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Racist clauses plague property deeds in Charlotte, across country

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WFAE
One of many winding, tree lined avenues in Charlotte's Myers Park neighborhood.

http://66.225.205.104/JR20100110.mp3

A historic neighborhood in Charlotte is struggling with a racial legacy that plagues many communities across the country. Thousands of homes in the city - maybe even yours - have discriminating language written into their original deeds. The restrictions are no longer enforceable, but the words remain a painful reminder, and in Myers Park, they're causing new trouble. WFAE's Julie Rose explains: Myers Park has wide, tree-lined streets, sweeping lawns and historic mansions worth millions. It's the kind of neighborhood where people take pride in the pedigree of their home. Steam rises from the coffee mug John Williford cradles in his hand. He's supervising some work in the front yard before heading to his job at the hospital nearby. When I ask about his 75-year old house, he offers to show me the original deed. It's framed. Williford points to the date, "See, it was built in 1935." The deed includes a list of restrictions the developers of Myers Park wrote to ensure the neighborhood would always have big lawns and homes set back from the road. The restrictions still apply today. But the first one on the list is jarring to read in 2010. It says, "This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only." Williford didn't know about that when he bought the house. And he certainly doesn't agree with it, but "I mean, the deed is just the deed to the house. I mean things were different back in 1935 certainly than they are now." And that wasn't just true in the South. Seattle historian James Gregory and his students at the University of Washington have amassed a database of thousands of deeds with racist wording. "Racial restrictive covenants became common practice in dozens of cities across the country - the North, the South, the West for you know a quarter of a century, this was the thing to do," says Gregory. Sometimes they read "whites only." Sometimes specific minorities were singled out. Gregory says Asian restrictions were common in Seattle and Hispanics were the target in Los Angeles. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not enforce the racial restrictions. In 1968 Congress outlawed them all together. But Gregory says their impact endures. "The places that had racial restrictive covenants remain today more white than they should be in terms of their predicted distribution of population," says Gregory. "So, restrictive covenants have had a long shadow." That's true in Myers Park, although the high price of homes is also a barrier to buyers. "There are not a lot of African Americans in the community," admits Myers Park resident Mary C. Curtis. "I'm sure some of the people here would say it's integrated because I live here, but this is an old, traditional area." Curtis bought a Myers Park house in 1994, despite the neighborhood's racial history. "It didn't matter," she says. "I'm gonna live where I want to and where the school was great. But that's just the way it is, and I think people should know that history - and it's not that long ago." The truth is most people don't know about the racial covenants written in their deeds - in Myers Park or anywhere. That's because homebuyers hardly ever see the original deed. Instead, they get a summary from their attorney of restrictions that still apply. Since the race clause doesn't, attorneys ignore it. Unless it happens to surface on a neighborhood association's website, like it did in Myers Park. "If you saw that, it could in fact create what we call freezing," says William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. "It could make people think twice about buying. It could create psychic harm - 'What in the world is this?' It could create discouragement." Barber complained to the city of Charlotte when the Myers Park Homeowners Association posted a sample deed that included the racial restriction. Leaders of the homeowners association say they only meant to remind homeowners of the other restrictions - like the one that prohibits fences in the front yard. But the city's community relations committee ruled the posting violated the Fair Housing Act and gave Myers Park until today to reach a settlement, or end up in court. The NAACP would like the homeowners association to have the racist clause removed from its deeds. The attorney for Myers Park, Ken Davies, says they can't. "That is a completed legal recording and we have no authority to go back and tell the register of deeds to eliminate this or that from whatever deed we don't like," says Davies. "And everyone knows that its something that is a historic relic." An individual homeowner can't change a deed, either. An entire neighborhood might be able to if it took a vote, but that would open all the other deed restrictions to debate - like fence heights and setbacks. Those are so divisive they'd probably kill the effort. So, realistically the power to change historic deeds lies only with the state legislature. A lawmaker in California has tried twice, but failed because of the magnitude: It would require an army of staff with bottles of white-out going through tens of thousands of deeds at the courthouse. Instead, most communities are content to keep the words buried deeply in paperwork, until a controversy brings them to light. MORE INFORMATION Read more about the University of Seattle's research on racial restrictive covenants. Read the findings of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee regarding Myers Park.