Language from Seattle’s history of racist property restrictions can now be removed from properties thanks to a new law. While there are likely plenty of them to be flushed out on Capitol Hill, property owners might face a challenge sorting out whether legal remnants of the racist restrictions are part of their home’s records.
The new option, created by state law which went into effect January 1, allows homeowners to petition the King County Superior Court to completely delete the passage from the deed. There is a $20 filing fee with the court. Then you still have to file with the Recorder’s Office to seal the deal.
The county will maintain the original documents for the historical record but the effort will allow property owners who want to move on from including the racist language in a new version of the deed.
Most prevalent from the early 1920s through the early 1950s, these covenants would appear in the house’s title, legally forbidding a homeowner from selling, leasing or giving the house to a black person. Often, the wording would also exclude Asians, Jews, Arabs, and in some cases any “non-caucasians.” It was one form of legal enforcement behind redlining, a practice commonly used by racists in Seattle and around the country.
Such covenants have not been legally enforceable since a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case (Shelley v. Kraemer). As an interesting sign of how things were in 1948, three Supreme Court justices recused themselves from the case, because they owned houses with such covenants.
However, in spite of it being unenforceable, the language lingers. While the court struck down the idea of racially restrictive covenants, it did not force such language to be removed from the deeds.
The University of Washington’s Civil Rights and Labor History project has done yeoman’s work in ferreting out these restrictions. The project estimates 15,000-20,000 such covenants were applied to deeds in Seattle and surrounding suburbs.
Capitol Hill was a hotbed of such covenants. In many places around Seattle, developers would put the language into the deed at the time of building the houses. On Capitol Hill, that was not the case. Instead, a community group, The Capitol Hill Community Club, went around petitioning people to add the language to their deeds in the late 1920’s. And they were quite successful.
An article on the UW website dating to 2009 details the efforts in the neighborhood, noting the block bordered by East Aloha and East Prospect streets, and 21st and 22nd Avenues East was the first block to have such language in place.
On the Hill, the covenant specifically forbade black people – technically it said “negros” or “persons of the negro blood” – from owning the property, with no mention of Asians or Jews. In some areas, there was an exception which said that servants were permitted to be black. So, there’s that.
In the end, a huge number of homeowners between Madison and the Montlake Cut signed the petition. The UW article states that a total of 964 home owners, 183 blocks, and 958 lots added such covenants to their titles on Capitol Hill alone.
Unusually, the Capitol Hill covenant came with a sunset clause, stating it would only be in effect for 21 years. As you might imagine, there was a drive to re-instate such clauses around the time they expired. The “Capital Hill Community Club” (yes, the racists spelled the name of the neighborhood incorrectly) started a similar petition drive to extend the covenants.
This time around, however, residents stood up to the community group. The 21-year timeline just happened to match up with the 1948 Supreme Court decision, so any such covenant would have been pointless.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that no one placed such language on their deeds, just that it wasn’t a community-wide effort.
The Central District had few such restrictions. The UW project identified 29 properties in the Squire Park section of the Central District, but few beyond that. Though it is worth nothing that to date the database is not exhaustive, and some covenants may have been in place that researchers have yet to find.
This is not too surprising, given the CD’s role as the center of black culture in Seattle. It’s also one reason why the Central District evolved into the so-called “black neighborhood;” it’s about the only place black people were allowed to live. Prior to World War I, it had been a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, partly because Jews were also impacted by these covenants. Though by World War II, most Jews had moved away. While Asians settled a bit further south and west in what is now the International District.
It’s probably worth nothing that before all of this, the entire city was the Duwamish neighborhood, and they probably wouldn’t have been able to buy houses on land where their ancestors once lived, either.
So, with all that in mind, your house might have a racially restrictive covenant embedded somewhere in its deed. There’s a number of options for how to handle this.
For one, you could do nothing. The restriction isn’t enforceable, so you can just leave it sitting there as an atavistic relic.
If you want to make sure your property’s deed isn’t tainted by this error of history, the first step would be determining if your property has such a clause in it, just to be 100% sure. And this one is a bit tricky. You can try looking up the information in the King County Archives. However, digital records only go back to 1991. Older records are stored on microfilm in the Recorder’s Office, which is in the county offices downtown.
And if that’s not enough of a hassle, the office is undergoing a renovation, and not allowing people to come in and perform record searches. The website says it does not have an estimate for when it will be open again for in-person visits.
Another option is to search the parcel numbers with the King County Recorder’s office here.
You can also file a request with the recorder’s office, but considering staffing levels, and COVID, it may be some time before they are able to get back to you. Be prepared to be patient.
If you have determined your property has such a covenant, there are two options. The first is to file a modification document. This document, which has no filing fee, but may incur notary charges, will formally say that the covenant is no longer valid. It will not remove it from the deed, it will just acknowledge and “strike” the provisions.
The Recorder’s Office will keep a record that such a provision existed for historical purposes, but it will no longer appear in the deed to the property.