This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of The Newberry Magazine under the title “In Chicago, They’ve Got Covenants.”
Like much of the nation, Chicago is reckoning with long-standing racial inequality. Since the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others, we’ve witnessed protests in the streets, including in the immediate neighborhood around the Newberry. Violent unrest in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin, followed the police shooting there of Jacob Blake, who was raised in Evanston. These protests are more than a reaction to recent incidents of police violence; they are a response to the systemic racism that has plagued the United States for centuries. This racism has been enforced by law, discriminatory practices, and horrific violence.
At the Newberry, we believe deeply that historical context should inform how we respond to contemporary crises. This includes examining the library’s own history and investigating institutional complicity in structural racism. Confronting this painful history, we hope, will help us build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Newberry. With this aspiration in mind, this blog post looks at the Newberry’s signing of restrictive covenants for properties it owned during the 1930s and 1940s.
Sometime between 1933 and 1937, the Near North Side Property Owners Association distributed a mailer that included a map intended to stoke fears about African Americans moving to Chicago’s North Side. It minced no words: “The Near North Side Property Owners Association proposes to ask every property owner in the district to agree to sell and rent to white people only.” The Newberry Library received multiple copies of this hate-fueling propaganda, which warned that it would be “unthinkable” to “sit idly by and permit the great Near North Side District, one of the finest in the entire world, to be occupied by a race alien to the men and women who have established their homes and places of business here.”
The Near North Side Property Owners Association’s campaign targeted residential, institutional, and commercial owners. The Newberry was on the Association’s mailing list because the library owned many properties on the North Side of Chicago and beyond. Some of this property likely dated back to the estate of Walter Newberry, who died in 1868 and left a substantial sum to establish a free, public library. The Newberry continued to buy, sell, rent, and improve both commercial and residential properties for decades after its 1887 founding. A 1937 tax schedule, for example, shows that the Newberry held at least 33 properties in the city and three more in the suburbs, appraised in total at more than $437,000, the equivalent of more than $5.6 million in 2020. By the 1950s, the Newberry had sold most of its real estate.
After emphatically warning that African Americans would “take over” the neighborhood, the Near North Side Property Owners Association assured readers that it had “already started on the work of preparing the necessary agreements” to prevent African Americans from moving into the area. These agreements, known as “restrictive covenants,” were contracts among property owners on a given street or in a given neighborhood that prohibited selling or leasing to members of a designated group of people, typically African Americans and sometimes Jewish Americans.
The Newberry’s financial agent (who was neither a staff member nor a board member but acted in an official capacity on behalf of the library) authorized multiple restrictive covenants during the 1930s and early 1940s, barring African Americans from renting some Newberry-owned properties. The Near North Side Property Owners Association collaborated with the Chicago Real Estate Board to make it relatively easy on the Newberry and others by providing suggested boilerplate contractual language and sometimes even paying the legal fees associated with executing these restrictive covenants.
The Association’s campaign made a difference on Chicago’s Gold Coast, the neighborhood around the library; more than 1,000 property owners—individuals and organizations—agreed to these covenants. The Newberry also signed a restrictive covenant in 1941 on at least one South Side property that it owned, at the urging of officials from the nearby University of Chicago.
These restrictive covenants, which contributed to institutionalizing racism across Chicago, are located in an archival folder at the Newberry with the uncomfortable title “Negro [sic] Restriction Agreements, 1936–1938.” Most of the documents found there include dry legalisms, casually stated and undoubtedly perceived as ordinary by most elite whites at the time.
Research in the Newberry’s institutional archives has not revealed any evidence of consternation or disagreement among the library’s entirely white leadership about signing these covenants. We’ve found instead only matter-of-fact exchanges between the library’s financial agent and its establishment Chicago law firm, which assured the financial agent: “As a matter of law, we see no objection to your signing an agreement against colored [sic] occupancy.” This commonplace tone shines a light on the reality that systemic racism, carried out through discrimination in housing, was unremarkable to elite, white Chicagoans during the 1930s. Many white property owners who entered into these pacts with each other likely believed that promising not to sell or rent to African Americans was a form of economic and social self-protection. As historian Wendy Plotkin has written, “The Newberry Library had both institutional and fiduciary reasons for signing an agreement that would allegedly protect property values. To attract readers to its portals, it was necessary to preserve a ‘desirable’ neighborhood—and through its signing, it most likely interpreted this as synonymous with ‘white.’”
