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‘Curse of covenant’ persists — restrictive rules, while unenforceable, have lingering legacy

Kim Wrench bought his South Plaza home in the Greenway Fields subdivision in 1989.
Kim Wrench bought his South Plaza home in the Greenway Fields subdivision in 1989. /The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2005.

Kim Wrench loves the 2 1/2-story modern colonial he bought in the Country Club District more than 15 years ago, but he hates its dirty little secret.

Buried in Section 10 of the Greenway Fields homeowners association rules — tucked between sections on outbuildings and pergolas — are these words: “None of the said lots shall be conveyed to, used, owned nor occupied by Negroes as owner or tenants.”

Wrench, who is black, tries to ignore the words that are known in legal circles as a “restrictive covenant.” But he can’t.

“It’s ridiculous that it even has to be on there,” Wrench said. “I look at it as being a form of ignorance and stupidity.”

Although many Kansas City area residents are not even aware of them, more than 1,200 documents involving thousands of homes still contain racist language banning blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups. For the first half of the 20th century, racially restrictive covenants were routinely recorded in plats and deeds and placed in many homeowners association documents not only here, but nationwide.

Yet many of the covenants never were removed, even after being ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court as long ago as 1948 and banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And their vestiges of discrimination — a kind of “curse of the covenant — still linger locally, The Kansas City Star has found.

Indeed, the latest U.S. census figures show that, while some of the metropolitan areas that had racial restrictions are now integrated, many of those neighborhoods still have few, if any, black residents living in them today.

“The major legacy is the racial separation we still see,” said lawyer Arthur A. Benson II, who researched the covenants as part of Kansas City’s landmark school desegregation case. “While there is a lot more integration now than there was 20 years ago, Troost (Avenue) is still a major dividing line in our community. And that’s a direct result of the racially restrictive covenants, together with other real estate practices and school practices.”

While society still struggles with racial separation, critics say something should be done to rid housing documents of the illegal covenants. Although unenforceable, the language can be psychologically damaging, reinforcing old fears and sending a message that racism is alive and well in America.

“It’s a very insensitive message, one that says although we acknowledge that black Americans can own real estate, we won’t go to the energy and the effort to have everything removed so they can feel better about it,” said Ron Branch, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the nation’s oldest minority trade association.

But legal experts say the covenants are very much like a curse in that they are almost impossible to get rid of. And historians trace some of that difficulty to Kansas City, where the covenants were perfected by one of the city’s most prominent developers, J.C. Nichols.

Nichols was among the first developers in the United States to promote the restrictions. From 1908 through the 1940s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that prohibited housing sales to blacks.

Creators of the covenants crafted them in such a way that they would be around for a long time. One way to remove them is by state legislation. Other ways are not as easy.

“It can be done, but it’s very time-consuming, and it can get very expensive,” said Pete Heaven, a lawyer who drafts rules for new neighborhoods in Kansas and Missouri.

Widespread restrictions

Most of the restrictions — including those in more than a dozen subdivisions in the Country Club District — prohibit ownership by blacks, but some Johnson County covenants are even more exclusionary.

The “Declaration of Restrictions for Leawood Estates” filed by Kroh Bros. in 1945 prohibits ownership or occupancy “by any person of Negro blood or by any person who is more than one-fourth of the Semitic race, blood, origin or extraction, including without limitation in said designation, Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabians.” An exception is made for “partial occupancy by bona fide domestic servants employed thereon.”

Racial restrictions were common in other Johnson County communities as well, including Prairie Village, Roeland Park and Fairway.

In a document recorded with the Johnson County register of deeds in 1939 titled “Johnson County Development Company et al. vs. Negroes,” a group of homeowners declared that the property was “to be restricted against use or ownership by Negroes.” The property included lots in South Park, which now is part of Merriam.

Those restrictions are still on the books.

Such restrictions were so widespread that in the 1940s three U.S. Supreme Court justices had to excuse themselves from ruling on the covenants because they owned property that contained the exclusionary language.

Even John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan lived in racially restricted neighborhoods before they became president. And the North Dallas home sold by George W. Bush in 1995 had a deed provision that restricted ownership to whites. A spokeswoman said the president was not aware of the covenant, which was put in place in 1939.

But the enduring racist language — which continued to be added to local housing documents as late as 1962 — sends an outdated message that must be changed, said Kevin Fox Gotham, a Kansas City housing historian who now teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“It illustrates the things that people would do to reinforce and create racial segregation,” Gotham said. “It also illustrates that it’s not that important to people to remove this racial language. So it’s telling of race relations, not only in Kansas City, but around the United States.”

Even though they cannot be enforced, covenants continue to keep minorities away from certain housing developments, said Sherry Lamb Schirmer, an associate professor of history at Avila University and author of A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960.

“I have been told by black people that they’re aware of what neighborhoods were once restricted, and often they still see those as hostile zones, so that they’d be more likely to purchase a house in one neighborhood versus another because of that,” Schirmer said.

“So these covenants then have more than simply symbolic meaning. They still have an impact.”

Covenants die hard

Experts say removing the covenants is possible, especially if homeowner documents can be amended.

“If you’re lucky enough to have that (an amending procedure) in the document, then you merely need to get an amendment signed by at least 51 percent or two-thirds of the landowners,” Heaven said.

But he said it gets far more complicated when the restriction is in the plat because to amend a plat every property owner has to agree. A plat is a map that shows the boundaries of a piece of land or subdivision.

“A plat is very, very difficult to change,” Heaven said.

John Sheets, executive director of the Homes Associations of the Country Club District, said restrictions written for the J.C. Nichols Co. require that a notice to amend be filed five years in advance of its renewal date — usually every 20 to 25 years — and that all homeowners must agree to the change.

