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Adult Education: My Restrictive Covenant

By Nicholas Rombes.

Maybe it was the one-two punch of it that took me out, spun my head, and made me soul-sick. Or maybe the most surprising thing about it was that I was surprised. First, to find myself snarled in traffic on I-96 near Lansing, Michigan on April 30 with more than a few pick-up trucks flying the Confederate Flag. They were on their way to protest our Governor’s response to the pandemic. I could feel their hatred burning through my windshield. Second, about a week later, I discovered these words in a document that described my own home, the very home whose kitchen I was sitting in at that very moment:

That the Grantees, their heirs, executors and assigns shall not permit any portion of said premises to be occupied by any person not of the Caucasian Race.

For as much as I had read about the topic, even immersed myself in it, talked about it in classes, I wasn’t prepared for seeing this, typed on parchment paper, in my very own home.

The restrictive covenant appears in two documents. The first, the 1936 deed conveying the property to the Regents of the University of Michigan, who had taken it in foreclosure in 1931, likely as the result of the Great Depression, which impacted Michigan profoundly in large part because of the massive disruptions to the auto industry. The sentence makes a second appearance in 1951 when the University sold the lot to Robert Hicks and his wife.

Who was I, reading this sentence?

Who was this man I felt I’d suddenly become, sitting in a home whose value had been created, in part, through such openly hateful mechanisms? How far had I distanced myself from the hard facts as I knew them, facts about redlining, restrictive covenants and their related homeowners’ associations? When had I fossilized them, putting them on shelves in my mind safely labelled “history” and “the past”?

We had bought the house, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2019 but it was just now that I opened the swollen cardboard box the owners had left for us with the original architectural plans for the house, built in 1966, as well as a sheaf of yellowed legal-sized papers, bound together at the top with metal brads, entitled “Abstract of Title” provided by the Washtenaw Abstract Company. I had understood, indirectly and distantly, that such things as restrictive covenants existed throughout the United States in the early twentieth century and I was especially attuned to the practice of “redlining” maps by banks and lenders to mark off certain areas, usually African-American neighborhoods, to indicate risky areas to make loans, thereby locking out generations of families from the capital necessary to grow wealth.

There it is, a few tossed-off words buried in the paperwork, no more important looking than the sentence restricting unattached garages and commercial advertising signs.

There it is, right alongside the provision that a septic tank or sewer connection be mandatory.

There it is, important enough to be listed number one in the list of the six enumerated conditions and restrictions.

I understand those words should not have been shocking, even though the well-documented history of deep structural and economic racism in the United States is not something taught in most high school history or civics courses. My own education in the public schools of northwest Ohio in the 1970s and early 80s had touched briefly on Civil Rights in the United States, or had it? I remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr., but that was in English class in our study of Thoreau’s principles of passive resistance. As Nikita Stewart noted in The New York Times Magazine last year, “unlike math and reading, states are not required to meet academic content standards for teaching social studies and United States history. That means that there is no consensus on the curriculum around slavery, no uniform recommendation to explain an institution that was debated in the crafting of the Constitution and that has influenced nearly every aspect of American society since.” If slavery itself is elided in such patchwork ways, what of its more subtle, insidious legacies?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has dug deep and wide in his series of long, powerful essays in The Atlantic, collected in We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, published in 2018. I, along with so many others, had read — perhaps for the first time — the material history of highly structured, embedded racism in this country’s federal and local legal structure. In “The Case for Reparations” Coates writes directly about the mechanisms by which the federal government granted “loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant — a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites. Millions of dollars flowed from tax coffers into segregated white neighborhoods.”

I had understood this intellectually, as a concept, but failed to grasp its concrete force and reality. My wife and I had moved in and out of several older houses over the years and, if there were Abstract of Title documents among the mass of pages at closing that included prior restrictive covenant language I had never seen in them. In fact, my imagination was so limited that I assumed that restrictive covenants were akin to something like a gentleman’s agreement — assumed, but not formally written into legal documents. Whose fingers had typed the words any person not of the Caucasian race, I wondered? If I had worked at the Washtenaw Abstract Company on North 4th Avenue in 1951 in Ann Arbor in April 1951 would I have given a second thought as my fingers moved over the keys?

What strikes me now is this paradox: the sheer bold audacity of racist law right there in print in the middle of the twentieth century in the North while at the same time framed in a way that makes invisible the subject of this racism. Because nowhere in the documents is there language referring to any “race” other than Caucasian, so that those to whom such words are directed remain invisible. The document doesn’t even have the courage to say what it means, in the same way that the U.S. Constitution refers to slaves as “all other persons” in the Three-Fifths Compromise language in Article 1. The other cloak of invisibility is of a different, more subtle sort having to do with cultural memory, how we understand institutions whose reputations, today, belie their historical participation in structures of oppression. Although the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor in general are known as liberal, progressive bastions (“the Berkeleys of the East”) with rich legacies of protest against racial injustice, the Vietnam War, as well as the place where Students for a Democratic Society was founded. A document that includes the phrase not of the Caucasian Race, signed by the Regents of the University of Michigan and the University’s President from 1929-1951, Alexander G. Ruthven.

