Julia Allen knows her history.
The 71-year-old grew up in The Ville, a historic Black neighborhood on St. Louis’ north side. Back then, it was a segregated area, but she fondly remembers having everything she needed within walking distance.
Over the years much has changed.
Now, she gives tours of her beloved neighborhood as the co-founder of a nonprofit called 4TheVille. She wishes more people understood the significance of places like the home at 4600 Labadie Ave., an address at the heart of the national fight against discriminatory housing practices.
“It's historic and most people don’t even know about the Shelley House or restrictive covenants, or the laws that made the change so African Americans could move further north and outside of The Ville, outside of Mill Creek, outside of Pruitt Igoe,” she said.
J.D. and Ethel Shelley, a Black couple who bought the home, challenged its restrictive covenant, and in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court sided with them, ruling such covenants unenforceable. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made them illegal.
Yet, researchers who study racially restrictive covenants estimate that millions are still tied to home deeds across the country.
They can be found in cities in nearly all states, restricting homeownership for racial, ethnic and religious minority groups, according to an examination of records by NPR, St. Louis Public Radio and other member stations. Most homeowners have no idea they exist.
Even Allen was surprised to learn there’s a covenant dating back to 1924 on the home she shares with her cousin.
“There are covenants still on the books; isn’t that something,” Allen said.
Across St. Louis, about 30,000 properties still have racially restrictive covenants. That amounts to roughly a quarter of the housing stock that existed in the city in the 1950s. New research mapping those covenants highlights how they kept neighborhoods segregated and established the racial wealth gap that persists to this day.
“This is what many of us see as sort of the original sin that generates segregation in cities like St. Louis,” said Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa, who led the research team.
Unearthing records of racism
The use of racially restrictive covenants in St. Louis peaked in the 1920s. Now, they’re buried in land records at City Hall, often on hard-to-read microfilm.
In most cities across the country, it’s impossible to tell exactly how many racially restrictive covenants exist because most records aren’t digitized and record keeping practices vary.
But through his research, Gordon stumbled across an index of all the restrictive covenants in the city of St. Louis. A colleague working on the project, from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, discovered that a local title company had that document in its archives.
“I don’t think I would have even started the research without it,” said Gordon, who worked with local organizations and students to comb through thousands of pages of property records.
His research shows that covenants in St. Louis were used in two key ways: by real estate groups, which petitioned existing homeowners to sign covenants, and by developers, who baked them into plans for new subdivisions. The strategies differed greatly between north and south city, bisected along Delmar Boulevard, an iconic St. Louis racial dividing line.
“It's important to think of these not as artifacts of some unfortunate past set of practices, but as documents that represent not only how people felt at the time, but in some respects that enshrine certain ideas about race and property,” Gordon said.
Covenants laid the groundwork for other discriminatory practices, such as single family zoning and redlining. Gordon argues they’re also largely to blame for the persistent racial wealth gap.
“The fact that of similarly situated African American and white families in a city like St. Louis, one has three generations of homeownership and home equity under their belt, and the other doesn't,” Gordon said. “It's a huge difference to your opportunities.”
Northside strategy: ‘Preserve the character’
In north St. Louis neighborhoods surrounding The Ville, real estate groups frantically urged white homeowners to sign a patchwork of racially restrictive petitions block by block starting in the early 1900s.
The documents include language stating that it’s to the mutual benefit of signers to “preserve the character of said neighborhood as a desirable place of residence for persons of the Caucasian race and to maintain the values of their respective properties.”
They also explicitly prohibit homeowners to “sell, convey, lease or rent to a negro or negroes [sic].”
Gordon said petitions were used as a defense against the growing Black population, which increased dramatically in St. Louis during The Great Migration as many Black families, including the Shelleys and their kids, fled the abusive Jim Crow south.
“The white realtors association and white homeowners are frantically trying to figure out, ‘How do we stop it? How do we seal the borders of The Ville against further expansion?’” Gordon said.
The restrictive covenants eventually covered most of the homes in neighborhoods surrounding The Ville, including the Shelley House and the now vacant former home of rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
In 1945, a prominent Black realtor named James Bush engineered the sale of 4600 Labadie Ave. to the Shelleys through a sympathetic white intermediary. Soon after, a white neighbor across the street sued based on a covenant, which the Shelleys didn’t know about.
