Racial covenants from the 1950s helped me buy my house

Although his McKinley Park home did not have a restrictive deed, a WBEZ staffer discovered that he benefited from this tool of exclusion.

Jesse Dukes
Jesse Dukes outside his McKinley Park home on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Taylor Emrey Glascock for WBEZ
Jesse Dukes outside his McKinley Park home on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Taylor Emrey Glascock for WBEZ
Jesse Dukes
Jesse Dukes outside his McKinley Park home on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Taylor Emrey Glascock for WBEZ

Racial covenants from the 1950s helped me buy my house

Although his McKinley Park home did not have a restrictive deed, a WBEZ staffer discovered that he benefited from this tool of exclusion.

I own my own home. It’s an older two-flat building in Chicago’s McKinley Park neighborhood, and it’s a bit beat up. It could use new siding. It could use quite a bit of work, to be honest, but I love it, and I love that I own it. I love renovating it on the weekends; I love that my “rent” is frozen forever (barring property tax increases); I love that I have a basement I can use as a workshop and where I can keep my growing collection of power tools. I love that, if I wanted to travel or live somewhere else, I could rent it out for a few months and return to find a space I’ve carefully shaped. I feel proud to be a homeowner.

Part of that pride comes from working hard to realize a dream I’ve had for years. Early in my career, over a decade ago, I worked as a freelance journalist, with occasional low-paying, part-time jobs. The work was rewarding, and I was learning a craft, but I usually made less than $30,000 a year and rarely saved any money. During that time, I was a renter, sharing space with housemates, trying to squeeze office space into bedrooms or dining nooks. I moved often, cramming my belongings into borrowed trucks, and dragging them across town with the help of unfortunate and loyal friends, endeavoring to re-create “home” in a new place every few years. I dreamed of owning a house. I yearned for a home base — with an office and storage where I could keep my things; a space that I could renovate and shape, according to my vision — to stabilize at least one aspect of an often chaotic life.

In my early thirties, I went through a few years in which I had a hard time making enough income, and racked up five figures worth of credit card debt. After that, I concluded that the freelance lifestyle was unsustainable. Focusing on finding a rewarding job, I was lucky enough to be hired at WBEZ as the Curious City audio producer. For the first time in my life, I had a stable, decent salary that allowed me to start saving. I paid off that debt and, after a couple of years, began to navigate the complicated legal and financial path to homeownership. I managed to buy my house in 2018.

I think that pride in accomplishment is healthy, but there’s another sense to my pride in homeownership that is, or was, harmful. It’s painful to admit this, but I think I had an unconscious sense that by navigating all the hurdles to home ownership, I proved myself to be “deserving.” That I am, perhaps, more clever, harder-working, more reliable, and somehow more “worthy” of owning my own home than others who haven’t accomplished that.

And to be clear, I knew that my ability to buy a house was, in part, the result of privilege, related to historical and ongoing racism. I have known for years, in an abstract, intellectual way, that my family had pathways to middle-class stability that were not available to others. That inequity was intentional, and racist. My family is white, and I know my grandparents benefited from subsidized mortgages and education benefits that were part of the GI Bill of Rights, which was structured in a way to exclude African Americans and other non-whites. I knew racial discrimination affected who gets jobs, compensation, or who gets mortgage loans.

But recently, when I became aware of an ongoing project by my WBEZ colleague Natalie Moore, my feelings about my house, and particularly that pride in homeownership, became more complicated. Natalie has been researching racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago, and inviting WBEZ listeners to research their own home, to see if it was ever subject to racially restrictive covenants. Racial deeds and covenants have been getting a lot of attention recently, as more Americans are coming to understand this dimension of American racism. These deeds and covenants, which in most cases restricted white sellers to sell only to white buyers, enforced segregation, excluding millions of African Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. That exclusion limited their ability to access home ownership and the attendant opportunity to build wealth.

Encouraged by Natalie’s reporting, I sought to learn if my McKinley Park house was subject to racially restrictive deeds. In the course of her research, Natalie didn’t find any. However, as I was thinking about that possibility, I realized that housing covenants did figure into my home ownership story. It’s a complicated series of events that my stepmother, Linda, learned when she was researching the impact of housing covenants on her family.

