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Washington history project has found tens of thousands of racially discriminatory housing covenants

Screenshot from Racial Restrictive Covenants Project
Nearly 800 volunteers as well as several university students are doing the cumbersome work of finding and reading homeowner documents.

Program leaders are asking for more state money to continue their work.

History groups on both sides of the Washington Cascades are digging into an important project. They’re searching for property deeds that contain racially discriminatory language.

“There is no state that has tried to find all of their racially restrictive property records yet. There are a lot of efforts around the country and the county level or local level. We’re the first state to try and do this," said EWU History Professor Larry Cebula. He spoke Wednesday to members of the House Local Government Committee.

“Here’s why this matters," said James Gregory, the history professor at the University of Washington who directs the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project. He says, for decades in the early and mid 20th century, state and local governments and courts enforced these racial covenants.

“What they did was prevent people of color from joining the major system for producing wealth and wellbeing and that is becoming a property owner, a homeowner. Not only did these deeds enforce segregation, keeping people out of some areas, but they essentially made it much more difficult to buy property of any kind," he said.

In 2021, legislators asked historians to find and map neighborhoods where property developers had imposed racial covenants. In the 18 months since the project began, Gregory reports more than 40,000 discriminatory documents have been found, many for properties in the urban areas of western Washington and in Spokane County. Much of the laborious work is done by students and nearly 800 volunteers.

“Some of the volunteers come from high schools and community colleges. We do outreach to churches and community groups and get volunteers that way. Also, government agencies throughout the state and quite a few companies have been involved," Gregory said.

"What they’re doing often is confirming restrictions that we’ve found through optical character recognition, machine searches of property records where that is available," he said.

“This is an astonishing experience for the students who have been involved. Everyone says it’s the most interesting thing they’ve done in their college career," Cebula said.

Cebula is leading a team of students and volunteers in eastern Washington. Sometimes they find documents online. Sometimes road trips are involved.

“It’s a matter of piling my students and team into a van and driving to county courthouses. We have been in Asotin. We have been in Newport. We have been all over eastern Washington, basically going through these books, a page at a time," he said.

Gregory is leading a team that's doing similar work in western Washington.

Cebula and Gregory are asking the legislature for more money to continue their work. That want to continue digitizing paper records to make them more accessible to the public. They’re also looking for ways to make it easier for property owners to remove or at least acknowledge the discriminatory language in their homes’ documents.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.