks already lived, put in place as bulwarks against further movement into white neighborhoods.

Winling studies historical racist housing practices such as redlining, the federal government’s mid-20th-century policy of marking Black homeownership areas as too risky for government-insured home loans.

Before redlining, there were race-restricted covenants, documents created and signed by private citizens as a way to declare an area off-limits to Black people. Although every covenant names every signatory, Winling’s group disavows any desire to shame those people or their descendants. Some signed because of the prevailing racial attitudes of the day, and some likely succumbed to peer pressure, Winling says.

The pressure was enormous in Chicago from the 1920s through the 1940s, the era when race-restricted covenants proliferated after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1926 that covenants were legally allowable. Amid a divisive climate after the explosive race riot of 1919 in Chicago, two movements were happening. Hundreds of thousands of Black migrants were arriving here from the South. At the same time, Winling explains, Chicago was the hub of a nationwide drive to professionalize the real estate industry.

“They were looking to introduce data and standards,” he says.

Paul Goyette

Vacant lots and derelict buildings are the visible legacy of a race-restricted covenant that blanketed a 16-square-block area bounded by Garfield Boulevard, 57th and Halsted streets and Racine Avenue.

Two prime movers, according to Winling, were Northwestern University economist Richard Ely and attorney Nathan MacChesney, a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. Winling says Ely developed uniform methods of valuing land that assumed Black ownership diminished value. Machesney wrote a model restrictive covenant and, as legal counsel for the Chicago-based National Association of Real Estate Boards, made sure that it was disseminated not only around Cook County but nationally.

Racist covenants, Winling says, were “a product Chicago sent out to the rest of the country,” just like lumber, meat, the car radio and soap operas.

But why bother ferreting out legal provisions that have been unenforceable for nearly 75 years?

To Michelle Mills Clement, accumulating a detailed map of where covenants lay in Chicago has both personal and professional relevance. The first Black CEO of the Chicago Association of Realtors, Mills Clement grew up in Roseland and is acutely aware of the role the real estate industry played in limiting where families like hers could live in Chicago. Under her leadership, in 2018 CAR issued an apology for playing a significant role historically in various forms of housing discrimination. In 2020, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors also formally apologized.

Apologies aren’t enough, Mills Clement says. “When you look at the effects these covenants and other tools had on the neighborhoods,” she says, “it’s going to take generations and generations before that is righted.” Knowing specifically where covenants and other tools were used, she says, “is an important part of reversing the adverse effects.”



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