University of Washington students Erin Miller and Sam Cutts have spent all day in the library.
We sit at a computer bank on the University’s Seattle campus, as a machine scans hundreds of documents on microfiche.
Cutts pulls up a document she found on screen. A 1929 property deed from Seattle’s Olympic Hills neighborhood.
“The one I'm looking at says, ‘Said lots or lot should not be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole, or in part, to any person not of the white race,” she said.
This is called a racial covenant, a powerful legal tool of segregation used in Washington for decades, from the turn of the century to the late 1960s.
Racist language like this isn’t uncommon in our state’s residential property records. It’s her job to find them.
Cutts and Miller are part of the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project, which is tasked with uncovering a forgotten history from millions of similar documents. To date, this small team has found more than 50,000 covenants.
The process of doing so is a research relay race. But the finish line is far away and time is running out.
The project is state-funded and those dollars expire in June.
University of Washington History professor James Gregory explains, “We find bad stuff. Racist restrictions that should never have been authorized.”
Gregory co-leads the project.
His Seattle-based team is looking at counties in Western Washington, like King, Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. Meanwhile, another group at Eastern Washington University, led by history professor Larry Cebula, is doing the same on the other side of the Cascades.
Eight hundred volunteers and an artificial intelligence are helping to speed the process along, but there’s still an estimated 1 million documents to read in King County alone, and potentially 1 million more statewide.
A hidden history of racism
Gregory describes racial covenants as a subtler, northern version of Jim Crow laws.
Readers may be reminded of redlining, a well-known racist practice in which private banks and the Federal government denied mortgages to people of color.
Racial covenants are a more precise, government sanctioned instrument to suppress property rights and quash wealth building opportunities.
Written by developers, homeowners associations and private sellers, the language often targeted specific ethnic groups.
Sam Cutts points to the Olympic Hills deed.
“This one specifically says, ‘No one of the Hebrew, any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or Asiatic race. And it varies from saying only Caucasian people can live here, or naming these races specifically with terms that we definitely do not use now,” she said.
Some examples were stunning.
More than 12 homes in the city of Clyde Hill near Bellevue were explicitly “Aryan” only, a clause written in 1946, one year after millions of Americans fought against fascism and the Nazis. The Holocaust and results of Adolf Hitler’s pseudo-scientific race ideology were well known by then.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against segregation by zoning in 1917, covenants were a clear alternative for segregationists. Just nine years later, the court confirmed this language was not only legally enforceable, but binding to all future owners of the property.
Covenants remained fully legal until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
“The voice of justice speaks again,” Johnson said in a speech that April. “Fair housing for all is now a part of the American way of life.”
Working on borrowed time
Students working on the project say it’s made them look differently at where they live.
Erin Miller grew up with an African-American father, and has lived in several cities and towns in the Seattle area.
“I think it was very interesting from my perspective, to kind of see the ways in which my family was affected by the lack of generational wealth,” she said. “One of those ways that generational wealth is built is real estate. That was in a lot of ways not allowed.”
Sam Cutts, who is Jewish, was surprised to find such stark, anti-Semetic language.
“As someone who looks white, it was a little bit more surprising,” she said.
Talking to them made me curious about my own neighborhood, Seattle’s Capitol Hill, widely regarded as one of the city’s most progressive. My building did not have any restrictions, but many around me did. I visited a stretch at East Prospect and 12th Street, across the street from Volunteer Park. Nearly 1,000 properties across 183 blocks once forbid Black residents in this area.
Gregory remembers the first time he read a racial covenant. It was 2005, when students working on the project today were still in elementary school. He was at the King County recorder’s office.
“I was fortunate to be sitting next to somebody who worked for a title company,” he said. “When I had that first aha, I pretty much shouted, ‘Yes!’ and, and she turned [and says] ‘What did you find?’ I showed her and she said, ‘Oh I know all about those.’
She relayed the story of Innis Arden, a residential district in suburban Shoreline subdivided by the Boeing family. While unenforceable, a whites only policy was still on the books in 2005.
As Gregory and his colleagues dug, the findings only became more interesting. Their work attracted publicity and eventually the attention of lawmakers.
In 2021, the Washington state legislature passed House Bill 1335, which funds the project and currently provides $250,000 dollars a year to UW and Eastern Washington. This money expires in June.
Gregory and Larry Cebula of Eastern Washington recently testified in Olympia that they need more money and time.
The state is asking researchers for a lot: Sort through all property records, plot racial covenants on a map and help to notify people about racial covenants on their properties.
Gregory said that’s impossible in a short time.
Finding restrictions and what to do with them
Back at the library, UW Informatics major Nicholas Boren tells me about the AI they’ve made using a modified version of a program called Tesseract.
It searches heaps of digitized property documents for racist phrases. Think of it like a gigantic “Copy F” search on your computer.
“In 2005, when these technologies didn't exist, it was almost impossible to describe the scale,” they said.
The AI reads much faster than we can and has processed about a million documents so far. That’s literally saved years of work.
But no technology is perfect. For accuracy, anything flagged by the AI must be verified by human eyes.
Some 800 volunteers are reading, including Shirley Heath, who greeted me at the door of her Bellevue home, cat Gideon on her heels.
Health retired from Microsoft last July and got involved with a social justice group at Bellevue Presbyterian. That’s where she heard about the project, which she saw as an exciting opportunity.
Heath is white. She was in third-grade when her Lewisville, Mississippi elementary school was racially integrated. The experience was the first of many revealing the inequity of her hometown.
Learning about covenants in Bellevue grieved her. She recalled buying her first home.
“What an exciting day that was for my husband and me,” she said. “And I think about someone reading language potentially that would have excluded them from owning this house in the past, but it's still going forward in the deed. I don't think they should have that experience. Of course, we need to learn from history. But I think, you know, in terms of going forward, we need to correct this.”
Once covenants are verified, they’re plotted on a digital map by UW graduate student Alvin Bui. Maps are accessible, he said.
“It's better than just looking at a spreadsheet,” he said. “You can actually see this area and this plot has been restricted by this developer.”
Each deed has its own dot. Tracts of multiple properties are bubbled together.
Bui explains the information can be overlaid with census data to show change over time. Viewers can draw connections between covenants and racial demographics.
Eventually, anybody will have access to this information without visiting an archive.
The legislation wanted this project to lead to cities and counties telling homeowners about any covenants and to find a way to void the language without erasing the history.
Covenants show segregation wasn’t a Southern problem. It was an American problem and lately, the country has been coming to terms with its racist past and present.
Local governments are responding to the conversation, investing in initiatives like this one to find covenants. Some municipalities are considering reparations; Evanston, Illinois, a suburban city north of Chicago has begun compensating the victims of housing discrimination with grants of $25,000 for house repairs, mortgage payments and down payments on homes.
There’s also a bill in the Washington legislature that would help communities hurt by racial covenant restrictions buy homes with a state fund.
Like the Restrictive Racial Covenants Project, they are attempts to recognize the economic component of racism, which the country has not always been willing to do. Because it’s uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge that their community, their neighborhood, their block, even their home may look the way it does today because of an ugly law they haven’t even heard of.
“What we're uncovering is kind of reminding an older generation about this horrible past, and it's informing a younger generation who otherwise don't [sic] see it,” he said. “They don't realize it. And these deeds and, you know, the patterns we show on maps that Alvin's developing remind us of the long lasting effects on people of this form of segregation.”
The question is to what degree. The only way to find out is to dig.