By Sarah Shoenfeld and Mara Cherkasky
The rise of segregation in DC during the first half of the 20th century coincided with a period of rapid population growth as African Americans moved up from the South in search of better economic opportunities. Yet racially restrictive deed covenants confined much of DC’s rapidly expanding black population to substandard overcrowded housing and prevented most families from moving into new subdivisions beyond the city’s old boundaries. These legally enforceable covenants prohibited homeowners from selling or renting their houses to African Americans and sometimes other groups.
Understanding how and where these covenants were used provides a more complete picture of Washington’s development, their historic impact on African American homeownership, and the legacy of housing discrimination in the nation’s capital. In January 2014 our team of three historians set out to research the historic segregation of DC neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds and other spaces, starting with restrictive deed covenants. Our project, which we call Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC, relied on the use of GIS mapping as a way to provide insight into the topic as well an accessible means for sharing our work with the public.
The beginning of this project coincided with the launch of our new company Prologue DC, which develops historical exhibits, booklets, signage, historic landmark and district applications, and other products.
We began by seeking nonprofit partners and funding for Mapping Segregation and received a $5,000 grant from Humanities DC in April 2014. This grant funded stipends for undergraduate interns from the University of the District of Columbia, who worked with us that summer to research property deeds and census tables. In partnership with a local community organization, we have since been awarded a grant from the DC Preservation League to fund additional research.
In mapping racial covenants, we have focused so far on neighborhoods immediately north of Florida Avenue, the city’s old boundary, and east of Rock Creek Park, where mostly rowhouses were built along newly extended streetcar lines from the late 1880s into the 1930s.
We knew that it was common for DC developers to write racially restrictive covenants into deeds for new houses, but we did not know how much housing this affected. We decided to begin by researching historic property deeds to see how many contained racial covenants, and to use GIS to map their location. Thus far, we have documented approximately 7,000 properties with racial covenants. Of these, around 4,100 were listed on petitions filed with the Recorder of Deeds by groups of homeowners adding racial covenants to the terms of their property deeds.
Mapping properties with racial covenants has been challenging. We are lucky to have access to open source data at DC GIS, but many of our addresses, square and lot numbers, or actual buildings no longer exist. Mapping them requires comparing historic real estate maps with today’s building footprints, and using present-day location data to represent what was there previously.
Baist real estate atlas, 1919, Vol. 3 (Library of Congress), top
District of Columbia Zoning Map, bottom
Creating a Story Map
Because we wanted our maps to illustrate the relationship of restrictive covenants to DC’s historic racial geography, we were pleased to find a 1934 map showing block-level demographic data for almost the entire city. Collected by the Works Progress Administration for the Federal Housing Administration, the year this data represents falls squarely within our time period, when demand for housing was increasing and racial covenants were on the rise. We have used the racial breakdowns as a layer in the story map we developed. Popup text boxes for each square block show other information.
To provide a more detailed look at the racial makeup of individual blocks, especially those where legal battles over covenants occurred, we ultimately hope to incorporate household-level decennial census data, which is gradually being made available by the Minnesota Population Center's National Historic Geographic Information System and is being geocoded for the Urban Transition Historical GIS Project, directed by John Logan at Brown University.
During our research, we documented more than 40 lawsuits in which neighbors sued homebuyers and sellers who defied covenants. Three DC cases helped set legal precedent nationwide: one in 1926 established covenants’ enforceability by courts, and two in 1948 were part of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that reversed the 1926 decision. We decided that an Esri story map would provide a relatively simple-to-design and straightforward way to use these legal cases to tell the history of racial covenants in DC. The story map provides a way to display the data we’ve collected and to shape it into an engaging and accessible story. It was developed by Brian Kraft, and is hosted by his employer, JMT Technology Group.
Plotting these legal cases on a map showing the racial composition of each block allows us to see that challenges often occurred close to racial dividing lines. Housing was scarce for African Americans, and it’s clear they were attempting to move beyond the barriers created by racial covenants.
Mapping restrictive covenants also reveals the enormity of their effect on DC’s racial landscape. By 1929, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood was almost entirely off-limits to African Americans.
At the end of our story map, we have used tract-level census data to summarize the impact and legacy of residential segregation. Maps from each decade between 1930 and 1970 show the extent to which covenants—along with the discriminatory practices of the federal government, Realtors, and banks—confined much of DC’s expanding black population to certain areas. These maps also show the dramatic shift that took place after covenants were ruled unenforceable in 1948, and especially after public schools were desegregated in 1954. As African Americans poured into neighborhoods that had been off-limits, whites moved further from the city center and to the suburbs. White flight accelerated in the wake of the 1968 riots, and by 1970, many neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park were almost entirely black.
For others considering a project like ours, it is important to spend time at the outset developing a methodology for collecting consistent, map-able data. Err on the side of collecting too much information for each property, and use individual fields to disaggregate the data as much as possible. We have been successful using Excel spreadsheets so far, but may ultimately want to use a database preloaded with all of DC’s current GIS property data. A database would also make it easier to prevent entry of duplicate records, and to prevent errors. If you are considering an Esri Story Map, explore many templates with the goals of your project in mind.
Sarah Shoenfeld is a historian at Prologue DC and co-director, with Mara Cherkasky, of Mapping Segregation in Washington DC.