The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants

This is the final post in my 10-part  special series that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities.  Today– racial covenants. You can find the rest of the series here

Another piece of the puzzle has fallen in place. Following a lead from an attorney who formerly specialized in property and land access issues at the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, I’ve been visiting register of deeds offices whenever I happen to be in one of the state’s coastal county seats.

New Hanover County Courthouse, Wilmington, N.C. Courtesy, NC Courts

New Hanover County Courthouse, Wilmington, N.C. Courtesy, NC Courts

As he had warned me, I found what are called “racial covenants” everywhere, including the Dare County Courthouse in Manteo, the Carteret County Courthouse in Beaufort, the Pender County Courthouse in Burgaw and the New Hanover County Courthouse in Wilmington.

I should have thought of racial covenants before now. Real estate developers and home sellers used them widely not only in the South, but also in much of the U.S. in the Jim Crow Era. Written into real estate deeds, they prohibited non-whites from ever buying or residing on a piece of land.

Prejudice and Property Values

From segregationists’ point of view, the genius of racial covenants was that they not only prohibited the current owners from selling their homes to people of color, but they also made it illegal for any future owner to sell, lease or rent to people of color.

Racial covenants were a central part of Jim Crow’s internal workings. They were only one of many ways that local statutes, state laws and unwritten customs kept blacks and whites geographically apart in those days, but they were an important one.

Wrightsville Beach today. Courtesy, WTVD

Wrightsville Beach today. Courtesy, WTVD

They were especially commonplace in new and planned developments during the post-World War Two building boom in the U.S.

In the thinking of the day, they “protected” white property values because—the general consensus and perhaps self-fulfilling prophecy was—white buyers would not pay as much for property that was in a racially integrated neighborhood.

During Jim Crow days, many of North Carolina’s towns and cities also had local ordinances that prohibited blacks and whites from living on the same streets, or in any manner adjacent to one another.

But racial covenants went even further. They helped to guarantee that new housing developments would only be available to whites and that white buyers could invest in a home with the full expectation that the neighborhood would always remain all white.

A Ruthless Logic

Sometimes not deemed necessary in older southern towns, where knowledge of Jim Crow and its inherent threat of violence were usually well understood on both sides of the color line, racial covenants may have been more commonplace in areas where new residents to the state were settling in large numbers, such North Carolina’s coastal beach developments.

Particularly after World War II, people began moving to the North Carolina coast from all over the U.S. The developers of beach communities never knew who might buy their cottages, where they came from, or what ideas about race they might hold.

The system had kind of a ruthless logic to it. Even if real estate developers supported civil rights legislation and racial integration, they might well accept the “necessity” of racial covenants so that they’d qualify for bank loans, get the best interest rates and gain the highest prices.

Coastal developments are hardly the state's only communities where racial covenants remain in many deeds. The presence of racial covenants in deeds in Myers Park, one of Charlotte's most affluent neighborhoods, raised a controversy as recently as 2010. Photo courtesy, WFAE-FM

Coastal developments are hardly the state’s only communities where racial covenants remain in many deeds. The presence of racial covenants in deeds in Myers Park, one of Charlotte’s most affluent neighborhoods, raised a controversy as recently as 2010. Photo courtesy, WFAE-FM

In my younger days, I had a real estate developer friend like that on the Outer Banks. As did so many other real estate developers, he put racial covenants into his developments’ deeds in the 1950s and ‘60s. To the end of his life, they were an enduring and troubling silent shame for him.

But it wasn’t just real estate developers that made this aspect of Jim Crow possible.

Bankers, property insurance agents, county tax offices, zoning commissions and real estate agents—all conspired or at the very least acquiesced in keeping blacks out of those coastal developments.

A New Kind of Sundown Town

I found racial covenants in deeds for many of the state’s largest and most popular beach developments dating from the 1920s to the 1960s. They ranged from the Outer Banks to Topsail Beach, Wrightsville Beach to Sunset Beach.

Some of those developments were so large that they were basically towns in their own right.

A bus segregation sign from North Carolina. The state's legislature was still passing new Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, including one that banned interracial swimming pools.

A bus segregation sign from North Carolina. The state’s legislature was still passing new Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, including one that banned interracial swimming pools.

In fact, some of those developments later incorporated as towns. In effect, they became a different kind of “sundown town:” all-white neighborhoods, all-white neighborhood associations (or town councils) and all-white beaches.

Unlike an earlier generation of “sundown towns,” what kept them all white wasn’t the threat of violence, but discriminatory laws, lending practices and regulatory policies.

