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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Covenant project unearths the threads of historical housing discrimination in Washington

In Larry Cebula’s history class at Eastern Washington University, students, left to right, Rachael Low, Conner Busch, Jules Amante and Patrick Michaud are delving into research into the history of racially restrictive covenants to produce articles and public history projects.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

They are, literally, all over the map.

They are woven into the property records of homes developed in the mid-20th century in some of Spokane’s tonier neighborhoods – Comstock, High Drive, Audubon, Manito.

“No person of any race other than the White or Caucasian shall use or occupy any building or any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy of a domestic servant domiciled with any owner or tenant.”

They are attached to the deeds of homes in Millwood and Opportunity.

“No part of said property shall ever be used or occupied by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay, or any Asiatic race.”

They were included in property transactions by some of the most prominent citizens in Spokane as the city grew in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, including the owner of this newspaper, prominent developer and political figure Wayne Guthrie, and Whitworth College. On the West Side, they were included frequently in subdivision developments by aviation pioneer Bill Boeing, among others.

Almost the whole town of Airway Heights, from its founding in the middle of the previous century, was developed with racially restrictive covenants, even as the neighboring Fairchild Air Force Base was one of the most diverse places in the county.

They were even included in cemetery plots.

“The above described property shall be used for the burial of human dead of the Caucasian race only.”

It is not news that there were racial covenants built into the foundations of Spokane’s neighborhood developments during the middle decades of the past century. But a new state-funded research project is in the process of identifying every such covenant in Eastern Washington – and the tally is significant.

After scouring digital records, visiting courthouses and digging through the state archives, a team of Eastern Washington University researchers has identified 75 subdivisions or additions in Spokane County where racially restrictive covenants remain on the books. Those covenants are attached to the deeds of an estimated 4,750 individual properties.

They were filed regularly from the 1930s into the late 1950s – persisting even after the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional and unenforceable in 1948.

As the use of the covenants has come increasingly to light in recent years, it has challenged assumptions that state-sanctioned segregation was a reality only in the Jim Crow South – and that discrimination in the Inland Northwest, while very real, was primarily a question of informal, socially enforced racism. The official nature of the covenants, their widespread use by power brokers and public officials, and the awful and specific language involved puts the lie to those assumptions.

“It’s made me exceptionally angry, so I have to kind of keep that to myself while I’m writing about it,” said Jules Amante, an EWU student who is writing a project growing out of the research about the continuing shadow of real estate-based segregation in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood. “It’s just been a struggle for me.”

It’s not just undergraduates who can be shocked by this history. The man who initially opened the door to this subject in this state, University of Washington professor James Gregory, said that his work unearthing these racist documents for nearly two decades has been a series of discouraging and unforeseen revelations.

“There have been continual surprises,” he said.

‘It is our history’

Amante is one of the students in professor Larry Cebula’s digital history class at EWU. She and Cebula’s other students are working on projects growing directly out of the research that he, research coordinator Logan Camporeale and project director Tara Kelly have been doing to locate the covenants.

They have been tasked by the state with locating every covenant in the 20 counties of Eastern Washington and notifying property owners of their existence. Gregory is leading a team doing the same on the West Side.

The researchers will be asking the Legislature to extend its funding for the work in the upcoming session, with the goal of producing a database that documents every record of a racist covenant in Eastern Washington.

“This is the most meaningful work of my career,” Cebula said. “We’re helping to right a historical wrong, and I’m especially glad that Eastern has a role in uplifting and improving our region.”

The seeds of the project in our region started several years ago, when Camporeale – then a master’s student in Cebula’s program – was working in the state archives. One of his co-workers received a call from someone wanting to know if the covenants on their property put any limits on fencing.

They looked up her covenants and were shocked.

“There weren’t any rules about fencing, but there were rules about the color of folks who could live in her neighborhood,” Camporeale said.

Camporeale began rooting through archives and auditor’s records, compiling a list of plats or subdivisions in which the covenants were still filed with property records at the auditor’s office. By the time of a Spokesman-Review story on his efforts in 2016, Camporeale had found more than 30 such covenants, attached to properties developed in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s and still included in any real estate transaction conducted today.

People of color – as well as anyone who finds such covenants repugnant – will still encounter them when buying a home or lot.

By 2016, Camporeale had begun talking to policy makers about the possibility of having the covenants removed.