And yet, and yet. Again, why should I have been surprised that Ann Arbor, like Birmingham, racially policed its neighborhoods in ways so deeply embedded so as to remain, for whites who thought of the themselves as progressive folk, invisible? As a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy in northwest Detroit (the University of Detroit consolidated with Mercy College of Detroit in 1990) I had seen and learned about the most visible local markers of racial discrimination including the notorious 8-mile wall, the six-foot thick, six-foot high half-mile long wall built in 1941 at the behest of the Federal Housing administration to separate a whites-only neighborhood from African-American housing.

Eight Mile Wall in Detroit, 1941 (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

I had been to this to wall in person, now painted with bright murals that celebrate the opposite of hate and fear. And, as the University is located in a part of the city especially scarred by the 1967 riots I have seen, driving down Livernois Avenue to campus each week, the physical remnants of that hot July, the scars of the fires and destruction still clearly visible on certain buildings and in certain neighborhood blocks that have never been rebuilt. I had learned, soon after I was hired, that what I had called the Detroit riots were called something else in Detroit: the insurrection. And I learned what that difference means, the difference of naming. Riot: a violent public disturbance, a federal crime. Insurrection: an uprising against authority. One suggests chaos and wanton destruction. The other suggests speaking and acting truth to power.

The power of words functions not just to reflect reality but to shape it, to bring it into being. When I think about the language used in the title abstract I can see how its smooth, familiar, quasi-legalese obscures not only its present-tense injustices, but future ones, as well, ones that reached forward in time to implicate me. One of the oldest documents in the packet, dated September 24, 1869, reads:

It is my will that my wife Ellen McCormick remain on the homestead and have the use of the dwelling house, furniture, land and farming utensils from four to six years after my decease and whenever my executors shall elect to sell said homestead and they shall invest one-third of the proceeds at interest and pay the same over to my said wife during her natural life. It is my will that the rest and residue of my estate after the payment of debts and legacies, shall be divided equally among my children, and in the case of death to their issue.

I quote this at length not because it is shocking, but because it is not. This land, this property is a wealth generator, providing capital for generations of white families. George McCormick’s wife, his children, his grandchildren would all benefit from wealth severed off from an entire swathe of Americans based solely on their not Caucasian-ness. So how do I square where I am now in my life with how I got here? I cannot repair the past, but how do I intervene in the present? How do I square myself in front of what Coates calls “the fact of plunder”? How should my — our — reparations look? Maybe each house for sale should have a large sticker affixed to the front door, like a new car window sticker outlining the specs.

Have you performed a title search? Yes No
If you checked no, do the title search.
If you checked yes, did you find a restrictive covenant?
If you found one, do the following:
Read it aloud to your family
On social media postings about your new house, share the restrictive covenant language
At closing, write a check for twenty percent of your home’s assessed value to “Reparations Fund for 48105 Zip Code”

Last year, in revisiting his reparations essay, Coates said that “first you need the actual crime documented. You need the official imprimatur of the state: they say this actually happened. I just think that’s a crucial, crucial first step.” I remember in graduate school, in the English Department, how we were immersed in the thorny, eye-opening theories of Michel Foucault and others, the enduring, unresolved debates we had about the nature of ideology. Was ideology truly the invisible structuring of society or was it what Terry Eagleton describes as “the process whereby social life is converted into natural reality?” Ideology masks as inevitable, natural, and “just the way things are” the various political, economic, and cultural networks that give shape to how we live our lives and find meaning. But how self-aware, purposeful, and intentional are these networks?

My home’s title history and so many others like it — the sheer, brute clarity of it — suggests that our communities were highly planned and administered in ways that have been all too easy to ignore, folded away in obscure, arcane documents. The result of these words and the force of law that backed them are neighborhoods that are all white, as if it’s just a matter of choice, an exercise of free will and hard work that determined where some people live and where some people don’t live but of course that’s not true. The African-American family who may have wanted to live in the home where I now live would have had no choice at all in the matter. The choice was made for them in a document they likely would likely never see.

But the forces that shaped our neighborhood are not invisible and one small step towards reparation is to shine a light on the documents that made them wherever they are available. I don’t know, for me, what the next step is, but I do know that it is one that I must take.


Nicholas Rombes

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio) and the 33 1/3 book Ramones (Bloomsbury), as well as the director of the feature film The RemovalsHis work has appeared in The BelieverThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, at the corner of Six Mile and Livernois, in Detroit, Michigan.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 8th, 2020.