County shines light on property deed history of racially restrictive covenants

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Key Takeaways

The Durham County, N.C. Register of Deeds is using public records information and archival documentation to educate county residents on racially restrictive covenants in property deeds and how their impact can still be felt today through gentrification and the affordable housing crisis. 

The Register of Deeds Office is working with data organizations, lawyers, a somatic (someone who helps people deal with and process emotions) and a historical archivist to “help people connect dots between what was and what is” to create the “Hacking Into History” project, according to James Tabron, Durham County’s assistant register of deeds.

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Durham County’s Hacking Into History project won the 2023 Achievement Award, Best in Category, for Arts, Culture and Historic Preservation.

 

The project’s goal is to provide historical context on racially restrictive covenants in Durham and how they led to long-term racial inequities: “How it imprinted itself into things like economics and education and governance in general, and our thinking and beliefs in how we see the community,” Tabron said. 

Racially restrictive covenants codified segregation into law and allowed segregation to continue once it was made illegal by the federal government. 

Language like that of Durham County’s “Negro Clauses” from the early 20th century, “that for a period of 99 years the said property, nor any part thereof, shall be sold or otherwise disposed of to a person of African descent, or to any person or corporation for the use of any person of African descent, except as a servant of a white person” – still exists in the deeds to homes across the country. 

“The government had a huge hand in codifying and enforcing these racial restrictions that had real harm,” Tabron said. “And we had a role and a responsibility to not just the people who were directly affected, but all of our citizens to hold our hand up and acknowledge where we’ve messed up, and work with everybody to try to improve the lives of all of our citizens. 

“That’s the function, in my mind, of good governance, where everybody does better.”

The county register of deeds and its partners bring the “Hacking Into History” project to communities, particularly those that have been historically disadvantaged, to demonstrate how the racially restrictive covenants led to economic and social disenfranchisement, including gentrification. 

“The solutions are always going to stem from having a full grasp or understanding of the problem,” Tabron said. “And I can’t say that we have solved it all, but we will not fix the issues that we as a community are dealing with until we have a clear baseline understanding of all of the causative functions that created the issue in the first place.”

According to 2022 data from the State of the South, minority neighborhoods in Durham have experienced displacement rates between 10% and 37% over the last decade. Educating people on their rights to prevent them from becoming a “pawn” in gentrification is important, Tabron said. The team has presented the project to attorneys with the aim of providing context for evictions and  other housing challenges.

“When people are displaced involuntarily, that creates gaps and voids that can cause communities to forget some of themselves as far as they were,” Tabron said. “The story and the history of those places leave as the people leave, so that’s a part of Durham’s history that gets lost. 

“That’s not to say that people can’t move around or leave of their own volition, but when people are forced out, then that changes sort of the understanding or the conceptualization of different areas.”

Oftentimes, people in historically Black communities will sell their house to a developer, who “may come in and pay them pennies on the dollar for what the property is actually worth,” so providing people with information on how difficult it was to acquire housing in the first place and context on the current affordable housing crisis is an important element to the project as well, Tabron said. 

“The people who have been displaced don’t benefit from that, they just get moved around again,” Tabron said. “Kind of like they were moved around before as a result of the racially restrictive covenants.” 

Bringing together people from across the community — “the most sophisticated residents who may have multiple degrees with people who have been historically harmed, who may not have finished whatever one considers ‘formal schooling’” — has been an essential part of the project’s focus on what comes next, Tabron said. 

Through “Hacking Into History,” a resolution is in the works, which is being created with the input of residents, to present to local governments. It will outline the role government played in racially restricted deeds and what can be done moving forward to remedy the inequality they created, Tabron said.

“On a human or social level, you should care about it, because of all of the things that go into making a community strong, everybody being able to take care of themselves, educate their families, look out for each other, start businesses.

“… Governments are made up of the people who live where the government is, so we should all care about this, because it’s a human crisis; it’s something that we made and that minorities won’t be able to solve on their own. It’s something that we all have to work on and address together.” 

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