Mapping echoes of racial covenants on property deeds in Milwaukee
Anne Bonds and Derek Handley are working on a project, “Mapping Racism and Resistance in Milwaukee County,” which will produce a map for Milwaukee County that will show both the location of past engagements and stories of resistance to restrictive housing so people can easier see the effects of covenants today. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)
During half of the 20and century, black people in Milwaukee and other American cities were not legally allowed to live where they wanted. A list of institutional policies and processes were in place to separate black and white neighborhoods.
And one of the lesser-known means to that end was wedding rings. Covenants in the deed, covenants were terms of sale that stated that only members of the white race could buy, own, or live on that real estate.
Wedding rings were commonplace at the turn of the 20and century. And, although their use declined in the 1950s when they were no longer enforceable, restrictive covenants are relevant today. Understanding segregation today, where it happened in the past, and how people reacted are essential parts of the story that are often unknown.
In this episode of Curious Campus, researchers Anne Bonds, associate professor of geography at UWM, and Derek Handley, assistant professor of English, discuss their research project, “Mapping Racism and Resistance in Milwaukee County “. Here’s a bit of what you’ll hear in the full episode.
Tell us a bit more about alliances and how this project started.
Obligations: The alliances began to appear after a Supreme Court decision in 1917 invalidated what is called racial zoning – where a city would actually designate a certain area as the only area where the African American community could to live. And so covenants emerged as a mechanism to continue white control of where non-whites could live.
In 1928, about half of all homes owned by white Americans had race covenants attached to their deeds, including many suburban areas of Milwaukee – Wauwatosa, Shorewood, West Allis and Greenfield, to name a few. some.
Derek and I came up with the idea to produce a map for Milwaukee County that would depict both the location of past covenants and the stories of resistance to restrictive housing so people could more easily see the effects of covenants today. today.
The hope is that seeing them documented on a map can educate people and help facilitate public conversation about segregation.
What is the point of studying wedding rings today? They don’t exist anymore, right?
Obligations: Law. But what the alliances show is that segregation during the period 1910-1960 was not accidental. It was deliberately designed, and it was something that was not only legal, but required the support and participation of multiple types of institutions and agencies – from real estate agents and developers to banks.
This kind of institutionalized racism is invisible – many white people today don’t know it ever existed. So alliances help us understand how institutional racism works.
Handley: Segregation was not just in the South. That’s why Minneapolis and Milwaukee are consistently ranked among the five worst cities in America for black people.
And then there is this question of the transmission of intergenerational wealth. For the average American, owning a home is one of the primary ways to accumulate wealth or pass it on to the next generation.
Today, in Milwaukee, this inequality of access to property between whites and blacks is also among the largest in the country. Only 26% of blacks own their homes, compared to 72% of whites.
What are some of the stories you uncovered while working on “Mapping Racism”?
Obligations: The story has always been told that Milwaukee never had racial zoning. But what we discovered while going through the Milwaukee Board of Realtors albums is that, in fact, this board was proposing an effort in 1924 to designate an area they called a “black belt.” It would have been against the law. This sparked incredible protest and members of Black African Episcopal churches were organizing with the NAACP. Ultimately, the Board of Realtors backed down.
Handley: Specific community organizations formed in cities, not only to teach citizens how to organize, but also to teach them how to speak in public hearings or talk to landlords. This happened in Milwaukee, where the Walnut Avenue Improvement Committee organization formed to rehabilitate homes to combat blight.
We also saw the creation of the black-owned Columbia Savings and Loan in Milwaukee. Because of racism, black people couldn’t get a loan to buy a house. So black people created something for themselves. So, for me, it’s resistance!
Derek, tell us about your research on African-American rhetoric at protests.
Handley: The term “rhetoric” is often associated with speeches. But in this case, rhetoric refers to the arguments used to form the basis of community activism. Think of rhetoric as this broad umbrella: it can be the theory of argumentation. It may be a script that people used. It can be visuals.
My research focuses on the rhetorical strategies of civil rights and protests against segregation – the arguments that drove African-American resistance in the urban North. I’m currently finishing a book that examines urban renewal policies that came out in the 1950s, but played out differently in each of the three northern cities – Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and St. Paul. So, I examine the rhetorical strategies in response to demolition that occurred during the period of urban renewal and also in northern civil rights struggles over housing.