St. Louis homeowners want to get rid of racial covenants. But in Missouri, it's complicated
By Corinne Ruff
Kalila Jackson has a big goal written on her vision board: End racially restrictive covenants.
The senior attorney at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council wants to make sure homeowners don’t get the same shock she did reading a covenant for the first time.
“To see ‘no Negros,’ or ‘no Jewish people allowed,’ that does a certain violence to one’s spirit,” said Jackson, who is Black. “I knew I had to do something about it.”
The legal documents were widely used in St. Louis in the early- to mid-1900s to keep Black families out of white neighborhoods. St. Louis Public Radio reported Thursday that there are roughly 30,000 properties in the city with restrictive covenants tied to their deeds that specifically bar selling or renting to Black people, among other racial, ethnic and religious groups.
The covenants have been unenforceable and illegal for decades, yet many homeowners have no idea these documents linger in their property records. That’s changing as more research becomes available, prompting homeowners to inspect their chain of title for the racist documents and look for ways to rectify them.
In Missouri, it’s not simple. Property records can’t be erased, and there’s no specific statute allowing individual homeowners to easily amend restrictive covenants themselves. But a few attorneys, including Jackson, are helping homeowners do it for free.
"There's not a lot of people who are familiar with the process,” she said. “If you called a random attorney, many of them probably would say, 'Oh, well, this is unenforceable. You can just ignore it. You don’t have to worry about that.’ But I think we know that's only half the story.”
Jackson and other local groups have been working with Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa, over the last couple of years to unearth racially restrictive covenants in the region. After weeks of tediously sifting through records, Gordon was able to create the first comprehensive map of covenants in St. Louis and analyze their long-lasting impacts on neighborhoods.
“We still live in deeply segregated cities,” he said. “If we're interested in redressing that, whether it's through some sort of local reparations policy, or whether it's just through adopting planning policies that undo some of that damage, I think it's important to understand where it came from.”
The map allows homeowners to see where their home fits into a pattern of discrimination across the city and to look up the specific information needed to view covenants at City Hall.
St. Louis Public Radio used the map to review racially restrictive covenants with half a dozen homeowners. All of them were shocked to find such documents are still tied to their deeds.
On a recent afternoon, Jason Flowers, a 42-year-old realtor, adjusted the lever on the microfilm reader inside the city’s land records department to scroll through a handwritten covenant dating back to 1910. It was put in place by the developer who plotted out a subdivision that includes the red brick home Flowers shares with his partner in the Princeton Heights neighborhood of southwest St. Louis.
The document states that lots in the subdivision cannot be, “conveyed leased to rented to or in any way occupied, or owned by negros [sic].”
Having grown up in St. Louis, Flowers, who is white, knew this sort of systemic discrimination existed, but he got choked up reading the document as he thought of his biracial relatives.
“That s--- is not right. That was never right,” he said, wiping away tears. “So how do we fix it?”
Flowers is working with Jackson to amend the paperwork tied to his home, so that his chain of title reflects the painful history but releases the restriction.
In a review of homeowners’ records, St. Louis Public Radio also discovered that a portion of the Southwest Garden neighborhood just west of the Missouri Botanical Garden has a racially restrictive covenant on it. It was adopted in 1923 by the botanical garden’s board of trustees who then owned the land.
Amanda Shields, director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, said that the garden’s lawyers recently looked into what could be done about it. She said acknowledging its role in upholding racially restrictive covenants is part of a commitment to re-examine its history.
“We certainly support focusing on not only getting rid of the language but the spirit of what that language represents,” she said. “Although we’re not aware of anything existing right now, if there was an appropriate legal remedy to do that we would certainly be open to supporting moving in that direction.”
In order to make meaningful, large-scale change, Jackson said the state needs to make it easier for homeowners and other entities to amend restrictive covenants without needing to hire a lawyer. Her organization recently launched a landing page where residents can learn more about racially restrictive covenants and sign a petition to encourage lawmakers to take on the issue.
A few states, such as Minnesota, allow homeowners to file a request at no cost with the recorder of deeds to get a discharge of a racially restrictive covenant. But in Missouri, so far there’s only a process laid out for homeowners associations.
St. Louis-based attorney Todd Billy specializes in legal issues affecting HOAs with the firm Sandberg Phoenix. He estimates he’s helped between five and 10 HOAs in the area amend such restrictive covenants for free.
“Anything that gets recorded is truly there forever. That's the whole point of the land records,” he said. “So it’s more about disavowing; the act of saying, ‘Of course that’s wrong. We’re not doing it, and disavow it. It’s not a part of our governing documents anymore.’”
Over the last year, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has spoken out about his commitment to root out racist language from HOA bylaws in Kansas City. In St. Louis, the vast majority of covenants are not tied to HOAs, and Schmitt hasn't addressed the hundreds of subdivision and petition covenants on the books.
Through a spokesman, Schmitt declined an interview but said in a statement, “It would be too premature to promise action before seeing the covenants, but we do encourage people to reach out to our office if they find these covenants.”
Some state lawmakers are working on a legislative fix.
Rep. Michael O’Donnell, a Republican from Oakville in south St. Louis County, introduced a bill earlier this year that included language allowing homeowners to get a certificate of release added to their property records at no cost, which would acknowledge the covenant is void and unenforceable. O’Donnell said it should have been done a long time ago.