Linda’s grandfather was always celebrated in their family for being a hardworking roof thatcher who immigrated from England. After working in the U.S. for two decades, he purchased and developed a plot of land in Maryland, in the suburbs near Annapolis. The land was along one of the many saltwater estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay. He built houses on some of the lots and sold the rest to others. Many of Linda’s family members were memorialized on the subdivision’s street names. Linda recently learned when her grandfather sold the land, racially restrictive covenants were included in the contracts, effectively making the new subdivision whites only. The contracts also excluded Jews.

Here’s an excerpt from the deed: “At no time shall the land included in said tract or any part thereof, or any building erected thereon be conveyed to, or be occupied by an Negro or person of Negro extraction, or by anyone other than Gentile. This prohibition, however, is not intended to include any person while employed as a domestic servant by any purchaser or the Developer.”

Linda’s grandfather made money from the deal, and passed on undeveloped parcels of land to Linda’s parents, who built a beautiful home by the water. Linda’s parents used the income from the property sales to help Linda and her sisters attend college, and when they died, they left a significant sum to my parents.

Jesse Dukes poses in his kitchen
Dukes says learning more about restrictive covenants and deeds — legal agreements used to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods — complicated his feelings about homeownership. Taylor Emrey Glascock for WBEZ

When I was seeking to purchase my house in McKinley Park, Linda and my father helped me with a gift that allowed me to afford the downpayment. It was a gift they may not have been able to make without the inheritance from Linda’s parents, which in turn began with her grandfather’s development that excluded Black people and Jews. The gift I received wasn’t enormous, but without it, I would have had to save for at least another year and may have missed the opportunity to buy into my neighborhood at a low cost, as prices are rising.

Realizing this connection to restrictive covenants punctured any sense that I deserved this opportunity more than anybody else. Yes, I’ve worked hard to get to the point of being able to buy a house, and I’ve put literally hundreds of hours into repairs and renovations. But there have been millions of people who have done all the same things — or who would have, if they could — who did not get the same opportunity. And more profoundly, I directly benefited from wealth made from an investment that explicitly excluded African Americans and Jews.

While many barriers to home ownership have been lifted, the long history of segregation created by those barriers continues to impact home values, and inequities remain in appraisal, lending, and the credit system. Those inequities add up to a fundamentally unfair and inequitable system of determining who gets to own a home. Simply put, it’s racist. When I think about how much security, pride, and happiness home ownership has brought me, and when I think about the millions who have been prevented from achieving that, it hurts. My own pride in accomplishment is tainted, and I feel sad and angry that the pride, pleasure, and security I’ve enjoyed is denied to other people.

I’m not sure exactly what the solution is, but since hearing Linda’s story, I’ve spent more time researching, more time talking, and more time thinking about it. My family has been having conversations about how we’ve accrued wealth over the generations and what responsibilities come with that. My sister and I have made an agreement to donate a significant percentage of any inheritance we receive to fund that seeks to address the harm of racist housing policies. I don’t think we’re being particularly virtuous — we’re not sacrificing anything NOW, and our impact will be small — but it’s something. I’m following other people’s conversations about repairing the harm of slavery, segregation, and racist policy like restrictive covenants, and reading about more instances of communities or individuals looking for ways to address this deep harm.

I want to reiterate Natalie Moore’s call to do your own research into your home. If, like me, home ownership is meaningful and important to you, learning the history of your home and how you were able to afford it may surprise you. While your home may have never been the subject of a restrictive covenant, you may have benefited from them, anyway. While you may not feel the pain of knowing that the racist language prevented your ancestors from owning a home, you may be disturbed to learn that you’ve been enriched by that pain. It may make you uncomfortable and, hopefully, it will motivate you to make our communities more just. Coming to grips with our nation’s long history of racial injustice is not only the work of those who’ve been harmed by it.

Jesse Dukes is a senior podcast producer working on WBEZ’s Motive series. Follow him @CuriousDukes.