“My goal is to see these things go away,” he said at the time. “I want them to not be on the books. … At the very least, I want people to be aware.”

For Camporeale, it remains appalling to consider how ingrained and officialized this practice was. Even if some people had reservations, the covenants were “still signed by these power brokers we found who felt like, ‘This is OK and we’re going to just put our names on these documents.’

“That still gets me.”

But making these records go away – or at least finding a way to allow property owners to remove the repugnant language from their property records – has turned out to be complicated . It has pitted two competing principles against each other: Trying to right a historical wrong versus the need to preserve historical records.

Since Camporeale first began bringing this issue to light, court cases and legislation have attempted to address it. A Spokane homeowner sued to have Spokane County remove the covenant from his home’s records – a case that reached the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Legislature has passed laws that attempt to give homeowners a remedy without erasing the historical documents.

County auditors are developing procedures for carrying that out. The newest legislation allows property owners to add a disclaimer to their property record, noting the existence of the covenant and disavowing it.

It also allows a more drastic measure. Property owners can ask a judge to have the original record removed and replaced with a copy that has the offending covenant blacked out. In this alternative, the original record would be archived elsewhere, not destroyed.

Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton has been closely involved in the process all along – arguing against efforts to remove or destroy the records, and working closely with legislators to make sure new laws address that need. For Dalton, it’s a simple matter of the historical record; the chain of title on a property is a permanent record that should be protected.

“Permanent means forever,” she said. “We’re talking centuries and millennia.”

The state Supreme Court, in its ruling, was unequivocal in asserting the legal necessity of preserving the historical record.

“We must ensure that future generations have access to these documents because, although the covenants are morally repugnant, they are part of a documented history of disenfranchisement of a people,” Justice G. Helen Whitener wrote in the unanimous opinion in April. “It is our history.”

State-sponsored discrimination

Covenants restricting property usage are common in real estate transactions, including rules limiting livestock, setting home sizes and setback distances, prohibiting “noxious” activities, and more.

The use of such covenants as a tool of segregation emerged in the early 20th century, as other forms of segregation were being ruled illegal and new, more insidious methods of racial discrimination in housing were slithering into the mix. In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled that the government could not legally discriminate on racial grounds, but didn’t prohibit the use of racially restrictive covenants or contracts.

In the early decades of the 20th century, segregation in Spokane’s restaurants, hotels, social clubs and other settings was a simple fact of life. The first racist covenants were filed in Spokane County in the 1920s – first for a cemetery, and then for the East Audubon Park addition. They became more common in the decades to come, continuing even as they were declared invalid and unenforceable.

In large part, this was due to the federal government and its mortgage-guarantee policies, which place a high value on stability and preserving home values in neighborhoods. In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Authority explicitly encouraged discrimination in its mortgage-insurance guidelines: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”

These guidelines created the foundation for racist covenants and red-lining – the practice of downgrading neighborhoods where Black people lived and thereby making it difficult or impossible to get federally backed home loans. The practice directed public and private money toward white neighborhoods and away from Black neighborhoods, fostering the deep inequalities in wealth and home ownership.

In 1948, the high court ruled that such covenants violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause. But they continued to be filed with subdivisions and developments, in Spokane and elsewhere, for years. In combination with information and social forms of racism, they worked to create a segregated city.

Much of this history lay hidden underground until recent years. Gregory’s Segregated Seattle project, which went online in 2005, brought the issue to statewide attention for the first time. That work and the subsequent research challenges many of the assumptions people have had about segregation in America. Many people have tended to believe that official government-sponsored segregation was limited to the Jim Crow South, and that the forms of racial discrimination in the Northwest were primarily informal.

But the covenants prove that state-sanctioned racism was woven deeply into the history of this city and this state – and that this racism helped to shape our communities and foster the deep inequalities of wealth along racial lines.

“The forces of segregation were authorized by the state government, the city governments and county governments,” Gregory said. “They were protected by the government – official forms, government-sponsored forms of racial discrimination.”

In combination with red-lining, these covenants helped to deny people of color equal rights to buy homes – one of the chief ways that families acquire wealth and pass it along to the next generation. You see the shadow of effects of this today on the lower rates of home ownership among Black residents in Washington state, Gregory said.

“At whatever income level, African Americans own less property and their property is worth less – and that’s the generational wealth effect,” he said.

