#blacklivesmatter: A look at the covenants on Capitol Hill

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“The Communist Party Newspaper, New World, published articles attacking racial restrictive covenants in 1948” — Racial Restrictive Covenants: Enforcing Neighborhood Segregation in Seattle

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.Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 7.29.55 PM

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.

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30 thoughts on “#blacklivesmatter: A look at the covenants on Capitol Hill

  1. My father’s family are Sephardic Jews (Jews who were thrown out from Spain; my family came from Turkey), and they were centered in their own community/ghetto from about 16th to 25th, around First, Alder streets; the original Sephardic Bikur Holim is right in the middle of that. They had to be able to walk to synagogue on the Sabath. And my family has told me that the assumption was that they should stay with their own kind.

    http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=864

    • “And my family has told me that the assumption was that they should stay with their own kind.”

      That is just as bad as previous segregationists.

      • They were considered to be good enough for shoe shines at Pike Place – my grandfather was – and sell people their fish, but not much more. My dad and his cousins went to Garfield and the people there, both students, but especially the teachers, were not “inclusive” or whatever the word would have been, to non-Christians. During Christmas, my dad, when in grade school, was told to sit out in the hall while the rest of the class did Christmas things. Being Jewish = Bad kid.

      • It used to piss me off beyond belief that Pag’s wouldn’t deliver south of Madison. A friend of mine works for them and said that it was because the store by Seattle Prep was too far for it to make any sense. But of course they deliver to Broadmoor which is further.

      • @Jim98122x, you may be correct with the new location delivering south of Madison. I am speaking from my experience a few years back when I lived across from SeattleU and they refused to deliver there. Pagliacci said it was too far from any of their locations, but there were multiple outlets within walking distance from my apartment…Im convinced that the Central District was deemed too dangerous for their drivers

      • Or just maybe it wasn’t worth their bother for the shitty tips they made. Or maybe they delivered to Broadmoor because the rich(er) people there tipped better enough to make it worth the bother. If I am not mistaken (and I could be) Piecora wouldn’t deliver past 23rd Ave even. (Though I didn’t care, because their pizza went downhill anyway).

      • Jim, I don’t think there is much of a correlation between how wealthy a person is and how much they tip. There are plenty of rich people who are cheapskates!

  2. We have a long long way to go…. Seattle is rated as the least racially diverse metropolitan city in the USA. I won’t evevn go into how this city treats and marginalizes the Latino community nor of all the socially acceptable racist jokes that are openly spoken towards Latinos but whose same jokes are unacceptable towards any other race… I really do hope we all wake up.

  3. I moved away years ago, but is the “top” floor (aka “the tower” in our home) of Garfield HS still devited to the mostly white, privileged AP students? When Stevens elementary on 19th E converted to an ESL model in the early 90’s the white flight was dramatic and motivated the founding of a well known Alternative school.

    • Well, they must have recovered, because Beacon Hill is the hot new neighborhood, and Stevens is majority white. Garfield is majority White/Asian these days.

    • Sad to be exposed to your ancestors past. As much as ppl would like to disassociate themselves and say they have nothing to do with what their forefathers did. The fact of the matter is what happend then still effects ppl today… I guess ppl just want help from sll races to help erase those effects…

  4. Thank you for doing this work! I must add, though, that I disagree with your comment that “the roster is a disappointing historical backdrop for Seattle.”

    On the contrary, uncovering these practices is extremely encouraging! Without knowing this history, it’s too easy to dismiss oppressed communities as dysfunctional because of their own inherent deficiencies. But when we see how calculated and how organized racism IS, then we can start to see an explanation for why things are the way they are now, and we can work more effectively for change.

    Thank you, again, for digging into this matter!

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