“There’s a lot of expense to get every single signature of every homeowner notarized in a timely fashion and then submit that,” Sheets said. “You’d have to have an attorney working on it for two to three years. It would be extremely cost prohibitive. And if one person holds out, the whole thing is off.”

Among the homeowners associations that still have such restrictions in their covenants, Sheets said, are Armour Fields, which includes the Romanelli Gardens and Meyer Circle subdivisions; Armour Hills; the Country Club District; Country Club Homes; Countryside; Crestwood; Greenway Fields; Stratford Gardens; Westwood Park; and Wornall Homestead, all in Missouri. Those in Kansas include Indian Hills, Mission Hills, Prairie Village and Tomahawk Road. All are J.C. Nichols developments.

Sheets said that while the restrictions have not been officially removed from the documents, a few of the homeowners associations have crossed them out.

Some had help from Harriette Handley, an employee of the Homes Associations of the Country Club District.

For 30 years she put together welcome packets for new residents. The packets included the homes association rules. But the racial restrictions bothered Handley so much that she took matters into her own hands.

“Anything referring to Negroes, I would white out,” she said. “I just did it on my own. I don’t know whether it was legal or not, but I don’t think anyone would complain about it.”

Removing the restrictions from deeds and other documents filed with the county would be more difficult because county officials have no authority to delete them, said Shawn Henessee, assistant director of the Jackson County Records Department.

John Bartolac, director of Johnson County’s Department of Records and Tax Administration, said the language also remains in plats and deeds there. Removing the restrictions, Bartolac said, would be “a paperwork nightmare.”

Stephen Todd, regional counsel for the Chicago Title Insurance Co., agreed.

“In Jackson County, most of it’s on microfilm,” Todd said. “Or it’s in these big old bound books. And that wouldn’t be very feasible to snip it out of the book.”

Yet in the 1980s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began requiring title companies to cross out the restrictions on copies of covenants or note in the margins that the provisions were to be considered deleted, Todd said.

States, however, can require the removal of racial restrictions. In 1999, the National Association of Real Estate Brokers launched an effort to purge discriminatory language from property-related documents nationwide and was successful in California.

In that state, homeowners associations must remove the racist phrases and individuals can strike the language from their own deeds. But since the law went into effect in 2000, only 24 property owners have gone to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing seeking the removal of the language, spokeswoman Jacqueline Wagner said.

Last year, California amended the law to allow homeowners to go directly to their county recorder to make the changes, Wagner said, but the department has no information on whether any did.

State Sen. Yvonne Wilson, a Kansas City Democrat, was flabbergasted to learn that the restrictions remained in many Missouri documents. “I had no idea that those were still in there,” Wilson said. “It’s an embarrassment. That’s offensive language, and it sends a terrible message.”

Wilson said she intended to sponsor a proposal to get the exclusionary language removed.

“I’m going to look into it next week and start the legislative research,” she said Thursday. “If we could legislate it and get it off, that’s the best approach to take.”

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver called the covenants “a national embarrassment” and agreed that the legislature needs to address the issue.

“I think the Missouri General Assembly should entertain legislation that would remove the racial covenants,” said Cleaver, a former Kansas City mayor who now represents the 5th Congressional District. “And it should be an easy bill to pass, because both sides of the aisle would vote for it, even if some of them didn’t want to.”

But state Sen. John Vratil said he did not see the issue as one the Kansas Legislature should get involved in. “It’s a local issue, and a homes association issue,” said Vratil, a Leawood Republican.

For racial restrictions in homes association documents, association members could vote to remove them, Vratil said.

“It’s a question of, is it offensive enough that you’re willing to pay $50 to $100 per homeowner to get it removed?” he said. “And I think I know what the answer is. ... It’s one of those issues that politicians love to talk about because it resonates, but when you get below the surface, most people just aren’t interested in going to the time and expense to deal with it.”

Time for change?

When Marsha Ramsey wanted information last summer about her subdivision’s regulations on swimming pools, she called the homeowners association and requested a copy of the restrictions for Greenway Fields.

Ramsey said she did a double take when she read the section prohibiting blacks.

“I was shocked,” she said. “It’s just so barbaric I can’t even believe it. It’s almost beyond my comprehension.”

For Ramsey, it does not matter that the covenants are unenforceable. “That’s immaterial,” she said. “This is insulting to a number of people. I’m a white woman, and I’m appalled that it was there a hundred years ago, let alone today.”

Ramsey also does not think it would be too difficult for her homeowners association to lift the curse once and for all.

“Last week, we got a letter wanting to accumulate $5,000 to fix a wall,” she said recently. “Well, what about sending out a newsletter saying, ‘Let’s get this changed’?”

That is what residents of Red Bridge Estates did in 2001.

“We took all of those restrictions out,” said Kenneth Green, who was president of the homes association at the time. “They hadn’t been enforced or even looked at for years and years, but somebody did recognize that they were still in there, and we decided to clean them up.”

Green said the process was not that difficult. “It was brought up at the annual meeting, and we voted to do it. Fortunately, we have a lawyer in the association, and he handled it.”

Wrench said he only learned about the racial restrictions in the Greenway Fields subdivision when he bought his pale yellow colonial house in 1989.

But it was just one in a series of surprises, he said.

“I never really met the owner until I showed up for the inspection,” Wrench said. “And when she found out that I was a gentleman of color, she made a big deal out of it. And I heard her tell my agent that she never would have sold her home to me if she’d known she was selling to someone black.”

Still, Wrench never considered moving.

“Moving would just let them win,” he said.

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas

Thousands of Kansas City area homes are in neighborhoods that still have illegal “restrictive covenants” prohibiting blacks and other ethnic groups from owning property.

Critics say the covenants still unduly influence where some people live and should be removed from plats, deeds and homeowners association bylaws.

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