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Stain of racism still haunts Seattle neighborhoods
Special to The Times
The language of segregation still haunts Seattle. It lurks in the property deeds of thousands of homeowners living in neighborhoods outside of the Central and International districts. Many Queen Anne residents, for instance, have this clause in their deeds: "No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property ... "
Racial restrictions were routinely added to deeds prior to 1948 and in many neighborhoods prohibited the sale, rental or use of property by Asian Americans and Jews as well as blacks. These covenants have not been legally binding for half a century, but they are an important reminder of deep patterns of residential segregation that have not entirely disappeared.
Gov. Christine Gregoire recently signed into law Senate Bill 6169, which makes it easier for neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations to rid themselves of race-restrictive covenants. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, introduced the measure after a group of Innis Arden residents struggled unsuccessfully to collect the required signatures to eliminate the whites-only clause from their homeowners' agreement.
But most properties in Seattle and throughout the state will not be affected. Thousands upon thousands of homes in neighborhoods that are not governed by homeowners' associations also carry the legacy of segregation in their deeds.
A team of University of Washington students, working with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, has compiled a database of racial restrictions that King County residents can easily explore. Researching deeds in the county Recorder's Office, they have so far located 126 covenants covering thousands of parcels in 42 neighborhoods of Seattle and nearby communities. (The results are online at www.civilrights.washington.edu.)
There are many surprises. It was not just in wealthy neighborhoods that real-estate firms and neighborhood groups wrote restrictions into the deeds. Covenants also show up in neighborhoods like Ballard, Beacon Hill, Boulevard Park and White Center.
Another surprise is that the language of segregation varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. All properties that were part of the Laurelhurst subdivision carry this clause: "No person other than one of the White Race shall be permitted to occupy any portion of any lot in said plat or of any building at any time thereon, except a domestic servant actually employed by a White occupant of such building."
But Broadmoor also kept out Jews: "No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race ... excepting only employees in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualified hereunder as occupants and users and residing on the premises."
Here are deeds from other neighborhoods:
Greenwood: "No person or persons of Asiatic, African, or Negro blood, lineage or extraction."
South Lake City: "No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, or of any other Mongolian descent."
Ballard/Sunset Hills: No "Hebrew or ... any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race."
Magnolia: "No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage or extraction."
Beacon Hill: "No person other than the Caucasian race."
Bellevue: "No person of African, Japanese, Chinese, or of any other Mongolian descent."
Sammamish: No "person of the Malay or any Asiatic race or descent, or any person of the races commonly known as the Negro races, or of their descent."
White Center: No "Hebrew or ... any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race."
Even though courts long ago stopped enforcing segregation and the language in these deeds is no longer in effect, the stain of racism still haunts our neighborhoods. Kohl-Welles and the other legislators who voted unanimously for SB 6169 understand that these covenants still matter.
It is true that most of us will not be able to use the law to remove the offensive language from our property deeds, and that may be OK. The past cannot be erased. But it does need to be addressed. Whatever else it accomplishes, SB 6169 has reminded us that the legacy of segregation is something that Seattle should continue to think about.
James N. Gregory is a professor of history at the University of Washington and director of the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu), a multimedia educational Web site that examines the history of civil-rights activism in the Greater Seattle area.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company