When Black Southerners moved to Chicago during the Great Migration, many white homeowners found a legal way to block the flow of Black residents to their neighborhoods. “Jim Crow” of the North resisted racial integration.
From 1916 until 1948, that tool was racially restrictive deeds and covenants. These legally binding documents were attached to parcels of land or subdivisions, preventing the sale, transfer or rental of property to anyone Black — and often other racial or ethnic groups. White property owners signed deeds and covenants to enforce segregation. In the 1940s, more than 220 subdivisions in Cook County created or adopted covenants.
Covenants and deeds were enforced in cities all across the country. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed them unenforceable, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed them.
There’s no easy way to find these records in county systems. That’s why we’re asking for help from people in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. If you’re in a home that was sold and/or built between 1916 and 1948, there’s a good chance that it includes a racial restriction.
We’re looking to collect these documents — not to shame families or deceased homeowners, but to reckon with our region’s own racist housing history.
Here’s how you can help:
Check your records or your family’s records for paperwork on your home. We’re looking for property deeds and covenants, which are real estate documents of 5 to 10 pages that may or may not be attached to a deed.
Look for a section that restricts who can buy or live in the home. It may contain phrases like “no part of said premises shall be conveyed, leased, or sold to any negro or negroes” or language that excludes “anyone not of the Caucasian race.” If it’s a covenant, it may contain signatures and lot numbers from people in the neighborhood.
If you find examples of this type of language, send us a digital copy of the document using this form. We may use it in our reporting.
WBEZ is working with the Newberry Library to ensure all documents are properly preserved.