Spokane case on racist housing covenants misses the bigger issues

Recently, the Washington Court of Appeals denied a Spokane homeowner’s request to strike racist language from his home’s deed. This language specifies that “[n]o race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy” this property (except those employed as staff by the owner). The goal of this “racially restrictive covenant” was to prevent people of color from owning homes in the Comstock neighborhood and other Spokane neighborhoods with similar restrictions.

Even though this racist restriction has long been illegal, a coalition of supporters in Spokane has rallied around the lawsuit to remove the language. They see these obsolete racial covenants as “monuments” to American racism and White supremacy. This effort to modify property deeds seems commendable, yet it risks overshadowing the larger historical significance of racial covenants and their consequences, which still shape Spokane today.

When developers William Cowles and John McKinley included this language in the deeds for their new Comstock housing development in 1953, they most likely knew that the U.S. Supreme Court had nullified racially restrictive covenants just like these five years earlier, in 1948. But Cowles and McKinley included illegal terms in the deeds to send a clear signal to potential homebuyers: that this neighborhood valued racial segregation and the higher monetary value of houses in Whites-only neighborhoods. 

When people of color tried to move into these illegal, “Whites-only” neighborhoods, the neighbors let them know they weren’t welcome, using verbal hostility and even violence to keep them out. In 1961, for example, soon after Frank Hopkins bought a home in north Spokane (outside the recognized areas for African Americans), someone broke all the windows. Hopkins was deterred, and the value of the surrounding homes was maintained. 

When people of color tried to move into these illegal, “Whites-only” neighborhoods, the neighbors let them know they weren’t welcome, using verbal hostility and even violence to keep them out.

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This coercion represents a mainstay of segregation and discrimination which aimed not just to separate, denigrate or even deny civil rights but also to accrue and maintain generational wealth in White families. We see further evidence of this in job ads that specified the race (and gender) of applicants, relegating people of color to more arduous and lower-paying jobs. Employers claimed this was appropriate given the educational attainment of non-White applicants who had attended poorly funded schools and who likewise struggled to gain admission to the colleges and universities that did not discriminate based on race or gender.

Even bans on interracial marriage provide evidence of efforts to retain wealth in White families. Ophelia Paquet, a Tillamook woman in Oregon, was the primary breadwinner in her family. But Paquet lost everything in 1920 when her White husband died and the state of Oregon, which banned White-Native intermarriage, awarded her marital property to her deceased husband’s brother. Though Washington never passed interracial marriage bans, the state’s racially restrictive housing covenants had a similar effect. And where racial covenants failed, discrimination in lending continued to prevent people of color from buying homes that would diversify neighborhoods and allow non-White families to accrue generational wealth. 

This is why civil rights movements in the 1960s mobilized around dismantling the economic inequalities established in multiple areas, including employment, education, lending and housing. Many of us don’t remember that the 1963 March on Washington was a march “for Jobs and Justice.” In these areas of economic reform, however, White allies often became more tentative. For them, economic reforms like well-funded public education (including post-secondary education), job opportunities with equitable pay and equal access to homeownership represented changes that might erode their own economic well-being, including the economic advantages they had inherited.

The effort to strike racist language from housing deeds represents an ongoing sea change in Spokane society since the 1950s, because it firmly rejects the racism of segregation and identifies value in diverse neighborhoods. But removing this language alone won’t change the demographic profiles of Comstock, Rockwood, High Drive, Glenwood, Mount Pleasant, Audubon Terrace and other Spokane neighborhoods.

The real monuments to Cowles and McKinley’s efforts are located not in inert language buried in property deeds but in these neighborhoods, which remain exclusively pricy and White. Spokane needs to do more than strike out the language of racial covenants. We need to actively diversify housing in these neighborhoods, assist first-time, first-generation homebuyers, and provide credit that will start to chip away at the enduring legacies of American apartheid.

Veta Schlimgen is a historian who lives and works in Spokane.