The NAACP ended up taking the Shelleys' case, among others, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and successfully argued it was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law. The landmark case opened up housing opportunities for Black residents, but Gordon said things didn’t change overnight.
“After Shelley v. Kraemer, no one goes through and stamps ‘unenforceable’ on every covenant,” he said. “They just sit there.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision also had unintended consequences. It spurred large scale white flight. Without racial restrictions, white families abandoned north St. Louis neighborhoods for the suburbs. The mass exodus drained the tax base in north city, property values collapsed and later, many Black families left too. Most of the homes that had covenants in that area are now crumbling vacant buildings or lots.
Allen is optimistic that things are starting to turn around in her neighborhood, but all the empty buildings still make her nostalgic for the way things used to be.
“It was like a small town,” she said. “There were families there, kids playing in the streets — kids don't do a lot of that now. It was a great neighborhood.”
Within eight years of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision, a church on Labadie was abandoned by its all-white congregation. Land records for Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church show two racially restrictive covenants were put in place on the building, one in 1923 and another in 1939.
Current pastor Rev. Clyde Crumpton was unaware of the covenants but did know the church had to rebuild a sense of community from the ground up, as it later reopened with an all-Black congregation. Now, he said it’s the church’s duty to make sure people know their history.
“That's Deuteronomy 4:9 and Psalm 78, and other parts of the Bible,” he said. “We have to tell our story to our children and our grandchildren. That's our responsibility, and in our community, we've kind of dropped the ball in that area.”
Southside subdivisions: White by design
Before the landmark 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer decision, racially restrictive covenants had become common practice among property developers, and they played a big role in shaping subdivisions in southwest St. Louis.
As developers transformed farmland into quiet, tree-lined subdivisions, they attached racially restrictive covenants to deeds to ensure Black families would not be part of new neighborhoods. White people bought the homes, and the neighborhoods have largely stayed white since then.
Longtime St. Louis Hills resident Rick Palank has always been fascinated by the aesthetic of St. Louis Hills, designed with intention by its developer.
“Cyrus Crane Willmore had a rose bush or two built between the curb and the sidewalk. Every house in St. Louis Hills had that,” he said. “The architectural beauty of all these homes are all different. No two homes are alike.”
When Willmore plotted out the subdivisions that make up St. Louis Hills, he attached a long list of restrictions: Sunrooms can only extend eight feet. No chickens or livestock. No commercial businesses. And no homeowners or renters other than those of the “Caucasian Race.”
Palank served as a trustee in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was his job to help enforce the rules. But over time he said all the restrictions lost authority.
“They’re just not relevant, so there’s no purpose on updating them,” Palank said. “It’s a historical document.”
Not everyone views covenants as just historical. Other homeowners in southwest St. Louis argue that it’s time to change them.
Clara Ritcher, a resident of St. Louis Hills, said she had no idea such documents were connected to the two-story red brick bungalow with blue shutters she bought five years ago. She remembers that she and her husband had to sign a big stack of papers, but she doesn't recall seeing a restrictive covenant.
“That would be memorable. But it was never spoken of to me,” she said.
On a recent morning she paged through the document while standing in her front yard. It states: “No lot in the subdivision, or any part thereof, shall ever be sold, conveyed, granted, devised, leased or rented to, or occupied by any person or persons not of the Caucasian Race.”
Ritcher, who is white, is familiar with policies that restricted where people of color could live in the past, but she said seeing it in black and white tied to her deed today felt disorienting.
“It hadn't occurred to me that they would still be officially there. Because, you know, it's 2021,” she said.
After giving it some thought, Ritcher said white homeowners especially, should feel the discomfort of looking at these documents.
“History can be ugly, and we’ve got to look at the ugliness. We can't just say, ‘Oh, that's horrible,’” she said. “I feel like it should be in a museum, maybe, or in school books, but not still a legal thing attached to this land.”
More than 70 years after racially restrictive covenants were ruled unenforceable, Ritcher said her neighborhood still largely reflects its origins as a planned white enclave — and that’s a problem.
Ritcher is working to amend the covenant on her home; what she hopes is the first step toward making her neighborhood a welcoming place for all people.
St. Louis Public Radio will explore the process of amending racially restrictive covenants tomorrow in the second of a two-part series.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan