Why Hack into Durham History?

Within the cities, Negroes have been excluded from white residential areas through discriminatory practices….The result, according to a recent study, is that in 1960,…to create an unsegregated population distribution, an average of over 86 percent of all Negroes would have to change their place of residence within the city.

Kerner Commission Report to President Lyndon B. Johnson (1968), p. 11.

The wrong side of the tracks. The bad part of town. The slums. The projects. The mean streets. No doubt you can picture exactly the kind of neighborhood these phrases were meant to conjure. The people trapped there were poor, dark, and dangerous; boogeymen, beggars, and bad, but most of all, unwanted by white society. Best to put a big wall around all of them, and lock the gate, many said.

Property Deeds as Records of Systemic Discrimination

For years, there has been an efficient lock-down system for people that those in power wanted to keep away, those “undesirables”: property rights. We know that the men who wrote our Constitution were landowners and slave owners; property, as it was defined then. As our nation grew, property divided the rich from the rest of us, just as it has throughout centuries of human history. As slavery was abolished and more free blacks moved throughout the states, and more immigrants came to our shores, men in power devised ways to keep them “in their place,” using property deeds: seemingly unassuming documents that hold, in reality, tremendous power over people’s lives. For property deeds delineate not only where a particular parcel of land, or plat, is located within a city, county, or both, but what structures can be built on that land, and what sort of people may work and/or reside there.  

Covenants as a Formal Language for Racism

Often racism is presented as a personal trait, “hidden” in people until a word or phrase, or a behavior, or a pattern of action, signals racist intent as loudly as if that person or organization had picked up a bullhorn and made an announcement. In property deeds, however, racism has been codified into language, mapped into zones and neighborhoods, and systematized by laws and practices. Property deeds can contain clauses that stipulate the “rules” governing the property. These clauses are called covenants because they impose duties or restrictions tied to the use or ownership of the land. Many covenants “run with the land,” meaning that the restrictions or duties do not expire just because the deed is transferred when the property is sold. 

In Durham, North Carolina, as in cities and counties throughout the United States, racially restrictive covenants can be found in historical property deeds. These covenants prohibited ownership and/or use of property by non-white people in certain neighborhoods throughout Durham County. Though they are no longer legally enforceable, they remain present today in the handwritten or typed deeds collected in books at the County Registrar.

There is much to tell about these documents and the stories they tell about historic neighborhoods, zoning restrictions, and the current affordable housing crisis facing the city. We are hopeful that this work can contribute to the ongoing racial equity work being undertaken by the city. Our efforts seek to build on the previous work done for the Bull City 150 Exhibit and in concert with the documentation and oral history work being done by the Braggtown Community Association and NCCU History Professor Dr. Charles Johnson. As evidence of entrenched white supremacy, these records offer testimony to the long history and impact of racist housing regulations on Durham neighborhoods and present-day community life. This project aims to make these documents available and accessible for public use, with the end goal of encouraging communities to become empowered through civic data literacy, awareness and education.

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This blog is a diary of our ongoing journey. We hope you will stay tuned, and consider joining us, soon, to help bring these documents together for the public to see, share and use. If you would like to stay informed about our work, please bookmark our site, follow our Twitter, and/or share your contact information here.

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