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How century-old racist deed covenants echo in present-day Greenville

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Furman University
Furman University
An example of one of the roughly 5,000 deed covenants found by Furman University researchers, spelling out in explicit terms that no one of African descent would be permitted to buy property in certain Greenville-area neighborhoods.

Look around your city, your neighborhood. From block to block, traffic light to traffic light, you probably know which areas of town are full of residents who look a lot like you and which areas are not.

Historically speaking, none of that was an accident, says Ken Kolb, chair of the sociology department at Furman University in Greenville. Kolb and post-baccalaureate researcher Sam Hayes have found ample evidence to show that neighborhoods and communities designed decades ago were part of “a concerted, intentional effort made by property owners to create exclusive enclaves for themselves where their wealth could grow over the course of generations and exclude specific groups of people – mainly Blacks,” Kolb says.

The big-city mechanism for making sure that only certain, i.e., white, people lived in certain developments all over the United States was called “redlining.” In short, the term refers to mapped, areas of large cities that were color-coded according to what they considered to be risk factors affecting future values of residential properties. Red areas were deemed to be at the most risk of hurting properties and neighborhoods within and close to them.

Almost always, the red zones were African-American neighborhoods. Redlining was common practice in the early decades of the 20th century; eventually ruled unconstitutional.

But back in the early 20th century, Greenville, S.C., was not big enough to qualify for redline maps, Hayes says. So developers looking to keep the city segregated found other methods of achieving their aims. A main tactic was racially restrictive deed covenants – deeds on houses that spelled out explicitly who could not live there.

This is the evidence Kolb, Hayes, and other researchers at Furman found by combing through hundreds of thousands of publicly available Greenville County property records.

Inspired by Richard Rothstein’s landmark study into racially motivated real estate policy, The Color of Law, Furman researchers searched Greenville County’s deeds archives for terms like “African” and “Black.” They got more than 5,000 hits, Hayes says (with the caveat that some of the deeds were for the same properties that had been resold).

Other discriminating terms popped up as well: “Jew.” “Greek.” “Polish.” Terms for people not considered white a hundred years ago, although Hayes says those hits were relatively few.

Still, the grand picture painted is one of deliberate effort to make sure Black residents of Greenville wouldn’t be living in neighborhoods like Lake Lanier – a near-resort-like enclave close to the North Carolina border – and Sans Souci – a Census-designated neighborhood a few miles north of I-85 downtown, whose name translates to “No Worries” from French.

Sans Souci was originally the name of Gov. Benjamin Franklin Perry’s mansion in the 1800s. Perry was a Unionist, but also someone who saw Black people as inferior. His estate is what the suburb would eventually be named after.

Similarly, Furman University was named for its first president, James C. Furman, who was an enslaver. Hayes says the Mapping Housing Inequities Project at Furman was spurred by research there into the school’s historical ties to slavery.

Kolb says the importance of airing out all of these past injustices, long-since rendered toothless, is huge. Because of racially restrictive deed covenants, he says, the ripples of systemic inequities in the Greenville area are still with us.

“You can look at the areas that are filled with racially restrictive covenants, and that's what our map does,” Kolb says. “But then if you flip it, you'll find the areas that were free of these covenants. And those were the areas where black folks could live. They were funneled into these specific little pockets.”

On the surface, that’s partly a good thing. African-Americans were, after all, allowed to buy and own properties in Greenville – just not certain properties. And over time, a lack of public investment in maintaining parts of town where Black families lived ate away at the value of those properties and rotted the neighborhoods’ infrastructure.

“Public sector investment was going into areas where wealthy people already lived,” Kolb says. “And they were exclusively living there because they had racially restrictive deeds and covenants that preserved … wealthy enclaves for some and created open pockets to funnel poor people into.”

And those areas left to wither became areas now ripe for gentrification amid a soaring real estate market, says Tina Belge, community engagement manager at the Greenville Housing Fund.

