Residents of Innis Arden, an upper-middle-class neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound, have been trying to collect enough signatures to erase...

Share story

Residents of Innis Arden, an upper-middle-class neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound, have been trying to collect enough signatures to erase an embarrassing little secret from their record books.

Racial restrictions, validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926, then ruled unenforceable by the same court 22 years later, are linked to the original deeds of the 500-plus homes, north of Seattle in Shoreline.

Written into the neighborhood’s bylaws by Boeing founder Bill Boeing, the 60-year-old restrictions prohibited the sale or lease of the homes to anyone who wasn’t white. Blacks and Asians, the restrictions said, could occupy the homes only as domestic servants.

Though long since invalidated, the covenants still occasionally show up in documents when a home changes hands — to the surprise of some buyers and sellers.

For Peris Joyner, who is black, the painful language was like a punch in the gut when a neighbor first showed it to him 18 or so years ago.

“I think I did my kids a disservice” by raising them in a neighborhood designed to be exclusive, said Joyner, 51, a former banker who now does volunteer work full time. He has lived in Innis Arden 21 years.

Racial covenants

1917: U.S. Supreme Court outlaws racial-segregation ordinances.

1926: Supreme Court validates covenants, saying that while blacks have the constitutional right to own property, sellers are not compelled to sell to them.

1934: U.S. Federal Housing Administration created; it provides developers with model form of restrictive covenants.

1948: Supreme Court decides racial covenants are not legally enforceable, but leaves open possibility of voluntary agreements between real-estate agents and homeowners.

1950: U.S. Federal Housing Administration agrees not to insure properties with racial covenants, a practice that ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

1964: Voters in Seattle strongly reject referendum to open housing.

1968: Housing discrimination outlawed under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, making it illegal to refuse to negotiate, rent or sell based on race and other characteristics.

1968: Assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prompts unrest in more than 100 cities. In Seattle, the City Council unanimously approves open-housing ordinance, in part to maintain peace.

1969: In Washington, legislators pass measure voiding restrictive covenants.

Source:; Seattle Times archives

“If I’d known then what I know now and had this to do all over again, I don’t think I would live here.”

Ugly vestiges of early 20th-century America, the covenants are not unique to Innis Arden. They exist in the records rooms of government offices across the country — including Seattle, where students in a history-department project at the University of Washington found them linked to homes from White Center to Ballard and in such modern-day liberal enclaves as Capitol Hill, Madrona and Green Lake.

A resolution introduced in Congress last month condemns the covenants as psychologically damaging to Americans and urges states to pass legislation permitting homeowners and neighborhood associations to remove the language from record books.

But eradicating the covenants has proven all but impossible.

While original documents may be amended, they can never be repealed.

Typically, before a home changes hands, a title search is done to find encumbrances — liens, unpaid taxes, unsatisfied mortgages, restrictions. If covenants exist, a title company might photocopy the restrictive language, sometimes including racial restrictions.

“There’s no consistency: Some blank it out; some make an attachment showing it as invalid or amended, and some simply show it,” said Peter Eglick, attorney for the Innis Arden Club, the local homeowners association.

So despite a previous attempt by Innis Arden to amend the documents — and despite a Supreme Court ruling rendering them unenforceable, the 1968 U.S. Fair Housing Act that invalidated them and a state law voiding them — the covenants still occasionally turn up when homes in Innis Arden sell, Eglick said.

Dwight Bickel, Northwest region counsel for LandAmerica, which represents three major title companies, said that should never happen — that “in 2005 you don’t need to show that offensive language and you don’t have to describe it, either.”

By attempting once again to amend the records, Innis Arden is trying to right a historic wrong, Eglick said.

The neighborhood needs notarized signatures from two-thirds of the households in the development — 360 in all — before it can file amended documents with King County to replace the old ones.

But after almost a year, only 122 signatures have been collected. Some residents say that’s because the neighborhood has been preoccupied with a different kind of battle — one over tree heights and waterfront views.

Eglick said another reason is that getting signatures notarized can be a hassle. To make it easier, one resident recently was certified as a notary public so she can go door-to-door explaining the petition to residents and collecting signatures.