There was, in effect, collusion among bankers, insurers, developers and real estate agents to keep coastal development in the hands of whites. And at the time, all—or at least the large majority—of these discriminatory practices were legal.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial covenants to be unconstitutional in 1948, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made them violations of federal law. Though ruled unconstitutional, they remain in many deeds and can be seen in county offices by anyone who cares to see them.

Segregated drinking fountain, Halifax County Courthouse, Halifax, N.C., 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Segregated drinking fountain, Halifax County Courthouse, Halifax, N.C., 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress

In a way they’re like the faint, painted-over outlines of “White” and “Colored” signs that, when I was young, I still saw occasionally by doors, restrooms and water fountains in the basements or old storage rooms of some of the South’s old movie theaters—relics of a Jim Crow Age that has passed.

And yet I sometimes wonder.  While racial covenants can’t be legally binding anymore, I still ask myself: to what extent has the spirit of them outlived their constitutionality?

Did our beach developments and waterfront resorts open up to African Americans and other people of color after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1948 and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? Did the historic districts in our coastal towns?

Or has the spirit of the racial covenants endured, if not in letter, than in our minds and in the merciless logic of the marketplace?

* * *


On that note, I am closing “The Color of Water” for now.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and I hope that maybe it’s helped you to see our coastal world in a new light.

I’m still exploring North Carolina’s coastal past and learning new things all the time, so if I find anything important on the history of Jim Crow and the state’s coastal waters, I’ll be sure to add to the series in the future.

I’m deeply grateful to all of you that shared documents, stories and other historical sources with me about this too-long-neglected part of our coastal past.

Sunset Beach. By Sarah McManus

Sunset Beach. By Sarah McManus

From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the following people: Stephanie Bell-Rose, Catherine Bishir, Amelia Dees-Killette, Jack Dudley, Jenny Edwards, Jean Frye, Regina Yvette Carter Garcia, Anthony James, Marvin T. Jones, Ernestine Keaton, David Killette, Ginger Littrell, Eddie McCoy, Lew Powell, Bunny Sanders, Crystal Sanders, Barbara Snowden, Odell Spain, Ben Speller, Beverly Tetterton, Tim Tyson, Michelle Underhill, Martha Waggoner and Joyce Williams.

To you all: thank you, thank you, thank you. I could not have figured any of this out without your help.

13 thoughts on “The Color of Water, part 10– Racial Covenants

  1. By the time I discovered this series, several parts had been released. I submitted my email address and have received six of the parts. Would like to know how I can retrieve the other 4 parts. Missing are parts 3, 4, 5, and 6

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Re: The Color of Water
    Hi David, my name is Carlos L. Hargraves and Henry Hargraves was my great uncle whom I remember quite well. My dad was Taswell H. Hargraves (named after his father) and he was uncle Henry’s oldest nephew and worked at the “Blue Duck” in his youth as a busboy, waiter and cashier when uncle Henry and my grandfather were galavanting about town. As you can image, stories of the beach, bar/dance hall and his barbershop as well as the era abound. Your articles helped me fill in some blanks and factors I missed. Incidentally it was my sister, Clara Hargraves who came upon your series and passed along the information to me. I have a number of anecdotes that may help you in better understanding what has become of the Hargraves family during and after uncle Henry’s death and the lost of the beach and other property in Elizabeth City, NC.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Carlos, thanks for writing– and please thank your sister Clara for me, too– if you’re up for it, I’d love to talk on the phone sometime about the Blue Duck and the beach– those anecdotes sound great– my email is— might be better to talk work out a phone appointment by email? If you drop me a line there, we can work out details– sound good? all my best, David


    • Hi Carlos– Thanks for writing! And please thank your sister for getting in touch again, too. I’d love to hear some of those anecdotes if you have time to talk sometime! Maybe I could call you sometime? It might be a few days– we’re dealing with the hurricane big-time here– but my email is If you drop me a note there, we can make plans! thanks again, and all my best, David


  3. Hey there David…
    I’m in Bloomington, Indiana right now supporting my lady friend whose sister has brain cancer and then traveling back to her lake house in Angola, Indiana before heading back to my house in Mahopac, NY towards the end of the month. I would love to trade notes with you and perhaps we can both fill in the blanks on Henry’s life and the history behind his accomplishments as a black business man in Jim Crow’s North Carolina. I don’t think that many minorities know about the history of North and South Carolina coast line which is being dramatically changed by hurricane Florence as I write this brief note to you. Stay safe and be well and let’s reach out to each at the end of the month.
    Carlos H


  4. Thank you for the great series. You are an amazing writer. As a Black woman, I see the mentality that has lived on in whites as well as other Blacks due to these covenants. I pray for an era where we are all seen as humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: A History of Racial Injustice | Ekklesia Church

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