“This is one of those things I look at and say, ‘This is in statute, nobody is paying attention to it. Yeah, let’s just get it out because we know this is wrong,’” he said.
The bill didn’t pass before the end of session, but O’Donnell said he’ll try again next year.
A few years ago, a tiny town about two miles northwest of St. Louis took matters into its own hands to amend a racially restrictive covenant — and it wasn’t easy.
Pasadena Hills was designed as an exclusive, European-inspired subdivision in the late 1920s, run by a board of trustees that adopted a racially restrictive covenant barring Black and Asian homeowners.
Alderman and longtime resident Robin Titus recently walked along the tree-lined streets pointing out some of the oldest homes — a Spanish-style stucco mansion and a limestone-looking castle — built around an ornate fountain. He explained that residents here advocated unsuccessfully for decades to remove the covenant as the demographics of the town changed to majority Black.
“I mean it was offensive, for god’s sake,” said Titus, whose family is multiracial.
About six years ago, residents brought the issue up to city leaders again. Geno Salvati, who was mayor at the time, the city’s attorney and others got behind the effort. They worked with Jackson to come up with a legal fix, gathered support from the public and persuaded the board of trustees to pass a resolution acknowledging and striking the offensive language.
Salvati is proud the town came together to amend the restrictive language, but not everyone agreed with the decision. The former mayor said some white people in the community felt uncomfortable about the whole thing and were unhappy with him for addressing it.
“They weren’t trying to be racist. They thought the practical approach was to not bring up this stuff,” Salvati said. “I don’t judge them for that, but still to this day a lot of them aren’t my friends.”
Titus said by the time the restrictive language was finally amended in 2016, his friends in the neighborhood were happy, but a little underwhelmed.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh, really? I've been hearing about that for 30 or 40 years. Oh, it finally got done? Oh, okay, good.’ It had been batted around for decades so it lost some of its initial zest,” he said.
Titus hopes other towns in St. Louis County will take a look at the skeletons in their closets too.
Gordon, the University of Iowa history professor, is currently researching where racially restrictive covenants exist in St. Louis County. He’s identified and mapped more than 950 subdivisions with racial restrictions. Those covenants are tied to about 61,000 property deeds in towns across the county, most prevalently in areas such as Ladue, Clayton, Kirkwood and Ferguson.
When Shemia Reese learned there was a racially restrictive covenant on her home in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood in north St. Louis, she thought about the blatant racism her elder Black relatives had to go through.
She finds it heartbreaking to know someone who owned her home nearly 100 years ago signed a document to keep Black people out of the neighborhood. But it’s still part of her history, she said.
“I'm gonna frame it, and I'm gonna hang it in my house,” Reese said. “Me buying my house was one of my biggest accomplishments and this doesn't change that.”
She hopes that seeing the covenant in black and white on her wall sparks conversations. Reese said racism is always downplayed, but the covenant is proof of why she had to work so hard to become a homeowner.
“Whereas you can walk straight through the door, I have to walk, skip, jump, roll, crawl, sometimes rest and get back up and repeat it over again,” she said.
Racially restrictive covenants have left a lasting legacy of segregation and wealth inequality, according to experts such as Neal Richardson.
As the executive director of the St. Louis Development Corporation, the city’s economic development arm, it’s Richardson’s job to look at the stark statistics: Home values in Black ZIP codes are a quarter of those in white ZIP codes, and Black employees make 48% of what their white counterparts take home.
“That was all really created intentionally and systematically through these racial covenants,” he said.
Richardson, who is Black, sees how old housing discrimination policies have affected his own family. He grew up in the Lewis Place neighborhood in north St. Louis, which is covered in racially restrictive covenants, and his parents still live there.
“Their home value has not increased at the same rate as if they lived on the south side of Delmar a couple blocks away in the Central West End,” he said. “And so that impacts my wealth, that impacts the wealth of my daughter, and then her kids.”
Richardson said repairing the harm in north St. Louis must be just as intentional as the policies that created such disparities. He’s pursuing an economic justice plan that aims to close the gap.
Jackson, the fair housing attorney, is also driven by experiences that hit close to home.
Her parents were active in the local civil rights movement. As a kid she remembers her dad driving past the Shelley House and pointing out its historical significance in the fight for equal housing rights.
In the early 1980s, Jackson’s family moved to Black Jack, a small town in north St. Louis County famous for another landmark housing case, in which a federal court ruled in 1974 that the town’s zoning practices violated federal law.
“My family was part of the migration into north county that started the white flight out,” she said.
Jackson expects that over the next decade homeowners will have much greater access to digitized records and maps of racially restrictive covenants in their neighborhoods. She said exposing that information will also help policy makers redress the past and advocate for a future that includes fairer housing practices.
“They need to be armed with this information because that is how we change our tomorrow,” she said. “That's how we shape the future — by making informed decisions that are done in a way that acknowledges the harm of the past and really makes true commitments to forward progress.”
Jackson knows that change doesn’t come quickly in fair housing, but she’s optimistic that racially restrictive covenants are one issue that can be resolved in her lifetime.
You can learn more about racially restrictive covenants and how Kalila Jackson’s organization, 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
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