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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.
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.