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Culture & History

Does Your Home Have A Racially Restrictive Covenant? Help Inform Our Reporting

St. Louis Public Radio is investigating racial housing covenants and how they've shaped the way the region has developed.
David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio is investigating racial housing covenants and how they've shaped the way the region has developed.

Across the St. Louis region in the early- to mid-1900s, many white homeowners, developers and real estate associations found a legal way to bar Black residents from certain neighborhoods.

They used racially restrictive covenants. These legally binding documents were attached to parcels of land, individual homes and subdivisions. They prevent the sale, transfer or rental of property to Black people, as well as other racial and ethnic groups.

Racially restrictive covenants were enforced across the country up until the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948. The decision deemed covenants unenforceable, allowing a Black family challenging the restrictions to keep its home in the Greater Ville neighborhood of St. Louis. The 1968 Fair Housing Act later outlawed racial covenants, but records of them still exist.

In St. Louis, there are racial covenants on tens of thousands of homes and lots. Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa, recently mapped those restrictions. He found that covenants are widespread in southwestern neighborhoods, including St. Louis Hills, and northside neighborhoods near the Shelley house. But it’s still unclear exactly where these restrictions exist in counties surrounding St. Louis.

St. Louis Public Radio is partnering with NPR to collect documents and the stories behind them to show the lasting impact these covenants have had on how our region has developed. Our intention is not to shame families or deceased homeowners, but to reckon with our region’s racist housing history.

If you are living in a home in St. Louis that was sold and/or built between 1920 and 1930, there’s a good chance it includes a racial restriction. Covenants were commonly put in place up across the region until the 1950s.

Here’s how you can help:

  1. Check your records and your family’s records for home-related documents. We’re looking for property deeds and covenants, which are real estate documents that could be as long as 30 pages. Unless you have the original bill of sale, however, you may just find a brief reference with the phrase, “subject to restrictions of record.” If you have a mortgage, ask your title company for the deed to your home and any covenants associated with it.
  2. Look for a section that restricts who can buy or live in the home. If you do have a racially restrictive covenant it may contain phrases like, “no person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race,” or “no lot or part of thereof shall be conveyed leased, rented or in any way occupied by negroes.”
  3. If you find examples of this in your records, please send us a digital copy of the document using this form. We may use it to help inform our reporting.

Reach out to reporter Corinne Ruff with any questions, tips or suggestions on who might have an interesting story to tell: cruff@stlpublicradio.org

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.