Some Illinois residents are using a new law to rid their property records of racist language

a collage showing a property document
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
a collage showing a property document
Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Some Illinois residents are using a new law to rid their property records of racist language

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For $10, Illinois homeowners can pay to remove racist language from their property deeds that once proliferated in the 20th century.

A new state law is now in effect, which allows individuals, condo associations and other property owners to request that their local county recorder get rid of illegal restrictive covenants. The language commonly either barred Black people or explicitly deemed properties to be “white only.” Mundelein resident Nicole Sullivan is among the first to start the process to strike the language from her home records and those of neighbors.

“This is a document that continues to harm people, it continues to psychologically damage people and damage relationships and trust in our community,” said Sullivan, a white mother of four.

The subdivision she and her family live in consists of 400 homes that prohibited the selling, transferring or leasing of her property to “persons of the African or Negro, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish or Hebrew races, or their descendants.” Servants were the exception.

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.

Last fall, NPR published an investigation about restrictive covenants and found them on the books in virtually every state. And WBEZ published a similar investigation and asked the public to upload property documents that had restrictive language. The investigation found white homeowners in the suburbs, not just in the city, used restrictions to maintain the whiteness of their communities.

“Our neighborhood is still predominantly white. There isn’t a ton of diversity in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood has generations of the same families that live here. People who are in their 80s now have lived here their entire lives, and their parents lived here before that. This legacy from segregation is still here,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan went to the Lake County Recorder of Deeds office to remove the clauses. She said the new state law empowers individuals, who were previously told it was too cumbersome or impossible to take out the racist language, by streamlining the process. It’s been a 10-year journey since she learned about the covenants, and she and another member of the homeowners association began lobbying the state to change the law.

State Sen. Adriane Johnson, D-Buffalo Grove, was one of the bill’s sponsors.

“It was just another way of righting the wrongs from the past. Even though racially restrictive covenants are unenforceable, they are a painful reminder, stain on our past,” Johnson said.

The Lake County’s state’s attorney’s office is reviewing cases like Sullivan’s.

“I’m happy to begin cleansing these legal documents of very immoral and illegal language,” said Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart.

Property owners have to take the initiative to file at their local recorder of deeds office. Jim Koppensteiner wants to do so in Cook County. He recently pulled out the records from the Niles two-story home his parents brought in 1967 and found this clause: “said premises shall not be conveyed or leased to or occupied by any persons who is not a Caucasian.” Servants were excluded. Koppensteiner said he was disappointed and disgusted.

“I never thought I’d feel so close to any history let alone that history,” Koppensteiner said.

He asked his mother if she knew about the deed; she said she didn’t but agreed to have it removed. But his father signed it.

“My dad’s not around anymore. But my dad was pretty meticulous in everything he did. I gotta believe he did know,” Koppensteiner said. His feelings are complicated because 1967, the year his parents bought the home, was in the thick of the civil rights movement. But Koppensteiner also sees his father as being reflective of commonly held views and sentiments during racist times.

“But I’m going to open my eyes to it,” Koppensteiner said. And that starts with calling Cook County to remove the racist language.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.