Thousands of deeds in Monroe County still bear clauses that restrict properties from being sold to or occupied by people of color, Jews, and other ethnicities, according to a report released Tuesday by the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic and the City Roots Community Land Trust.
The trust is a local organization working to establish permanently affordable housing in Rochester, and the clinic trains students at Yale University in environmental advocacy.
New York made racial covenants illegal in 1962, several years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they were unenforceable. But researchers found that such deed restrictions fueled decades of intentional segregation in Monroe County, and concluded that local leaders and residents must actively work to dismantle the effects of the covenants.
“Segregation in Monroe County happened by design,” said Conor Dwyer Reynolds, clinical lecturer in law at Yale Law School and a Rochester resident.
Researchers combed through deeds on file at the Monroe County Clerk’s Office and found that racial covenants were widespread in Rochester and its suburbs. They also found that many of the covenants originated with leading figures and institutions in Monroe County, developers, the real estate industry, banks, and local governments.
Their report offers several examples.
When Kodak built the Meadowbrook subdivision in Brighton for its employees, for instance, it put racial covenants on the properties. A Meadowbrook brochure from the 1930s lists "Restricted owner list, desirable neighbors" as among the subdivision's assets.
Grafton Johnson, a developer, died a millionaire in 1934 after selling numerous houses with racial covenants. Wegmans co-founder Walter Wegman bought one of Johnson’s homes, agreeing to the deed restriction, according to the report.
In 1939, the Monroe County Board of Supervisors -- the body that preceded the County Legislature -- sold foreclosed properties in Irondequoit to builder Fred Hill, but not before placing covenants on the deeds that stated the properties were to “be occupied by persons of the Caucasian race only,” according to the report.
“Racial covenants helped segregate neighborhoods by backing up the white supremacist effort to divide and control Monroe County with the power of judges, juries, police, and entire neighborhoods,” reads the report. “Covenants did so by fusing a legally enforceable rule of segregation with a socially enforceable norm of segregation.”
If a white homeowner sold or leased their property to someone who was Black, other white neighbors subject to the same covenant could sue to cancel the sale or lease. They could also sue for financial damages.
Beyond serving as a formal tool for segregation, racial covenants also encouraged “a broad swath of white people” to embrace white supremacist beliefs, according to the report.
“Chief among those beliefs was the idea that Black and Brown people devalue property by merely existing upon it,” the report reads.
The covenants inflicted lasting harm on the community and even though they are legally void, the fact is that they remain on countless deeds without any message disavowing them or providing context.
“To me, there’s violence when you see something like that,” said Shane Wiegand, a Rush-Henrietta school district teacher and City Roots Community Land Trust member who has researched racial covenants in Monroe County.
The report details several actions that can be taken to address the presence of racial covenants:
- County clerk offices in New York could follow California’s lead and put a cover sheet on all publicly issued deeds that explains and disavows any racial covenants. “This policy would educate property owners about the power and history of racial covenants,” the report said.
- County clerk offices could post signs about racial covenants. The Monroe County Clerk’s Office has done this after learning the findings of the report.
- Homeowners could also take matters into their own hands by hiring a lawyer and going through a legal process to remove the covenants, Reynolds said.
- Developers or groups of neighbors could also put anti-racist covenants on their properties, barring future owners from refusing to sell or lease properties to people based on their race or ethnicity.
The report encourages people to push their state representatives to pass laws that create systems for the removal, disavowal, or erasure of racial covenants.
But the report emphasizes that elected and institutional leaders, as well as the public at large, need to look beyond deeds.
The communities need to support and implement antiracist curriculum in their schools and other educational efforts, such as mapping projects that show the extent to which racial covenants were used in communities.
In Pittsford, several neighborhoods have deeds with racial covenants, including the high-profile Oak Hill Country Club neighborhood. During most of Pittsford's growth, Black people were excluded from buying, renting, or even occupying land in the town, notes Kevin Beckford, a Pittsford Town Board member who has pushed for greater emphasis on inclusive and equitable housing in the town. That robbed a group of Americans of the opportunity to purchase an affordable home and build generational wealth, Beckford added.
"Most of the people that live in Pittsford, particularly if they were educated here, know very little about our history of deed and covenants restrictions," said Beckford, a member of the Rochester Anti-Racism Action Coalition who was heavily involved in the covenant report's development.
The report also emphasizes the need for communities to reform planning practices and zoning laws that favor expensive single-family homes and prevent the construction of affordable housing, particularly in the suburbs, the report read.
“Knocking out exclusionary zoning is not enough,” Reynolds said. “To get housing equity, to get real integration, to get real justice here for people, you need to knock down barriers and then put economic and political power back to where it was taken from.”
Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.