City Works to Revise Racially Restrictive Covenant Language in Subdivision

admin's picture
By: 
Michelle Phillips

MIDDLETON–Imagine receiving the deed for a home you purchased only to discover racist language prohibiting non-Caucasian individuals from living there. That’s what happened when Middleton Library employee Sarah Hartman and her husband received their home deed in the Park Lawn Subdivision in the City of Middleton, the couple’s first home, which they still own but do not live in.

That was in 2006, and Hartman said that although she and her husband were mortified by the covenant language, they did not speak out at the time. “We were reading through, laughing about the rules saying you can't build an outhouse or make ‘intoxicating liquors,’ then we got to the whites only clause and it wasn't an entertaining old document anymore. I wish we had done something about it back then,” Hartman recalled and said the recent focus on racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death made her speak out. 

The clause read: “No part of said platted premises shall ever be conveyed to, used, owned or occupied by any persons other than of the Caucasian race, either as owner of tenant.”

“In other words: white people only. These clauses were used to segregate neighborhoods, to keep minorities out, to maintain white privilege. They were ruled by the US Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1948, but the hurtful language remains attached to deeds all over this country,” Hartman said, referring to Shelley v. Kraemer, which struck down racist covenants in the United States.

Hartman took her concerns about the racially segregating covenant language to the Middleton Common Council in July. 

Director of Planning and Community Development Abby Attoun said that the language is present in the Park Lawn Subdivision as well as the Park Lawn First Addition. The language was no longer included after the 1948 ruling and Park Lawn Second Addition does not contain the clause.

Kurt Paulsen, Professor of Urban Planning at UW Madison and Middleton Plan Commission member, and Hartman have both combed through all of the digital records for Middleton homeowners covenants and have only found the language in the Park Lawn neighborhood. Paulsen said that many of the older neighborhoods do not have a digitized record of the older neighborhoods. 

“Many parcels older than that might be listed in property records as an “assessor’s plat” rather than a subdivision, and may or may not have restrictive language in the deed or the recorded plat. There were a number of the older subdivisions or neighborhoods in Middleton that, when I searched on the ROD’s  (Recorder of Deeds) website, did not have any documents available electronically. For example, a search for the original plat of Middleton Station does not show any documents available electronically, although obviously there are documents somewhere in either the archives or a historical society. There is a plat called ‘Hubbard Avenue Plat’ which also doesn’t have any electronic documents available on the website. So, my search was not exhaustive,” Paulsen explained.

Racial covenants have been in place since 1910 and began in Minneapolis, MN. White homeowners included the language after two Black families moved into an affluent, white neighborhood in 1909. They then began seeping into neighborhoods in other northern states as well, including Wisconsin.

Kirsten Delegard, professor at the University of Minnesota, has set about finding and documenting the covenants in Minneapolis/St. Paul. The project named Mapping Prejudice is the topic of the documentary “Jim Crow of the North,” and can be viewed at: https://www.pbs.org/video/jim-crow-of-the-north-stijws/. The show was originally broadcast on PBS in Minnesota as part of “Minnesota Experience,” and tells the story of the covenant origins.

Paulsen said he has been showing the documentary to his students for the past two years. He said that after Delegard attended the Dane County Housing Summit last year, several people with UW Madison, the City of Madison and Dane County became interested in conducting a similar project in the area. The project was halted because of the pandemic, but Paulsen said there may be some countywide efforts to work on mapping the covenants in the county, but he is unaware of any at the time.

Once Hartman presented the information to the city, District 3 Alder Katy Nelson and City Administrator Mike Davis began looking into what the council could do to remove of change the racist language, although opinions vary on whether the original text should remain in addition to the revised language. Historians want the language left in because it is a part of history and should be preserved for future study.

Nelson, whose district includes Park Lawn, said, “I wanted to find out how we could publicly void the text of this and any other racial covenant in the City. A couple of days after the Council meeting, Luke Fuszard (Common Council District 5) invited me to join a Zoom meeting with Erika Sanders of Fair Housing Wisconsin. During that meeting, Erika told us that racial covenants were very common in the 1940s and ‘50s. She said there were often loopholes written into the covenants for the help.

“There are arguments on both sides of the issue of whether these now-illegal covenants should disappear so no other families are hurt by the racial verbiage, or if they should remain so people don’t make this hateful mistake again. If homeowners want to remove the text from their personal deeds, they would typically have to hire a lawyer at great personal expense. It was my desire to help homeowners strike the text, and I personally hope that some of these covenants are put on display in the Historical Museum, so students can learn to not let this happen again,” Nelson continued.

The city is currently working with Kristi Chlebwoski, the Dane County Register of Deeds to create a new deed restriction form, which would use the language approved by the council in a resolution set forth to repudiate the deed language back in July.

Attoun said it would be difficult to remove the racist language and the entire neighborhood would have to sign off on the removal, and it would be costly. Individual revisions to deeds is an easier and more cost effective way to deal with the racist language, Attoun said. 

“The form will be mailed out to property owners within these two neighborhoods once approved by the county. I want to be sure that it meets all the county requirements before we send potentially hundreds of people to record this new language. The cost to record the new language is $30,” she said. 

Attoun added that once the forms are ready, homeowners in the Park Lawn neighborhood will be sent information about the racist language in the covenant and how to revise it.

“Racial discrimination in housing and racial segregation in cities did not end with Shelley v. Kramer in 1948, nor did it end with passage of the Fair Housing Act after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. It is still very much with us today. Dane County is racially segregated. The Milwaukee metro region is one of the most–if not the most–segregated areas in the country,” concluded Paulsen who cited an Aug. 13 report that found Milwaukee to be “hypersegregated.” The research document can be viewed at https://dc.uwm.edu/ced_pubs/56/.

For more information on Mapping Prejudice, visit: mappingprejudice.org.

Rate this article: 
No votes yet