Home ownership was an American Dream. While it was attainable for whites, it was not for nonwhites in the first half of the twentieth century. Corrigan V. Buckley, a Supreme Court decision, made segregation in real estate legal. Many discriminatory practices were established through land developers who placed restrictive covenants clauses into deeds as the land was subdivided and sold.
The language varied. But its goal was to exclude. “Hebrews” meant Jews; “Ethiopians” meant African ancestry; “Malays” meant Filipinos; and “Asiatic” meant anyone from the Asian continent.” Real estate agents, even though they had a fiduciary responsibility, funneled their clients into segregated neighborhoods. Many real estate agents wanted to do the right thing. Yet, doing so could mean loss of their jobs, or a potential risk of violence to themselves or their families when they attempted to ‘block bust’ or diversify an all white neighborhood.
Congress enacted the National Housing Act of 1934. This law used federal money to back home mortgages. Federal agents, using segregation practices already in place at local levels, set about defining individuals access to credit by where they lived. Places that barred everyone but whites, received blue and green colors on these new federal maps. Those areas not deserving of reinvestment where given yellow or red designations.
Access to little or no credit for those living in theses “redlined” areas, opened up individuals to unscrumptious speculators. White homeowners could sell to speculators instead blacks outright. Shadier agents could split the profits with the speculator once they sold a house on contract for exorbitant prices. “Articles of Agreement for Warrant Deed” were what contract loans were legally called. They had all the requirements of home ownership, with the vulnerability of payment. If one payment was missed they could be evicted and lose out on all of their premium payments.
And all of this was perfectly legal.
Today, many homeowners have had to confront these racial practices from the past. Removing racial exclusion language from deeds is often difficult or impossible. Some state legislatures are passing laws to begin repairing the wrongs of the past.
Des Moines, Iowa
Sixty-two acres on the northwest side of Des Moines once housed speakers, singers, and entertainers during the early days of the Chautauqua circuit. Des Moines College, a Baptist organization, purchased the property in hopes of building a new university. Funding and building material became scarce during World War I. The idea of a new college was abandoned. The property was not.
Chautauqua Park developed into residential property by Des Moines University was auctioned off in 1923. Louisville Real Estate and Development Company of Louisville, Kentucky was in charge subdividing the property into 150 lots with serpentine drives, and seven acres set aside for a park. Various architects and developers built Tudor and Colonial revivals from 1923-1941. Peak construction occurred from 1925-1930 & 1938-1941. 1925-1930 29 homes 1931-1937 just a dozen dwellings; 1938-1941 51 homes were built. 26 more after 1942.
Des Moines University sale of the property in 1923 included this restrictive covenant, “This property is not to be sold or leased to any person of African descent. This however, does not prevent its occupancy as servants.” This restriction would be in place until a successful black engineer, Archie Alexander, challenged it in an Iowa court and won. Restrictive covenants were illegal in Iowa before the federal challenge two decades later.
All the action being reported in the newspapers propelled Catherine Switzer to write an editorial in 1944:
“We are strange people. We will dash clear across the world to fight for democracy and the underdog, while on our own shores, we, in part, lack that democracy.”Switzer, Catherine B. “Sooty Skirts.” Editorial. Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 January 1944, p. 20
- “1,200 Attend Auction at Chatauqua Park.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 18 July 1923, 14.
- “Absolute, Genuine Auction Sale.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 13 July 1923, 15.
- “Alexander Reports A Threat by Phone.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 22 January 1944, 7.
- “Auction!” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 July 1923, 10.
- “Chautauqua Park.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 09 July 1923, 19.
- “Chautauqua Park to be Sold by School” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 06 July 1923, 17.
- City Map of Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa: American Lithographing and Printing, Co., 1931. “Redline Map.” Redlining in Des Moines. 2020. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Ghetto, Public Policy, and the Jewish Exception.” The Atlantic. Online. 28 February 2013. Accessed: 01 January 2022.
- “Drop Action on House of Alexanders.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 20 December 1944, 9.
- “FDR and Housing Legislation.” FDR Libary. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
- “Home.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 January 1944, 1.
- “House Sale Challenged in Court Action.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 26 January 1944, 11.
- “House Sale Questioned by Group.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 17 January 1944, 1.
- Landis, Leo. “Archie Alexander Built Equality Across the Nation.” Iowa Life. Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 28 February 2021, 1E, E4.
- Lutz, Renda. “Ownership of Des Moines Home was in Dispute.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 16 February 2000, 9AT-SO.
- “National Housing Act (1934).” The Living New Deal. 18 November 2016. Accessed: 01 January 2022.
- Rothstein, Richard. The Color of the Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright, 2017.
- Satter, Beryl. Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009.
- Silva, Catherine. “Racial Restrictive Covenants History.” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project. 2020. Accessed: 01 January 2021.
- Spiegel, Robert H. “Price, Too, Is a Big Factor in Negro Housing Here.” Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1956, 13.
- Switzer, Catherine B. “Sooty Skirts.” Editorial. Des Moines Tribune. Des Moines, Iowa: 27 January 1944, 20.
- Thompson, Cheryl W., Cristina Kim, and Natalie Moore. “Racial Covenants, A Relic of the Past, Are Still on the Books Across the Country.” NPR. 17 November 2021. Accessed: 01 January 2022. Location:
- United States Department of Interior National Park Service. “Chautauqua Park Historic District.” January 1989. Accessed: 18 December 2016.