“There are so many things that tell people these are no longer enforceable, not acceptable; they’ve been invalidated, repealed, rejected,” Eglick said.

“It’s one of those things that at some point we’ve done all we can do — other than burning down the buildings where they are stored.”

Era of segregation

The language that led to the exclusion of Asians, blacks and often Jews from neighborhoods across the country was written into deeds or housing plats during the first half of the 20th century.

The covenants became more prevalent in the late 1920s after the U.S. Supreme Court validated them. Inserted into the bylaws of subdivisions or attached to the deeds of homes by developers, real-estate agents or landowners themselves, the covenants were often condoned, encouraged and defended by cities and zoning authorities.

In fact, the U.S. Federal Housing Administration, created under the National Housing Act of 1934, provided developers a model form of a restrictive covenant, with language similar to that of Innis Arden’s.

Some lending institutions even made them a requirement for loans.

Many people lived and died in racially restricted homes without ever knowing it. John F. Kennedy lived in a racially restricted neighborhood before he became president. And reports show that the North Dallas home sold by George W. Bush in 1995 had a deed provision that restricted ownership to whites.

Although the federal courts ruled such covenants unenforceable years earlier, private agreements kept them alive at least into the 1960s — the decade of emergence for the civil-rights movement. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 rendered them illegal.

“They’re the reason for the ghetto,” said Quintard Taylor Jr., a University of Washington professor of American history. “In Seattle, blacks and Asians were restricted to the areas not covered by restrictive covenants. They got what was left over, often the least-desirable parts of the city.”

Much of Seattle’s black, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, Latino and sometimes Jewish populations were concentrated in an L-shaped district of some 30 square blocks in the city’s Central Area.

“Many places that didn’t have covenants still practiced exclusion,” said Alan Sugiyama, a Japanese activist who is executive director of a nonprofit group called the Center for Career Alternatives.

The Seattle City Council passed its open-housing ordinance in 1968, but it “took at least 15 years for housing to truly open up,” Sugiyama said.

“It’s really not been that long. And when it did open it, it wasn’t your average minority that was let in.”

New light on history

Restrictive covenants are only one element of the UW’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, which aims to tell the little-told story of the struggle for equality in this region.

“You say ‘civil-rights struggle’ to many young people and they say ‘Alabama,’ ” said James Gregory, executive director of the project and a UW history professor.

“You say ‘civil-rights heroes’ and they say ‘Martin Luther King’ and ‘Rosa Parks.’ We had a unique history here in this region, with alliances between different communities of color.”

The project is developing a Web site that will be a compendium of interviews, historical photos and other information chronicling the fight for rights in this region. Students across the region will have access to it.

The Web site will list more than 120 racially restrictive deeds recorded in King County between 1926 and 1935 — many with identical verbiage because they were written by the same companies or individuals.

Consider the 1920s and 1930s deeds for homes in White Center, Ballard and Broadmoor: “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian (black), Malay (Filipino) or any Asiatic Race (Asian) … excepting only employees in the domestic service …

Craig Duncan, president of the homeowners association at Broadmoor, one of only a few gated communities in Seattle, was surprised to learn that racial restrictions were once in his neighborhood’s bylaws.

They aren’t now, he points out.

Marc Reguera, a 36-year-old finance controller at Microsoft who lives in Broadmoor with his wife, who is Filipino, said he believes the neighborhood’s lack of diversity these days results from economics — not racism.

“I love and appreciate diversity,” said Reguera, who is white. “I couldn’t live in a neighborhood that had a [racist] stigma.”

Taylor, the UW history professor, believes a different kind of re-segregation is occurring in high-priced neighborhoods like Broadmoor — not driven by racist language, but based on the idea of exclusivity.

He concedes that in a free market, people buy what they can afford. “But what some social scientists point out is that the very price of a home is in some ways determined by the absence of diversity.”

At Innis Arden, Joyner wonders how much impact the covenants had in keeping minorities out of the neighborhood, where blacks and Asians today represent 7 percent of residents.

“I have to believe there are [white] people who didn’t move into Innis Arden because that covenant was in place,” he said. “I don’t know who they are, but I salute them for taking that stand.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420;

Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.