BYU professor wants to change racist wording in neighborhood housing documentsJan 20, 2021 10:32AM ● By Heather Lawrence
BYU professor Amy Harris sits on the porch of her Midvale home, built in 1951. (Heather Lawrence/City Journals)
By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]
As a professor of family history at BYU, Amy Harris studies a lot of old documents. But when she bought her Midvale house in 2010, her title company dug up an old document she wasn’t expecting: a neighborhood covenant excluding any residents who weren’t “Caucasian.”
“I remember talking with neighbors shortly after I moved in, telling them how strange the old rule was, but no one knew what I was talking about. Maybe my title company was just diligent enough to dig it out, but technically it applies to our entire block,” Harris said.
Harris’s house was built in 1951. She bought it from the family of the original owners, who had recently passed away. As a history professor, buying an older home with character was ideal for her.
The document in Harris’s title is a legally binding property agreement known as Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions, or a CC&R. CC&Rs are often found in homeowner associations for condos or townhomes. Harris’s covered the development of her neighborhood called Midvalley and was dated May 10, 1940.
The one-page document regulates the practice of “noxious and offensive trades” on the land, says people can’t have billboards on their property, and tells homeowners they can’t have more than 1,000 chickens, one horse and one cow. But wedged between those quirky rules is section (e).
“No race or nationality other than those for whom the premises are intended, namely American citizens of the Caucasian race, shall use or occupy any building on any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants, of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.”
Harris was amazed by the barefaced discrimination. “So people of other races couldn’t buy homes or rent here, but if they were servants to white people, then it was fine. Yikes!” Harris said.
Harris found through research that a 1948 law banned such practices, and subsequent Civil Rights and Fair Housing Acts in the 1960s made it illegal. But knowing the offensive section existed distressed her.
“I’ve been working for over a year with the county recorder’s office to get the document changed. We think the only way is to get a civil rights or property law attorney to advise us on what, if anything, we can do,” Harris said.
One Sandy area attorney, who didn’t wish to be named, said even though he’s never run into a covenant that violates civil rights in his practice, he studied them in law school and knows they were once commonplace.
“It’s not a simple topic, and I can’t summarize it easily. But these covenants do run with the land, which means the contract persists beyond the original parties (owners) to new parties. They become encumbrances on the land itself. When they’re properly recorded with the county, they’re binding,” the attorney said.
Daniel Cureton is a reference archivist with Salt Lake County and has also worked at the University of Utah library. He said if you want to research whether your neighborhood ever had a similar CC&R, it’s not a straightforward search.
“If it was attached to the title, like Harris’s was, and it was after 1930, it would be with the county recorder’s office.
“There isn’t an official way to research segregation in neighborhoods. I helped digitize county ordinances and I know there are civil rights ordinances from the 1960s that would cover this. People could also check county commission meeting minutes,” Cureton said.
Harris is trying to work up support in her neighborhood to take a stand against the old covenant, even if it’s just symbolic.
“One option is to reform a homeowner’s association just to write a new covenant. It would be nice to have a letter or addendum that says, in addition to the subsequent laws that banned it, we as neighbors disavow those things and welcome anyone to the neighborhood.”
Ever the historian, she’s also interested in hearing stories from older neighbors to see if they’re familiar with it.
“There are people in their 90s in my neighborhood who are the original owners of their homes. They must have had to sign something like this when they moved in. But I’m sure because of the culture back then, they wouldn’t have given it a second thought. And who knows in 1940 if I would have been any different,” Harris said.
The Sandy attorney lamented that this type of CC&R informed the way neighborhoods developed. The trickle-down effect alters communities for generations; it changes who people interact with at school, church and in the community.
“This is a shameful part of our history. It’s unfortunate, and those things persist. If you’ve excluded certain groups from a community for years, they don’t settle there,” he said.