The Legacy of Racially Restrictive Housing Covenants


In November of 1945, Ada Reeves bought a charming little bungalow at 1303 Kearny St. NE in Brookland. She expected to move in without any problems, but instead was sued by her neighbors. The cause? The color of her skin. Ada Reeves was African American, and her new home’s deed contained a covenant that said the house was not to be sold to a black person.

In the early 1900s, Washington DC was still largely a white city. Whites could buy houses and live in any neighborhood they chose. African Americans, on the other hand, were restricted to just a few neighborhoods – Anacostia, Shaw, and some other enclaves primarily in the NE and SE quadrants. Racially-restrictive housing covenants were designed to keep white neighborhoods white and keep others out.

Covenants were riders attached to house deeds, regulating to whom the home could be sold. Usually they were for individual houses, but other times entire blocks or even neighborhoods could enter into such agreements. Jews, Mexicans, Persians, Armenians and other ethnic groups were all targets of those covenants, but no people were singled out more than African Americans. 

As the Great Migration brought more and more black people to the city in the 1930s and ‘40s, the status quo began to fray around the edges. Significant numbers of new residents wished to buy houses in areas that were historically white. Though some whites were tolerant of their new neighbors, many were not. White flight to the suburbs quickened. And when some white homeowners realized they could get up to 15 percent more for their homes by selling to African American families, they did, covenant or not. 

Covenants weren’t the only restrictive tool, banks often refused to lend to minorities. Many realtors would not even show restricted houses to non-whites. But other realtors did advertise homes available to “colored” people, even if they were restricted, hoping to skirt the covenants. This is the ad for 1303 Kearny that appeared in the Evening Star in 1945: 

One of the first court cases against racially-restrictive covenants was brought in 1926 by Charles Hamilton Houston (right), then still a young lawyer, but soon to be the distinguished vice dean of Howard Law School and special counsel to the NAACP. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing the openly racist covenant practice to continue. 

As for the case of Ada Reeves: her father, Fred Randall, contacted Charles Hamilton Houston in 1945 to look into the case. After an initial discussion, he sent a follow-up letter that contains some interesting local information. 

Click for larger image. Photos from Charles H. Houston Papers, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Sarah Shoenfeld of Prologue DC, who has been researching the history of racially-restrictive covenants in Washington, kindly sent me a copy of that letter, along with a hand-drawn map of the block that shows each house and the race of its owner. 

As it turned out, the covenant on 1303 Kearny, signed in 1935, expired after 12 years, an unusually short time. The case was therefore dismissed in 1947, and Ada Reeves was able to stay in her home.

Finally, in 1948, the Supreme Court did hear two cases involving restrictive covenants. One involved a house in Bloomingdale, with Charles Houston once again arguing against covenants, focusing on the damage done to African American communities due to overcrowding. This time they carried the day, with the court ruling that such covenants could not be legally enforced. 

Still, general segregationist boundaries had been set in the city, and you can still see their remnants today. A 1950 story in the Washington Post referred to the black population of Brookland living primarily from Lawrence Street south to Rhode Island Avenue, with the white population from Lawrence north to Michigan Avenue. The legacy of discrimination and the enforced segregation of housing covenants remains with us.

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