In 1927, a small group of white homeowners on Capitol Hill had a problem: How to keep the Central District’s black population corralled to the “ghetto” south of Madison.
Gone were the days when whites could simply pass a law prohibiting blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. The Supreme Court had ruled such restrictive ordinances unconstitutional 10 years earlier.
So some of Capitol Hill’s forefathers (and foremothers) discovered a work-around: They went door to door getting their white neighbors to sign a covenant promising not to sell or rent their houses to people of “negro Blood” for at least 21 years. The effort appears to have been lead by a group called the Capitol Hill Community Club. In 1947, the covenants covered 183 blocks around the neighborhood.
Capitol Hill’s “redlining” of the Central District was not an uncommon practice in Seattle or around the country. Several Seattle neighborhoods implemented similar covenants, including Broadmoor, where neighbors also restricted “Hebrews” “Orientals” and, just to really hammer home the point, all other “non-Caucasians.
In 2006, a group of University of Washington students discovered 126 covenants covering thousands of properties all over Seattle. The trove of documents reveals a shameful truth of Capitol Hill’s not-too-distant past: it was once neighborhood policy to keep the Central District black in order to keep Capitol Hill white.
It is important to note that whites did not create Seattle’s historically African American neighborhood — a black man did. In 1882, William Grose, an early black pioneer in Seattle, bought 12 acres of land in Madison Valley from Henry Yesler. At the time, the plot was a thickly wooded area far from the hub of activity along the city’s waterfront. But when the Madison Street Cable Car began service in 1889, it made the area accessible to other citizens and more black families moved in.
For the next 50 years, Madison Valley and the hill up to 23rd would continue to be the geographic heart of the city’s African American community. Racist ordinances and covenants helped make sure it stayed that way.
While many of these once common racist housing policies were gone by the 1960s, their effects persist in most metro areas.
Ferguson, MO is one of those places. The St. Louis suburb was once an almost exclusively white enclave,where homeowners and landlords kept black families at bay for decades. In the 1960s, black families came to Ferguson seeking a refuge from the decaying inner city.
Of course, once the covenants were eradicated, black families still continued to struggle to buy houses. Banks discriminated against minorities, making it difficult for black families to improve their neighborhoods or move to nicer areas. In 1968 Thomas Purnell, a black man, opened Liberty Bank at 23rd and Union, in part so he could lend money to black families who were otherwise shut out of white-owned banks.
After Liberty shut down in 1988, Africatown activists tried to save the bank building earlier this year, citing the bank’s important legacy of supporting the area’s black community. While some on the Landmark Preservation Board agreed the bank itself was historically significant, the board ruled the building’s lack of architectural significance meant it didn’t qualify for landmark status. The ruling paved the way for Capitol Hill Housing to build affordable apartments on the property next year. The City of Seattle, in the meantime, is looking into the creation of a municipal bank to address ongoing issues of inequity and access to capital in the city.
Some of the Central District residents taking to the streets in recent weeks almost certainly had parents who were the victims of the restrictive covenants. The policies continue to affect Central Area residents today.
Seattle’s present-day Inner City, sadly, is not alone.
Using UW’s research, The Seattle Times complied a list of the covenants found in various Seattle neighborhoods:
Greenwood: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African, or Negro blood, lineage or extraction.”
South Lake City: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, or of any other Mongolian descent.”
Ballard/Sunset Hills: No “Hebrew or … any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.”
Magnolia: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction.”
Beacon Hill: “No person other than the Caucasian race.”
Bellevue: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, or of any other Mongolian descent.”
Sammamish: No “person of the Malay or any Asiatic race or descent, or any person of the races commonly known as the Negro races, or of their descent.”
White Center: No “Hebrew or … any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.”
The roster is a disappointing historical backdrop for Seattle and cities where similar covenants existed. “The history of racial restrictive covenants and racial segregation, while generally forgotten, is an immensely important aspect of Seattle’s past,” the UW study concludes. “It has left its mark on all Seattle neighborhoods and has shaped the demographics of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods.”
As protests and marches continue, the covenants can be a reminder of the mistakes of the not so distant past and how much is left to be repaired and built.