'Any person of African descent.' Thousands of racial covenants found in Durham housing deeds

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Saturday, March 25, 2023
Thousands of racial covenants found in Durham housing deeds
or the last three years, dozens have worked on the project coined 'Hacking History'. The team has shifted through hundreds of thousands of deeds and found racist language in deeds for homes and even cemeteries.

For years, Leroi DeRubertis loved her North Durham house. It was old and 'cute' and felt like home, but one day that changed a bit for her.

DeRubertis found the property deed for her home and saw a covenant that stood out.

"No part of the above-described property shall be sold, rented, or otherwise disposed of any person of African descent... or occupied by any person of African descent unless as a servant," she read.

DeRubertis said the language shocked her.

"It was just very racist and it made me sad. It changed the narrative of like the story I created for my house," she remembered.

And her home isn't the only Durham property whose deed contained a racial covenant designed to keep Black homeowners and renters out.

DeRubertis is part of a team of researchers and community members who have found racial covenants in around 4,000 properties across Durham.

"You have words or statements like Negro servants, or Negro blood, or African American," explained JT Tabron, Durham Co. assistant register of Deeds, "It'll speak to you cannot live here or are unable to occupy unless you're a domestic servant."

For the last three years, dozens have worked on the project coined 'Hacking History'. The team has shifted through hundreds of thousands of deeds and found racist language in deeds for homes and even cemeteries.

Alex Chassanoff, an assistant professor at NCCU School of Library and Information Sciences, said she first got the idea after seeing similar research in other parts of the country.

"It's shocking to see this language. It's shocking to see something that's publicly available; that is accessible, but that people don't really exist," she said.

The covenants aren't legally enforceable anymore but the team said awareness of where these were in place gives insight into how the area grew and developed the way it did.

"You get a sense of how African Americans a lot of times were cordoned off and communities that were near factories, or near railroads. So you got the health consequences of being forced into these places. You can also look longitudinally to see how property values may not have increased in certain places where certain places were populated, regardless of the fact that you might have a very similar style house to white and another part of town where the property value has gone up 10, 20, 30 times," Tabron said.

Initial mapping of the covenants shows these properties range from neighborhoods around Duke University to north Durham to the outskirts of east Durham.

Many of the properties are located in neighborhoods that report a higher percentage of white residents, higher median incomes, and higher property values than the county average.

"It just makes you really consider why things are structured the way that they are," DeRubertis said. "So all the neighborhoods that I considered buying and are the ones that have them racial covenants in there. So it does have a lasting impact like those are the 'desirable' neighborhoods."

This is in line with the trend other communities are finding while unearthing racial covenants in their area. The Brooking Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization, found many majority-Black neighborhoods are devalued compared to similar homes. The institute found in Durham, homes are devalued by $26,000 less.

"What we have been able to identify in a lot of neighborhoods is that they start white and stay white, essentially, despite the communities around them changing," Tabron explained.

As the team looks ahead to the next phase of the project, they plan to use their findings to spread awareness. They also help understand which parts of the community were negatively impacted and may be able to help guide corrective actions in the future.

RELATED | 'It's baked into the system': Data shows housing segregation persists across the Triangle

"Possibly find ways to begin to more heavily invest in certain areas, help people understand some of why things are the way that they are around where they currently live, and try to address some of these long-term negative trends like health disparities, economic disparities, and work together as a community," Tabron said.

Eventually, they will submit a resolution to Durham leaders to recognize the impact and damages these covenants created.

"I think awareness is very powerful, even if it results in someone telling their story," Chassanoff said.

She said future work might also be comparing the locations of these deeds to past research on redlining in the area to see where overlapping occurred.

"This isn't just sort of an issue that one race has to deal with. We're all negatively impacted because these things end up pulling our entire community down. So we all need to work together to pick up these pieces and make something beautiful," Tabron said.

RELATED | What is 'redlining' and how it doomed generations of Black families in Durham

For more information about the project, visit the team's site: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/tim-maps/hacking-into-history

WATCH | 'Our America: Lowballed'

"Our America: Lowballed" follows Black and Latino families as they fight for fair home values after lower than expected appraisals.