How We Found Restrictive Covenants
The Restricting with Property Covenants section in this book was inspired by the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. Students and faculty at the University of Washington-Seattle uncovered the largely forgotten story of White-only restrictions that landowners wrote into more than 400 property deeds from the 1910s to the 1960s, which shaped the racially segregated metropolitan region that exists today. Their public history project launched a campaign that led the governor to sign a 2006 bill that made it easier for neighborhoods to officially remove these covenants, which became unenforceable in 1948, but persisted on legal documents.245
Our goal was to search for restrictive covenants of any type, racial or religious, in the metropolitan Hartford area, as described in the video in Figure 8.26.246 But no one we consulted had ever seen such a document, nor did we have any experience searching property deeds. So we read about the history of these barriers in other cities and learned as much as we could about the research process. People with more experience (such as property lawyers, professional deed searchers, and scholars who specialize in this topic) may have more helpful advice to offer.
We limited our search of restrictive covenants to property records held by the Town of West Hartford, Connecticut, the largest municipality that borders the central city of Hartford, because of easy access to public data and our focus on suburban history. Our study did not examine any property records in the City of Hartford or any other suburban town, and we encourage other researchers to expand our collective search. Tracey Wilson, the West Hartford town historian, long-time high school history teacher, and history columnist for the West Hartford Life monthly periodical, gave us leads from anecdotal accounts she had heard about restrictive covenants from long-time residents. Our most specific lead came from Mary Everett, who in our recorded oral history interview described how she bought a home at 30 Ledgewood Road around 1970, and her lawyer mentioned that the property included a racially restrictive covenant from the 1940s that was no longer enforceable.247
Our first search strategy was to begin with oral history leads about specific properties, then work backwards to trace the sale to the original deed. When we conducted our research in 2011, the Town of West Hartford had recently made recent property records available online.248 Searching by name for Mary Everett (or her spouse, Ronald) pointed us to a 1970 warranty deed listing in book 474, page 185, which we had to find in the paper records at Town Hall. Also, her residence at 30 Ledgewood Road appeared as building lot #78 in the microfilmed parcel map records of the original land development from the 1940s. In the paper books, we traced the 1970 sale further back into time, and eventually discovered the original 1940 deed for the High Ledge Homes subdivision, which included this race restriction: “No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant.”249
But few of our anecdotal leads yielded successful results. So our second search strategy was to conduct a broader search of property records during the racial covenant time period (1920s through the late 1940s). In the Town of West Hartford property records room, we skimmed the Grantor Index Corporate Pages for “agreements,” and then inspected each agreement in its physical book to see if the deed included a restriction between parties. Using this approach, we identified about 200 deeds that listed agreements, and among those we found 22 agreements that included some type of restrictions, all between 1933 and 1949. (We determined that before 1933, searching for “agreements” was not a productive way to look for restrictions, because we found restrictions in deeds that were not listed as having “agreements.”)
Overall, we found two types of restrictions on property deeds between 1915 and 1950, which we labeled “value” and “race.” Value restrictions were more common than race restrictions. Value restrictions typically stated that the owner could not build a home below a certain square footage, or below a minimum price (such as $5,000 in the 1920s), in an effort to maintain higher property values. But race restrictions stated that the land could not be occupied by non-White people, except for domestic servants. In some cases, deeds combined the two types. In either case, individuals or developers used these restrictions to control the social class and/or racial composition of a neighborhood, and its relative price in the minds of prospective wealthy White buyers.
Our study of West Hartford in 2011 was not exhaustive. We found only 5 race restrictive covenants, which covered less than 200 parcels of land, or around 3 percent of the 6,000 single-family homes that had been constructed in the town according to the 1940 Census. The first race restrictive covenant we found was introduced to High Ledge Homes in March 1940 by Edward Hammel, a developer of “fine homes” in Westchester County, NY and Fairfield County, CT. After he established the Whites-only restriction in his subdivision of about 75 homes, we found 4 similar development-wide covenants in other parts of West Hartford for 1940 and 1941. In 2012, we placed all of these historical documents and parcel maps in an interactive Google Map, hosted by the University of Connecticut Libraries Map and Geographic Information Center. Then in 2016-17 we migrated the historical source data into our GitHub public repository and an interactive Leaflet map.250
When searching for “racial covenant” and related terms in the full-text Hartford Courant Historical database, we found only a handful of news stories relevant to Connecticut, but none of them specific to West Hartford. For example, the Courant describes how Hartford lawyer and Democratic alderman Simon Bernstein sought to pressure the Judiciary Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly to invalidate race- and religious-restrictive covenants in 1947. We were fortunate to conduct an oral history interview with Bernstein at age 98, and he told us about one race restrictive covenant case he was involved in, regarding the Mountain Road area of West Hartford, which was settled out of court. But we never found any documentation about it.251
Local historian Tracey Wilson heard several anecdotal accounts from West Hartford residents regarding anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic covenants during this period. In her 2010 essay, Wilson wrote: “By word of mouth I had heard that in the 1930s and 1940s and into the 1950s, no Roman Catholics could live on Stoner Drive, the first street developed on ‘the mountain.’ No Catholics could buy on Wood Pond or Sunset Farms. According to another resident, the address of a house on the corner of Foxcroft Road and Fern Street was changed to Fern Street because no Jews were allowed on Foxcroft Rd.”252 But we have not yet found a religion-based restriction in a property deed in West Hartford. It is possible that some residents may have confused property deed covenants (which would appear in town hall documents) with homeowner association agreements (which may exist on paper, but not filed with town governments) or real estate agents’ refusals to show property to outsiders (which may have been openly discussed, but not documented on paper). To be clear, our study of West Hartford was not comprehensive, and we suspect that more race and religious restrictions exist on paper in this and other cities and towns across the state.
About the authors: Katie Campbell Levasseur (Trinity 2011) conducted research on restrictive property records and co-authored this essay with Jack Dougherty.
Gregory, “Segregated Seattle”. See additional digital collections of restrictive covenants in other cities: University of Minnesota Libraries, “Mapping Prejudice”; Prologue DC, “Mapping Segregation DC”.↩︎
Ilyankou and Dougherty, “Map”. For housing data, see SE:T75, Housing Units by Type of Unit, for West Hartford tracts (C1-6), 1940 Census Tracts, Social Explorer, https://www.socialexplorer.com/tables/C1940TractDS/R11422383.↩︎
On The Line © 2021 by Jack Dougherty and contributors is freely shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.