Signing restrictive covenants did not violate any laws; on the contrary, the courts effectively upheld covenants after challenges from the NAACP and others. The US Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to restrictive covenants in a 1926 case, Corrigan v. Buckley, stating that 14th Amendment protections applied to actions by states, not individuals. Therefore, white residents banding together and refusing as individuals to sell or rent property to African Americans remained legal. Owners who violated these agreements could be sued by their neighbors, and African American tenants could be evicted from properties where these covenants were in place.
In 1948, the US Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants were unenforceable by courts, though were not illegal, per se. That important decision was not followed by floodgates of equity opening in Chicago housing, of course. The Federal Housing Authority was slow to make sure that owners complied. Moreover, as historian Richard Rothstein has claimed, federal officials showed “contempt” for the ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer. In the Newberry’s archive, there seems only to be silence about the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Restrictive covenants matter deeply for understanding the history of racism in the United States because they were one of many real estate practices that helped to powerfully enforce residential segregation during the early twentieth century. Residential segregation predated the Great Migration of African Americans to Chicago and intensified following the devastating race riot in the summer of 1919.
The violence began on July 27, 1919, when George Stauber, a white man, hurled stones at Eugene Williams, an African American teenager who swam across an invisible racial boundary line in Lake Michigan. Williams drowned, and the city erupted, with whites indiscriminately attacking African American Chicagoans in their neighborhoods and homes. One week of violence left 38 people dead (23 of them African American; 15 white) and more than 500 injured. (In 2019, one hundred years after the riots, the Newberry collaborated with 13 partners across the city to sponsor programs and publish educational resources on the history and legacy of the violence in Chicago in 1919.)
Well after 1919, whites in Chicago looked for ways to maintain segregation in the city’s housing and neighborhoods. As the Chicago Defender, the city’s leading African American newspaper, convincingly explained in the summer of 1939: “Restrictive covenants have replaced bombings and riots. A subtler and more difficult tactic to combat has been evolved.” Despite the Defender’s claim that riots had been “replaced” by restrictive covenants, segregation in housing continued to be enforced by standard real estate industry practices as well as through violence. White mobs led multiple riots in the late 1940s and 1950s as African Americans moved into certain neighborhoods or public housing projects.
The threat of violence combined with the “ordinariness” of discrimination in real estate industry practices may have been far more influential than restrictive covenants. Even though covenants were often more difficult to secure (those hoping to enforce them had to go door-to-door to get owners to sign on, as the Newberry’s case shows), they remained an influential tool that ensured Chicago’s housing would remain segregated. According to Rothstein, some “175 Chicago neighborhood associations were enforcing deeds that barred sales or rentals to African Americans” by 1943.
Today, the legacies of racial restriction and violence mark Chicago’s geography and Chicagoans’ daily experiences. Restrictive covenants are part of this legacy, for they bonded white people and white institutions together in expressions of power and unity against African Americans. Homeownership has long been an important avenue for the accumulation of generational wealth. Restrictive covenants helped to deny this possibility to many African Americans in Chicago for decades, while also contributing to engrained segregation within the city. Restrictive covenants, in other words, enabled and magnified Chicago’s racial inequities.
Cultural institutions have an important role to play in helping Chicagoans understand this history. The Newberry’s 2016 exhibition, Civil War to Civil Rights: African American Chicago in the Newberry Collection, explained that restrictive covenants were one of many discriminatory methods used to segregate housing in Chicago. Both a restrictive covenant and a restriction agreement from the Newberry’s archive were on display in the gallery, but the exhibition text could have addressed more directly the fact that these covenants applied to Newberry-owned property. These restrictive covenants included provisions that “no part of said premises shall in any manner be used or occupied directly or indirectly” by African Americans and that “no part of said premises shall be sold, given, conveyed, or leased” to African Americans.
At the Newberry, we champion the fact that we have been free and open to the public since 1887. Yet, the conception of the public that the library serves has not always been inclusive.
For more than 130 years, the Newberry has encouraged study of the humanities for its own sake. Many of us on the library’s staff also hope that by understanding the past, we might engage more effectively with current problems, and even help shape a better future. The Newberry will continue, for example, to collect evidence from social protest in Chicago, in the belief that preserving history demands finding ways to include the voices of those who have been marginalized or unheard. And, as we take steps to address diversity, equity, and inclusion at the library, we’ll remain committed to exploring historical truths, even when they are painful and hit close to home.
In 1949, poet Langston Hughes captured these truths in a way that sounds hauntingly resonant today. His poem “Restrictive Covenants,” includes this stanza:
They’ve got covenants
On the South Side,
Can’t breathe free.
About the Author
Daniel Greene is President and Librarian of the Newberry Library.