Restrictive Covenants: Lasting Remnants of Segregation in Spokane
Does your neighborhood have rules that prevent people of color from buying or renting a home on your block? Most of us would say “no” without hesitation. But are you sure?
In my most recent blog post, I featured a fascinating publication from 1968 called Race and Violence in Washington State: A Commissioned Report. The report featured some interesting maps that showed how the Black population was concentrated in certain areas of Spokane. You can see that there are two parts of town where the vast majority of Spokane’s Black population lived, downtown and the East Central Neighborhood. It may seem as if these were the two neighborhoods that Black people choose to settle in, but to some extent that choice was already made for them.
Looking at the map, you may notice that within city limits there were only two population “dots” south of what appears to be 10th Avenue. That means that in 1960 only around twenty Blacks lived on the South Hill. Furthermore there were no Blacks living south of about 20th Avenue. This was not because Black people were not interested in living on the South Hill but rather because neighborhoods on the Hill actually prevented Blacks from buying or renting homes in their neighborhoods.
When some South Hill neighborhoods were platted, restrictive covenants were set in place preventing residents from parking trailers or building unattractive outbuildings in their front yard. Mixed in with these harmless building restrictions were bold and clearly stated rules that explicitly prohibited Blacks and other non-whites from purchasing or renting homes within the neighborhood. For example, the restrictive covenants for the Comstock Park Second Addition, High Drive First Addition, and the High Drive Second Addition written in 1953 assert that “no race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.”
Those exact covenants were authorized by Spokane’s very own William Hutchinson Cowles Jr., publisher of the Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle for 25 years and owner of significant property across the city. Cowles was not alone, many real estate developers included these racially motivated restrictive covenants in order to ensure that many cities, including Spokane, would remain segregated. Upper-middle class white folks were attracted to these neighborhoods because they would not have to live near Blacks, Asians, Indians or any other people of color whose presence in a neighborhood would “lower property values.”
These particular covenants were written in 1953, five years after the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional for states to enforce these restrictive covenants, in Shelley v Kraemer. The Court determined that the covenants themselves were not unconstitutional, however for a state to enforce the terms of the covenant would be a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Even though these restrictive covenants could not be enforced after 1948, Spokane real estate developers like Cowles continued to include them in the restrictive covenants they drafted.
A simple Google search for “Spokane restrictive covenants” turns up two interesting results. One is a Google Book result for a recent book by Dwayne A. Mack called Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest. He discusses restrictive covenants in Spokane among other Civil Rights Issues. I am planning to pick it up at the library. The second is a Spokesman-Review article by Jim Kershner from May of 1997. It is an overview of the history of segregation in Spokane. Near the end of the article there is an interview with Carl Maxey, a Black Spokane Civil Rights Attorney, who discusses the impact of the decision in Shelley v. Kraemer. In talking about segregationists, he said that the Court’s decision gave Blacks a “foothold to blast their legal foundations out from under them.”
Even though these covenants cannot be enforced many of them are still on the books in Spokane neighborhoods. With some help from a local archivist and good friend, Allie Honican, I tracked down three Spokane additions that still have restrictive covenants barring non-whites from owning or renting homes in their neighborhoods. They are Comstock Park Second Addition, High Drive First Addition, and High Drive Second Addition all of which fall within the Comstock Neighborhood. I am going to email a link to this blog post to the neighborhood council chairperson for the Comstock Neighborhood Council to make them aware of the issue. Also, if you live in one of these neighborhoods please reach out to the neighborhood council and other residents to make them aware of this glaring remnant of the racist covenants that perpetuated segregation in our communities.
Let’s work together to make Spokane more inclusive.