“We're having people look at Greenville from all over the country and the speculation on land … in some instances can be like a million [dollars] an acre,” Belge says.

Hardly what would qualify as affordable housing to most. And ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about racist language in deeds from decades ago – affordable housing. Without a stable place to live and from which to build wealth, Kolb says, Black Greenvillers in particular were placed on a collision course full of barriers for generations.

“It's not a stretch, but it does take an ample amount of evidence to connect the inequalities of today to the historically racist practices of the past,” he says.

Kolb says the decay of areas now sought after for revitalization – Sans Souci being one of them, incidentally – is the trigger for gentrification, which itself is just another way to exaggerate housing inequities.

“There can be no gentrification without prior decline,” he says. “Otherwise it's just new development.”

Some people are motivated from a very uninformed space, and a lot of that, I think, we can tie to the lack of involvement in their communities. They don't have relationships. They're unable to humanize the data that they may be seeing in a community. They can't tie that to a person's face.

But if there’s no question about whether racially restrictive deeds existed, there is a cosmic question of how best to fix the problems racist policies like redlining and restrictive deed covenants caused. For Tina Belge, the solution will have to be a careful balancing act.

“You want to preserve affordability, but you also want to encourage affordable housing to be spread out into areas that were previously restricted,” she says. “More importantly though, [you want to ensure] that it's near transit and retail services; that we're not creating a whole nother level of segregated poverty, which is what racially restricted covenants did in the beginning.”

For Travis Wharton, director of education and economic mobility at the United Way of Greenville County and owner of a home in San Souci, solutions need to be as inventive – and the solvers as committed – as any of those efforts from the past that aimed to keep people like him from living where he lives today.

“When we look at the myriad efforts that were placed in segregated communities,” Wharton says, “we need to be just as creative.”

But also, he says: “We have to understand that all of this takes time [and] it takes convincing and persuasion of many of the power brokers in our community to understand that our entire community won't thrive sustainably unless we're able to look at the inequities.”

Wharton is careful to acknowledge that even the very discussion of this kind of topic makes some people feel attacked personally. He calls it one of the biggest challenges to get past.

“We don't have enemies,” he says. “Other than … ignorance. How do we educate those … uninformed areas?”

Wharton says some people are “motivated from a very uninformed space, and a lot of that, I think, we can tie to the lack of involvement in their communities. They don't have relationships. They're unable to humanize the data that they may be seeing in a community. They can't tie that to a person's face. They can't tie that to the circumstances that a child is dealing with when they go into school every day.”

No one connected to the Furman project – as Belge and Wharton tangentially are – expects the research to get anything done on its own. Belge and Wharton say fixing a deeply rooted historical problem like racist real estate policy will take concentrated effort at the policy and public practice level.

Not in their favor at the moment is history. Efforts to pass a law allowing for the removal of racially restrictive language from deeds –which can still show up in current sales, if the property is old enough and hasn’t been sold in a while – have stalled at the South Carolina Statehouse.

But how that bodes for concrete policy and practice decisions to come is another story. Belge worries that if policymakers, cities, and nonprofits in the affordable housing space, like Greenville Housing Fund, aren’t careful and deliberate in how they provide for affordable housing that encourage healthy communities, they run the risk of just creating different versions of segregated cities where some residents just don’t get the same opportunities to build wealth.

Belge says one thing cities can do is start land banking.

“You need to just preserve as much land as possible for affordable housing, otherwise you're going to have nothing to work with in the future,” she says. “Regardless of financing and whether [the market] goes up or down, if you don't have land, you really don't have much to work with.”

At the same time, she says, planners have to counterbalance measures like investing for affordable and more equitable spaces in the future.

“If your city hasn't made a housing fund, make one,” she says. “If you don’t have a land bank, take the initiative to do that. If you need to, raise property taxes and do levies to make that happen. There are different mechanisms. It's kind of like just balancing those strategies.”

But then she sighs when the scope of the fix hits her.

“I wish there was some silver bullet, but ….”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.