A common practice

In addition to passing legislation governing the handling of the covenants, the Legislature has funded the work of EWU and UW to identify all the racial covenants in the state and notify homeowners who have them.

EWU was tasked with finding the records in all 20 Eastern Washington counties. UW received the same to canvas the West Side.

Cebula and Camporeale hired Kelly, who has a background in anthropology and experience running research projects. They began by scouring the digital records of plat maps – the records filed when new subdivisions and developments are registered with counties. Many of the maps have the racist covenants printed right on them.

In Spokane, the covenants were used in developments by some of the city’s leading families. William Cowles Jr. and a partner signed off on five such covenants for neighborhood developments such as the Comstock additions.

The Cowles family owns The Spokesman-Review. When news of the covenants came to light in 2016, Betsy Cowles, chairman of the newspaper’s parent organization, the Cowles Co., issued a statement: “It isn’t clear to me exactly what role William Cowles Jr. had in the overall development at that time. What is very clear is that such racial segregation is offensive and in no way represents our company or family values. Today, we are proud of the work we have done and will continue to do in our companies and community to celebrate diversity and honor differences.”

Another prominent Spokane figure who included racially restrictive covenants in property developments was Guthrie, who built thousands of post-war homes in Spokane County. Guthrie also served on the City Council and ran twice for mayor – losing in his final run in 1981 to Jim Chase, the city’s first Black mayor.

In 1942, Whitworth College platted a subdivision for married student and veterans housing that included a racist covenant – the one with the exception for domestic servants. When the EWU research team let the school, now Whitworth University, know about this recently, university President Scott McQuilkin issued a thorough-going statement to the campus community repudiating the covenants, detailing the harm the practice inflicted, committing to including the information in the university’s history, and pledging to form a campus group to consider further ways to address the information.

“The discovery of Whitworth’s participation in a racial covenant reveals a moral failure, an action that contributed to injustice, racist systems, and untold consequences for people of color who were not granted the same opportunities as white people,” the statement issued Oct. 6 read.

“We have a duty, as people seeking to participate in God’s redemptive work, to study our history, to acknowledge and own our failures, and to form a better house for our current residents and those who follow. Whitworth University is committed to doing all of that.”

‘Creating history’

The EWU team’s work began with examining the digital plat maps associated with developments in Spokane County and other regional counties.

The team then moved on to the books of physical property records kept in county courthouses around the region. This entailed navigating the differences and peculiarities among different record-keeping systems.

They were unanimous in praising auditors around the region for helping them find what they were looking for.

“Everyone’s been great,” Cebula said. “Everybody agrees this was a great historical injustice and they want to help fix it.”

The rural use of the covenants was sporadic, in part because the middle of the 20th century was not a big growth period in small towns.

The team found just one in Adams County, for example – in a cemetery.

Camporeale estimates the research work is about three-quarters complete.

Gregory, the UW professor, is facing a bigger research challenge in the more populous West Side counties.

He said his five-person team has finished the work in Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, and is facing daunting ongoing work in King County, where the records they need are mostly not digitized.

They’ve found about 40,000 individual properties with restrictive covenants.

“There’s no way we’re going to finish or even come close to finishing in King County when the funding runs out next summer,” he said. “And there are a whole lot of other counties on the West Side we haven’t even begun.”

Cebula is bringing the research into the other corners of his teaching. The undergraduates in his digital history class are each writing about some element of the research for a project that will be posted at the Spokane Historical web site.

One student is writing about the involvement of Cowles, another is looking in detail at where Spokane’s Black population has lived in town and how that has evolved, and another is writing about Airway Heights.

Rachael Low is writing a piece about a debate in 1968 between Carl Maxey and James Black, then the head of the state real estate agents association. They were debating a state law that would have held agents legally responsible for discriminating against buyers – the real estate association was opposed to the law.

Low and the other students said they were surprised to discover this element of the region’s history.

“There are people who are alive today who were affected,” she said. “It’s something we as a city need to remember and learn from.”

In the end, there will be more public awareness and much more easily accessible public information about where the covenants were used than ever before. With the new laws offering homeowners a remedy for dealing with the covenants in their own files, the researchers say concerns that they are trying to erase the history of this practice are wrong.

“We’re not erasing history,” Cebula said. “We’re making history.”