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Racial Covenants, a Relic of the Past, Are Still on the Books Across the Country

Racial covenants made it illegal for Black people to live in white neighborhoods. Now they're illegal, but you may still have one on your home's deed.

Inga Selders, a city council member in a suburb of Kansas City, wanted to know if there were provisions preventing homeowners from legally having backyard chickens. So she combed through deeds in the county recorder's office for two days looking for specific language.

At one point, she stumbled across some language, but it had nothing to do with chickens.

"I heard the rumors, and there it was," Selders recalled. "It was disgusting. It made my stomach turn to see it there in black-and-white."

What Selders found was a racially restrictive covenant in the Prairie Village Homeowners Association property records that says, "None of said land may be conveyed to, used, owned, or occupied by negroes as owners or tenants." The covenant applied to all 1,700 homes in the homeowners association, she said.

"There's still racism very much alive and well in Prairie Village," Selders said about her tony bedroom community in Johnson County, Kan., the wealthiest county in a state where more than 85% of the population is white.

The racially restrictive covenant that Selders uncovered can be found on the books in nearly every state in the U.S., according to an examination by NPR, KPBS, St. Louis Public Radio, WBEZ and inewsource, a nonprofit investigative journalism site. Although the Supreme Court ruled the covenants unenforceable in 1948 and although the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed them, the hurtful, offensive language still exists — an ugly reminder of the country's racist past.

"I'd be surprised to find any city that did not have restrictive covenants," said LaDale Winling, a historian and expert on housing discrimination who teaches at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

While most of the covenants throughout the country were written to keep Blacks from moving into certain neighborhoods — unless they were servants — many targeted other ethnic and religious groups, such as Asian Americans and Jews, records show.

In this moment of racial reckoning, keeping the covenants on the books perpetuates segregation and is an affront to people who are living in homes and neighborhoods where they have not been wanted, some say. The challenge now is figuring out how to bury the hatred without erasing history. In some instances, trying to remove a covenant — or its racially charged language — is a bureaucratic nightmare; in other cases, it can be politically unpopular.