It is a time of Black Lives Matter and rising anti-Semitism. Deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police has aroused African Americans as well as others to demonstrations, property destruction and even harm to persons. East Jerusalem evictions combined with Israel’s Gaza bombing and consequent property damage and deaths, albeit in response to Gaza based rocket attacks against Israel has led to criticism of Israel and Israel’s supporters, some are noting as a rising antisemitism in the United States. Have not we, as a nation, put that behind us?
Perhaps not. I am reminded of 1978 when I purchased my Stillwater home. Being someone fascinated with bureaucratic details, I looked at the title history to my property. Toward the bottom was a restrictive covenant. I am going from memory but the gist was I, as the new owner, could not sell, rent, lease to a Negro or a Jew. I was told there was nothing I could do about those words. I knew they were unconstitutional, illegal and unenforceable. Indeed, a Jewish family lived across the street and two African-American families lived on the block. My house was built in 1954 as all the Ingam Addition homes were built about that time.
Back in 1933, Oklahoma Gov. William Murray found Oklahoma City African Americans living just about anywhere they pleased. In fact, an African American family moved into what Murray considered an All-white block. Murray demanded the city council institute residential segregation. If the council failed, Murray would use National Guard troops to enforce his zone decree. To keep Murray’s troops from dividing the city, the council passed a residential segregation ordinance. It was word for word, except for street names, the very ordinance of Louisville, Kentucky the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in Buchanan v. Worley (1917). Murray was satisfied by the unenforceable ordinance.
After 1917 those wishing to restrict African-Americans, Jews and others from living among whites resorted to restrictive covenants. The United States Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) declared all such unconstitutional, well before my house was built. Since then federal legislation and some state laws strengthened “fair housing” enforcement. Legally restrictive covenants are mere insults, humiliations or historical reminders. Something of the sort can be found on old birth records, “bastard,” or old school records “retarded” or old census records “mulatto.”
Can a restrictive covenant be removed from a property record? Perhaps. I consulted a local title company. I could pay an attorney to prepare something for me to go door-to-door getting property owner’s notarized signatures. If enough signed, the covenant could be removed. Washington state passed a 2019 statute. Property owners may submit documentation that legally, but not physically, strikes any racially discriminatory language from property records. The original words will remain, but a modification document will be added stating the restrictive covenant is void and unenforceable. This process is free. Might something like this be possible in Oklahoma? Perhaps.
Bob Darcy is an Oklahoma State University Regents Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Statistics.