Project explores historic records restricting homeownership
The Wake County Register of Deeds Office is putting out the call for volunteers to help dive into its archives and uncover historic insights into our community’s past. The historical evidence is hidden within the “restrictive covenants” of perhaps hundreds of properties and homeowner association clauses throughout the county. The new research effort called the Racially Restrictive Covenants Project aims to create a searchable and interactive map of historic racial restrictions inserted to prevent people who were a certain race from buying or living on land in Wake County.
“Sadly, these racially restrictive covenants can be found on the books in nearly every county and city in the nation…so Wake County is not unique,” said Wake County Register of Deeds Tammy Brunner. “Still, a lot of people don't know about them, and many are shocked when they learn their property or the neighborhood HOA where they live still includes such racial restrictions. We hope this project can help catalog these forgotten artifacts of the past and serve as a tool for those seeking to educate and raise awareness of how these covenants influenced where people settled, how our present neighborhoods evolved and how we might help better shape the future of our community as it continues to grow.”
Although the Supreme Court ruled these kinds of covenants unenforceable in 1948 in the landmark case of Shelley v. Kraemer, and the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed them, the painful, offensive language still exists in the deeds of many homes, neighborhoods or cemeteries across Wake County — an ugly reminder of the country’s racist past.
This new project comes on the heels of the success of The Enslaved Persons Project, launched in 2021 by the Wake County Register of Deeds with the help of Shaw University. That project became a massive community venture to unlock the secrets of hundreds of property deeds to help better reveal the human stories of slavery in our area. Volunteers helped to catalog, transcribe and make public the records from more than 30 deed books containing bills of sale and property exchanges for people. The project raised awareness that enslaved people were not issued birth certificates or marriage certificates, instead property deeds and bills of sale were sometimes the only written records of the lives of these men, women and children. Brunner is now proud to say these records are now accessible and searchable in an online portal, allowing hundreds of people to track the history of their families at wake.gov/enslavedpersons.
Similarly, the Racial Covenants Project is looking to the community to join in and help search record books again to unearth these restrictive covenants. Most were written to keep Blacks from moving into certain neighborhoods or to keep them from being buried in certain cemetery plots, but others may target ethnic or religious groups. Partnering with Raleigh residents Lisa Boccetti and Robert Williams, volunteers will be guided through how to find and capture the information. The husband-and-wife team had previously volunteered with the Register of Deeds office and were inspired to do more.
“Working with Tammy’s office on the Enslaved Persons Project was a very powerful experience,” said Lisa Boccetti, who came to that project with a background in library research, along with her husband who specialized in technology and mapping. “Just as that project improved access to the stories of enslaved person’s lives in Wake County during and after slavery, this project will help us understand how the transfer and ownership of property have shaped, and continue to shape our community.”
Already the team has logged passages in historic Wake County records that list property restrictions like “will be occupied exclusively by person or persons. . .of the Caucasian Race,” or “shall ever be sold, resold, conveyed, granted, devised, leased or rented to or occupied by, or in any other way used by, any person or persons not of the Caucasian Race.” They even located a 1914 sales brochure for a Raleigh neighborhood that boasted its housing was “sanely restricted.”
To get involved, volunteers are asked to go to wake.gov/covenants and fill out the interest form. There are numerous things volunteers can do to contribute to this project, and most of them can be done from any computer with an internet connection.