80% of St. Louis County homes built by 1950 have racial covenants, researcher finds
Updated April 27 with an interactive map of racial covenants in St. Louis and St. Louis County
Years ago, Kim Rumpsa was researching whether her employer at the time, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, needed to maintain pipes in parts of St. Louis County.
While leafing through old subdivision plat books for answers, she stumbled across something shocking — handwritten documents stating that only white people could live there.
“The thoughts that crossed my mind were: Is this really still happening? You know, surely people are — they don't know about it, or they're ignoring it at this point,” she said.
Thinking back, Rumpsa, who is white, was less surprised by the racist language when she considered the time period; many of the documents were signed in the early 1900s.
“That’s just part of our history,” she said.
During the first half of the 20th century, racial covenants were common practice among developers across the country, who attached them to dozens of homes at a time in new subdivisions to keep Black families, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities, from moving in.
Covenants have been outlawed for decades, but new research highlights just how pervasive the use of racial covenants was in St. Louis County and how they shaped where people of color could live. University of Iowa history professor Colin Gordon has been painstakingly uncovering those records over the past few years in the St. Louis region.
He recently found that more than 70,000 St. Louis County homes, or about 80% of those built by 1950, have a racial covenant within their chain of title.
Gordon said the records show that segregation is what spurred residential development in the county.
“That it was not accidental white flight, but quite intentional efforts to leave the city and find restricted, Caucasian-only enclaves outside the city limits,” he said.
Gordon said his research also shows differences in the ways in which covenants were used in the county, versus the city — where last year he found some 30,000 properties have a covenant.
“While in the city, you see for the most part these defensive covenants around the Ville, the historic African American neighborhood — in the county it's much more a project of big developers building new subdivisions and restricting them to those, as it was usually said, ‘wholly of the Caucasian race,’” he said.
Gordon found racial covenants were prevalent across “inner ring” suburbs that developed first in the region, such as Clayton, University City and Ferguson. But he also found covenants farther west in places like Ladue and Huntleigh — and as far as Eureka and Pacific, which were accessible by rail.
While he was expecting to find covenants concentrated in exclusive suburbs such as Ladue, Gordon said he was surprised to find so many in much smaller municipalities in north county, such as Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Velda Village and Charlack.
Gordon said that the more than 1,000 individual covenants he found in the county were put in place mainly in the 1920s and '30s, except during the Great Depression when developers weren’t building new homes. He said developers continued to add racial covenants in the late 1940s when a St. Louis case challenging covenants made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1948, the court ruled states could no longer enforce racial covenants.
Yet, Gordon said at least 100 covenants were put in place in St. Louis County after that ruling.
“People continued to put these restrictions on, even though they were unenforceable,” he said.
Over the years, some residents have tried to remove this kind of language from documents. That includes Jim Warren, who moved to a University City subdivision called University Park in the early ‘80s.
Shortly after, he joined the board of trustees in the neighborhood and began helping out with an effort led by two African American board members to revise an indenture dating back to 1922. It contained a long list of restrictions, including one that specifically barred Black and Asian residents.
While it had been illegal to enforce that provision for decades already, Warren, who is white, and the other trustees wanted to update the document. Warren remembers knocking on doors and asking people to sign a petition to remove the offensive language.
“I did feel like we were making some little difference in changing the system,” he said.
The process took a long time, and Warren was no longer active in the effort by the time the document was officially updated in 1993 to strike out the racially restrictive language. Amending these records can be complicated in Missouri.
But Gordon’s research is making it easier for residents to identify whether their home has a racial covenant in its chain of title. Soon, he’ll release an interactive version of his map that allows people to zoom in on specific subdivisions to see if there’s a covenant.
He’s also been partnering with Kalila Jackson, a senior attorney at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, who is helping residents update their records.
Last fall, she launched a website to help spread awareness about racial covenants and what can be done about them. She said so far about 10 people have reached out.
Explaining the data
Between 2019-2021 Gordon collected and coded racial covenants data for St. Louis and St. Louis County with assistance from staff and interns with the Metro St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, and Harvard's Commonwealth Project. Gordon's team provided the following methodology for how they collected and processed the data.
In the city, Gordon said the team worked from a detailed register of St. Louis restrictions, recorded over the last century by one of the city’s major title and abstract firms. In the county, they worked from the county recorder’s master list of subdivisions and the “restrictions” card file (organized by subdivision).
These indices provided “book and page” deed book references. From here, the team identified racial restrictions and catalogued their key elements — including the date, the type of agreement, the expiration term and date, the language of the racial restriction, the presence of other restrictions, and, when relevant, the number of signatories to the agreement. For the county, they also examined the original plat book volumes through 1955. (Restrictions were often recorded directly on the plat, or the plat often contained reference to the book and page where the restriction was filed).
Not including duplicate or renewed agreements, they found 763 unique restrictive covenants or agreements (totaling 29.947 residential parcels) in St. Louis and 1041 unique restrictive covenants or agreements (totally 75,539 parcels) in St. Louis County. The team matched the spatial information in each record, using subdivision names, legal descriptions, and city blocks, to the current St. Louis city and county parcel data and mapped each restricted parcel by date and type of restriction. In a few cases, subdivisions platted and recorded in St. Louis County included parcels in the city. Where original residential parcels were displaced by redevelopment or highway construction, the team estimated and restored their footprint.
The interactive map was designed by Jay Bowen of the University of Iowa Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio. It was written primarily in MapLibre GL JS, an open source version of Mapbox GL JS, and uses vector tiles derived from geojson files to present the parcel data. By shedding unseen data and simplifying polygons at smaller map scales, vector tiles allowed for larger geojson data sources to be used without crashing the map.
In kind and financial support for the research was provided by the St. Louis County Recorder, the City of St. Louis Recorder, and St. Louis REALTORS. The local demographics (black share of population) for 1900-1940 are mapped using census enumeration district data set developed by Alison Shertzer and colleagues. See Alison Shertzer, Randall Walsh, and John Logan. 2016. “Segregation and Neighborhood Change in Northern Cities: New Historical GIS Data from 1900–1930,” Historical Methods 49:4.
You can learn more about racially restrictive covenants and how the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council is helping homeowners amend them here. You can report a racially restrictive covenant here.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan