Chicago-area property records are peppered with racist language from the past
Restrictive covenants and deeds meant to keep Black residents out of white neighborhoods are unenforceable today, but their lingering presence still evokes pain and anger.By Natalie Moore
From Auburn Gresham to Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side to Logan Square on the North Side to Highland Park and Glenview in the suburbs, white homeowners included racist, yet legal, clauses on their properties for decades during the 20th century.
“Premises shall not be sold, leased or conveyed to persons of African blood.”
“The restriction of that no part of said premises shall in manner be used or occupied directly or indirectly by any Negro or Negroes. … except house servants or janitors or chauffeurs employed…”
“Shall not be conveyed or leased to or occupied by any person not a Caucasian.”
Racially restrictive deeds and covenants were legally binding documents used from 1916 until 1948. Attached to parcels of land or subdivisions, the documents prevented Black people, and often people from other racial or ethnic groups, from living or buying the property. Covenants and deeds were enforced in cities all across the country — but cultivated in Chicago. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed them unenforceable, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed them.
Despite their proliferation, restrictive covenants are hard to find in county records. WBEZ issued a public callout for help locating such language, asking people to upload documents from their families as a way not to shame but to reckon with our region’s racist housing history.
The uploads included: a deed from a woman’s Polish grandparents’ Auburn Gresham home from 1948; a deed from a home purchased in Hyde Park in 1946 by the current owner’s former in-laws and a 1956 Park Ridge deed that the current owners found in documents left behind from the previous owners.
WBEZ also spent days in the basement of the Cook County clerk’s office searching for records. The multistep process is laborious because the records aren’t digitized. It’s a master class in unraveling red tape. You pour over several thick property books, search filing cabinets and comb through handwritten ledgers before maybe landing on keywords such as “race restrictions.” You fill out slips of paper with document and page numbers to possibly get to microfilm of the records or to request documents from a warehouse where the records are stored.
Dave Wigodner didn’t know about the restrictive deed attached to his North Shore Highland Park home when he and his wife bought it in 1983.
Four years later, the couple refinanced and made a discovery while digging for paperwork and found this on the 1926 deed: “Premises shall not be sold, leased or conveyed to persons of African blood.”
Wigodner, who is white and a retired architect, said he was “floored and offended.” He reached out to a lawyer about removing the language, but the lawyer told Wigodner not to worry because the legal fees would be costly and the deed wasn’t enforceable anyway.
Still, the deed’s language bugged Wigodner, but he dropped the matter. Children were born. Additions were added to the house and it transformed into an arts and craftsman style with huge bay windows in the dining room that looks out onto a park next door.
In recent years, he’s read groundbreaking work from journalists and scholars on housing segregation. He listened to Englewood artist and activist Tonika Johnson talk about her folded map series on Chicago segregation. Wigodner’s wife told him about the WBEZ public callout on restrictive deeds, and he readily submitted.
“Knowing that the restriction was here bothered me. But I wasn’t sure how to deal with or grapple with it. It just felt wrong and hit me at an emotional level in that way. Clearly, over the years, not enough that I became an activist sooner,” Wigodner said.
He volunteers in local community development issues and joined the housing commission, backing subsidized and affordable housing in Highland Park — where the annual median household income is $150,000.
This summer, Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill that will allow homeowners to remove racist language from property deeds. The law takes effect in January.
Wigodner says he and his wife will remove the language from theirs — but they won’t stop talking about the racist deed because it’s a part of history that shouldn’t be hidden.
The deed is dated 1926 when nary a Black person lived in the suburb. In 1930, Highland Park’s Black population was 1.5%. By 2000, it had risen by 0.3 percentage points. The suburb’s most famous Black resident was once Michael Jordan. Today, just 0.8% of Highland Park’s residents are Black.
Of the 19 records submitted to WBEZ, most represented the suburbs, which is a surprise because they were written in an era before white flight and before the federal government built an interstate highway system that rolled out the red carpet to white suburbs. Black Southerners who ventured to Chicago during the Great Migration did not seek to settle on the North Shore. Yet covenants existed there.
“It’s about comforting potential homebuyers or assuring them even though it’s clear no African Americans live here now, we’re guaranteeing you they won’t live here in the future,” said historian LaDale Winling, who teaches at Virginia Tech University.
Winling found that many early 20th century housing developers advertised in Chicago newspapers promoting their new homes in the city and suburbs. In the 1920s, many of those ads labeled the developments as restrictive. It was a bragging right the way an on-suite bathroom with a rain shower is today in a real estate listing.
Caroline Pollock Bilicki
Morton Grove, Ill.
When I saw the restrictive covenant on the deed, … I was horrified. I started researching the people who had signed the deed with the restrictive covenant still on it in 1959. It was illegal in 1959 when it was signed. It was illegal in 1926 when it was written — but that didn’t stop it from happening. … That my lot had a restrictive covenant on it feels like a shameful secret.
We found out about the covenant at closing … [and] I have tried to violate it as much as possible. My marriage ended, and I fostered and eventually adopted three non-Caucasian children. … I am about one-fourth Jewish/Ashkenazi, which I believe was also forbidden by the covenant. I hope the original owners are turning over in their graves!
Hyde Park, Chicago
I found these records … and it was like, “Oh my.” In a way, I wasn’t surprised because of the dates and the times and what things were like in those days, but just to have it right there in black and white, or red and white, and having it applying to my house, I was really surprised and thought, “Oh, but it fits.”
One of the leading real estate developers in the early 20th century was Frederick H. Bartlett. He developed where Wigonder lived in Highland Park. According to scholar Wendy Plotkin, he included racial restrictions in 3,000 lots of his subdivisions in the Chicago Roseland neighborhood.
Desmond Odugu and his students at Lake Forest College located local suburban plats with restrictive covenants and put them all online for a public digital project. By the 1940s, there were 220 subdivisions in Cook County with restrictive covenants.
“If you look at the legal history of racial restrictions, and the way it coincides with the Great Migration, and then look at the publicity campaign that came with that — it was fairly clear to me that there are many parts of the country that, although they didn’t have a lot of Black folks, were already being sensitized about the supposed threat of having these people … coming to the neighborhood,” Odugu said.
Odugu connects the racist covenants to the housing landscape today and the Black-white racial wealth gap. But Odugu, who is Nigerian, says he is also connecting this history to the larger history of global imperialism.
“Chicago or the U.S. is not unique when it comes to the use of land, displacement and dispossession as a tool in the exercise of power,” Odugu explained. “We’ve never really asked serious questions or deep enough questions about the ways the institution of the nation-state itself, the legal system, the economic system, were designed originally as part of an exploitative process.”
Certainly a host of past racial housing policies shape how suburbs look today. And many white and wealthy suburbs in the region fight to keep the racial and economic homogeneity of their communities. Not with deeds but exclusionary zoning to keep affordable housing out.
Today, suburban Glenview has a six-figure median income and 1.5% Black population. It, too, had racial restrictions.
Doug McCarthy’s parents bought a home in Glenview in 1967, and he saw the certificate for the title 30 years later that describes “that the residential purposes for the land can only be used for people of the Caucasian race servants excepted.”
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that covenants were unenforceable two decades earlier, that didn’t prohibit them. The 1968 Fair Housing Act made the restrictions illegal. McCarthy says he doesn’t know if his parents knew about the covenant when they bought the home, but when the family saw it years later, everyone was surprised. His parents are deceased and McCarthy uploaded the document to WBEZ. But he has questions about whether his mother removed the language.
“Emotionally it makes me a little sad to think that this has happened so recently. All I can think of is we need to work to make sure that language like this gets taken out in the future,” McCarthy said.
Restrictive deeds and covenants are the precursor to redlining and other racist housing policies that shape the Chicago region’s segregation.
“The way that covenants came to dominate and were used in the first half of the 20th century was as a result of real estate developers’ work in cities that were facing new arrivals from the Great Migration,” said Winling, the Virginia Tech historian. He is writing a book on various racist real estate practices. He is also a fellow at Newberry Library, which is preserving the documents we found ourselves and from the WBEZ public callout.
A century ago, when Black Southerners migrated to Chicago they were confined to the Black Belt. Many migrated to escape violence, but Jim Crow of the North welcomed them. Winling refers to covenants as a bloodless legal mechanism.
With the National Association of Real Estate Boards headquartered in the city, Chicago played a role in the widespread use of covenants not just locally but nationally.
“This was kind of a clearinghouse for ideas or like a nerve center for both centralizing and accumulating ideas about real estate practice and then sending them out to individual boards and chapters throughout the country,” Winling said.
In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local governments could not explicitly create racial zones, like in apartheid South Africa. But another Supreme Court case a decade later upheld restrictive covenants on properties. The national real estate board’s general counsel in Chicago created a covenant template with this message to real estate agents and developers:
“You should use this template, in your community, wherever you are, Peoria, Wichita, Spokane, Tacoma, San Francisco, Philadelphia. And so we see a standardization and then intensification of the use of covenants after 1926 and 1927 when the model covenant is created,” Winling said.
Counties handle land records, and there are more than 3,000 counties in the country. Millions of covenants were attached to properties across the United States. It’s impossible to quantify how many of these legally binding documents covered the Chicago area. White neighborhood associations organized in favor of them and property owners often paid $5 to sign their name to the covenants.
In 1999, Plotkin, the scholar, wrote a dissertation on racial covenants — a comprehensive analysis of these housing restrictions. She found that the first wave of covenants, recorded in 1928 and 1929, occurred in the communities adjacent to the “Black Belt:” Kenwood, South Oakland, Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore, Greater Grand Crossing, West Englewood and Englewood. Additionally, some covenants were found south of 87th Street and on the North Side — West Town adopted them. In the 1930s, they spread to the West Side in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park.
“Another theme that emerges from this study is the ability of the city’s whites to rationalize racial discrimination on the basis of economics in spite of a fervent rhetorical commitment to democracy. The strong ties between the perceptions of property values and the racial compositions of neighborhoods provided a compelling reason for residents to sign covenants. Rather than attempting to reconcile their economic interests and the democratic principles allegedly underlying the American political system, many merely argued that covenants were expressions of democratic self-rule. What was lacking was a leadership in the neighborhood, city, and nation that took the same set of dynamics and struggled for a solution that protected economic interests and preserved racial opportunities and rights.”
African Americans did not accept second-class citizenry.
In 1940, Carl Hansberry won a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging the restrictive covenant for the home his family bought in the white West Woodlawn neighborhood. A white neighbor named Anna Lee objected to the purchase. The Hansberrys prevailed but only on a technicality — not enough white people signed the covenant. Those documents can be ordered in the basement of the Cook County Building. The experience inspired daughter Lorraine Hansberry, who was 8 years old when the family moved there. Her seminal play A Raisin in the Sun is about a Black family that wants to move to a white neighborhood and faces resistance from those white neighbors.
Earl Dickerson, the prominent Black attorney who argued the Hansberry case before the U.S. Supreme Court, was labeled a communist by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Lawyers and civil rights groups argued that covenants were not simple private contracts but a tool to uphold segregation, a social evil. In 1945, the NAACP convened a restrictive covenants conference in Chicago with attorneys from all over the country.
Ninety years ago, I could not have lived in my apartment because of my skin color — unless I was a janitor, chauffeur or house servant.
I live in a beautiful brick walkup building in the lakefront Chicago Hyde Park neighborhood that was covered by a covenant. Located on the top floor, our 3,000-square-foot apartment floods with light from a sunroom in the front and one in the back. Apparently, the current dining room used to be the maid’s quarters, right off the hall bathroom.
