The legacy of racial housing covenants can be seen and felt all over the country, including right here in Dayton. Since reading Richard Rothstein’s “Color of Law,” I’ve been fascinated by the history of these covenants.
In post-Reconstruction America, it was legal, and popular, to include language forbidding homeowners from selling the property to racial minorities. Covenants grew in popularity following the 1917 Buchanan v. Warley Supreme Court decision that struck down a Louisville ordinance prohibiting blacks from living on a block where the majority of residents were white.
Municipalities across the country relied on racially exclusionary zoning and ordinances to enforce segregation. When the Supreme Court found that practice to be unconstitutional, covenants became the tool of choice by those who wanted to segregate communities. The Court upheld the constitutionality of these covenants in the 1926 Corrigan v. Buckley decision.
While the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution forbade states from depriving anyone of property without due process of law, it did not address the question of individual action. Government wasn’t allowed to enact laws to segregate, but property transactions between two private individuals did not fall under the same equal protections.
The tools for residential segregation assumed many forms and often worked in tandem. The National Housing Act of 1934 was developed to make housing affordable and accessible to middle class families struggling during The Great Depression — but, by design, the privileges of easy homeownership were not equally available to all. The “redlining” maps and neighborhood surveys compiled by local real estate agents on behalf of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) for Dayton and other cities in Ohio have been archived by Ohio State University.
These HOLC maps, created a decade after the photographed deed was written, reveal how effective racial covenants were. The Dayton View Triangle neighborhood was given a security rating of A-7. In the survey, it is described as the “most exclusive residential section in Dayton (not including Oakwood),” with no “infiltration” of “foreign-born” or “negro” residents. These surveys would then be used to determine which homes would be eligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwriting, which in turn encouraged the use of covenants to, according to the FHA Underwriting Manual, prevent “inharmonious racial groups” from accessing them.
This particular covenant also included density requirements, which helped ensure high property values and that the neighborhood wouldn’t be “infiltrated” by the lower classes.
These density requirements foreshadowed contemporary methods used to segregate. Even after explicitly racial language became unenforceable, the requirements of single-family occupancy, mandatory yard setbacks and price agreements would be used to keep lower-income minorities from settling into a neighborhood. Rothstein and others have documented this switch from racial to economic language to accomplish the same ends.
These covenants are an incredibly important, yet ugly part of our country’s history. I don’t think many people realize how common they were or how recently they continued to be enforced.
If you live in a historic home in Dayton or some of its older suburbs, I would encourage you to go to the County Recorder’s office to look up its deed and see if this language existed.
You can’t understand the way our city – any city in America – looks and behaves today without this history. I was taught in school that segregation could be broken into two categories: de facto (personal) and de jure (legal). Rothstein’s book demolishes this distinction. Covenants like this reveal how legal and individual prejudice are two sides of the same coin.
This is the first part of a series on racial housing covenants in Dayton, Ohio. In the next piece, I’ll explore the history of the Dayton View Triangle neighborhood and the causes of its radical transformation in the latter half of the 20th century.