Today, the neighborhood is lauded as a bastion of intellectualism and integration. But some Hyde Parkers played an ugly role in an ugly part of Chicago’s housing history. Back then Hyde Park feared a Black invasion given its proximity to the Black Belt. But Hyde Park was whiter, wealthier and home to the University of Chicago — with resources, money and allied neighborhood associations to keep Black residents out.
As a race and housing reporter, I knew these covenants existed. But seeing an actual document proved more jarring than I thought. On the day I found it in the Cook County basement, I went home that evening and anger washed over me as I cooked dinner. I stood in my kitchen knowing the only way I could have occupied that space decades ago was if I were cooking for a white family. My lived experience of Chicago segregation jumped to another level.
Weeks later, I rang my landlord’s doorbell to talk to him about the covenant on his building. A quiet, elegant man, James Williams is a retired school administrator who blasts jazz and classical music the way I blast ’90s hip-hop two levels above.
He didn’t know the building he bought in 1971 had a covenant. But what I learned was much more striking. Williams is emblematic of the Great Migration and a victim of racist housing policies. His family moved to Chicago from Alabama so his mother could work at a tank factory during World War II on a site that’s now Ford City.
Williams and his parents lived in the Black Belt in a one-room kitchenette apartment. The neighborhood was cramped so landlords cut up buildings into tiny apartments to accommodate newcomers. Families cooked, ate and slept in one-room units. When Williams was in high school, the family bought a two-flat apartment building in Park Manor on the South Side.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling that covenants were unenforceable opened up a host of white South Side neighborhoods, like Park Manor, to Black families. The fall of covenants led to white flight — some South Side neighborhoods turned from nearly all-white to nearly all-Black in the span of a decade.
Williams says decades later, after his mother died, he found paperwork indicating the home was covered by a racial covenant. I asked him if he had any white neighbors.
“There were a few. But they were leaving as fast as they could get out — to the point I would almost say that I don’t remember them being there,” Williams said.
Park Manor is special to me. The WBEZ South Side Bureau is on 75th Street. My grandparents bought a two-flat in the neighborhood on 72nd and Prairie in 1980. On one of my visits to the Cook County Building, I found a covenant that covered both of these properties.
But I’m not the only WBEZ staffer who found a personal connection to covenants in the Cook County basement. My editor, Alden Loury, rents a greystone with beautiful interior woodwork, not far from me in the North Kenwood neighborhood. Loury discovered a covenant on that property.
“It hit me in a way that I didn’t expect that it would. Seeing that language really made that stuff tangible for me. And I think in that moment, it does kind of hit you like, wow — this is something that people felt that strongly about that they put it to paper. They made it a legal document and explicitly said I couldn’t live here, that my family couldn’t live here unless we were serving in a domestic servant capacity,” Loury said.
Ever the data whiz, he looked up the owners using Census records and found the family were immigrants from the Netherlands and lived there in 1930. We’ll never know if the family understood they signed on a dotted line that included a restrictive covenant. But many immigrants from Europe did and that was their path to gaining whiteness not only in Chicago but in the U.S.
Researching covenants has given Loury a greater respect for what his great-grandparents endured migrating to Chicago decades ago.
“They endured, they survived, and in some cases, even thrived. I just think it is just really incredible given what they were facing with the barriers or restrictions,” he said.
The once-white Census tracts that Loury and I live in today are much more diverse with Black residents. We were able to choose where we rent without the same barriers Black Chicagoans once faced. And while the covenants are a vestige of the past, coming face to face with their language offers a sobering reminder of Chicago’s long-lasting legacy of racial discrimination and the pain it still evokes.
Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.
WBEZ’s interim audience engagement producer Libby Berry led the community callout for this story. Follow her @libbyaberry. Katherine Nagasawa and Penny Hawthorne contributed.
Special thanks to WBEZ media archivist Justine Tobiasz, LaDale Winling and the Newberry Library for their work in preserving the documents collected for this project.