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New Report Exposes the Legacy of Racial Covenants in Rochester and Monroe County

August 4th, 2020
Confronting Racial Covenants - How they segregated Monroe County and what to do about them

Yale Law School, New Haven, CT – Racial segregation plagues communities across the United States, including those in Rochester, New York and in surrounding Monroe County. On July 29, 2020, Rochester’s City Roots Community Land Trust, in partnership with the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic, released a guide — Confronting Racial Covenants: How They Segregated Monroe County and What to Do About Them  for those looking to understand and address such segregation. 

Racial covenants are racist agreements in property deeds that gave white people the power to enlist their neighbors and government officials in barring Black and brown people and others, including Italian people, Polish people, and Jewish people, from living on a piece of land. These covenants were created and enforced well into the 20th century, building “Whites Only” neighborhoods in Rochester and its suburbs. 

Black Home-owner in Rochester's 19th ward, 1979.
Soon after moving to the 19th Ward in 1979, Otis Poindexter found racist slurs chalked on the walk up to his front door. Two years later, Poindexter awoke to his home covered in spray-painted slurs. As one fellow Black Rochesterian said, “Nobody writes ‘nigger’ on your house in the inner city.” Poindexter’s story shows how racial covenants have caused harm for generations by marking neighborhoods like the 19th Ward as “Whites Only” spaces. The painting of the same slur in 2020 on an apartment complex housing Black families in the majority-White suburb of Perinton reveals the durability of the racist mentality enabled by racial covenants. (PHOTO: Reed Hoffmann / Democrat & Chronicle)

“If you live in a home built in Monroe County before 1950, check the historical deeds linked to your property,” said Aaron Troncoso ’22, a member of the Clinic who worked on the guide. “You might be shocked at what you find.”

A map of neighborhoods in Rochester & Monroe County that once had racial covenants.
The map above shows subdivisions where at least one racial covenant has been found. In some instances, racial covenants cover every home in the subdivision. This map is the result of many hours of manual deed searches in the Monroe County Clerk’s office, yet it likely only represents a tiny fraction of the total neighborhoods that have racial covenants attached to their homes. As described further in this guide, funding for a covenant mapping project as part of an antiracist educational program would dramatically increase the community’s understanding of how it came to be segregated. Nevertheless, the knowledge contained in this map alone reveals that racial covenants are widespread in Monroe County.

Confronting Racial Covenants shows the ways private individuals and organizations, along with government officials, spread and profited from racial covenants.

Those who made and agreed to racial covenants include the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, ESL Federal Credit Union, the cofounder of Wegmans Food Markets, and leaders of the Monroe County Bar Association, Nixon Peabody LLP, the Rochester Home Builders’ Association, and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Ad for Kodak's Meadowbrook Community in Brighton NY.
In the 1920’s, Kodak looked to help its employees attain homeownership by constructing housing in Rochester’s suburbs. One of those developments was Meadowbrook, a neighborhood in Brighton. In making Meadowbrook for what it called “particular people,” Kodak put racial covenants on the houses it built and advertised those homes as having “desirable neighbors.” Kodak created what is now known as ESL Federal Credit Union to give financial assistance to its employees looking to purchase homes in neighborhoods like “Whites Only” Meadowbrook. In doing so, Kodak and ESL contributed to the racial wealth gap that continues to define Monroe County. (IMAGE: Democrat & Chronicle)

Kodak placed racial covenants on the neighborhoods it built for its employees. Newspapers including the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle advertised and promoted racial covenants, as did members of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors.

The Monroe County Clerk’s Office filed racial covenants without objection for decades. In acts of state-sponsored segregation, Monroe County, the Town of Gates, and other government institutions placed racial covenants on public land and property sold to builders, legally forcing neighborhoods to become “Whites Only.”

Grafton Johnson, Real Estate Developer in Rochester and Monroe County
Spreading racial covenants was a lucrative business. By simply writing a sentence into a property deed, developers could sell property at a premium to White buyers willing to pay extra for “protection” from non-White neighbors. Among these developers was Grafton Johnson, who was once called the “largest land operator in the history of suburban Rochester.” Johnson sold countless homes in Monroe County with racial covenants, using the wealth he amassed to finance luxuries like in-home zoos that housed bears and lions. When Johnson died a millionaire in 1934, the Rochester Real Estate Board drafted a “resolution of sympathy” in his honor. John- son’s story shows how racial covenants increased the economic power of White people by sapping the same power from non-White people.
Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester NY
Racial covenants were used by Monroe County’s most prominent residents, including the Wegman family. In 1924, a few years after co-founding what would become Wegmans Food Markets, Walter Wegman bought a home in Irondequoit from Grafton Johnson’s real estate company. As part of the purchase, Wegman and his wife Anna agreed to a restrictive covenant promising that their house “shall never be occupied by a colored person.” Anna agreed to an identical covenant when the couple bought neighboring property a decade later.

“What this guide shows is that Monroe County was intentionally segregated not only by its most prominent citizens and organizations, but by its elected officials,” said Clinic supervisor Conor Dwyer Reynolds ’17.

The guide also explains the lasting effects of the racial covenants on Monroe County. These covenants increased the acceptability of racist ideas, created patterns of segregation maintained today by exclusionary zoning laws, and expanded the racial wealth gap by channeling government mortgage aid to White people for over a generation, according to the Clinic.

Map of racial covenants and redlining in Rochester and Monroe County.
The links between racial covenants and federal government policy appear when the federal government’s redlining map of Monroe County, created in 1935, is placed over the sub- divisions where racial covenants are known to exist (noted in black on the map below). In many cases, these covenants predate the creation of the map, suggesting that federal surveyors likely used racial covenants to help grade neighborhoods for lending risk. Most redlined neighborhood had Black residents, and all but one neighborhood with Black residents was redlined. No racial covenants have been found in any redlined neighborhood. Today, residents in the Rochester neighborhoods that were redlined still disproportionately experience barriers to homeownership: there is significant overlap between these areas and census tracts with higher than average rates of home loan denial or extremely low numbers of loan applications.

While racial covenants were made illegal in the 1960s, they remain on government records kept open to public view in the Monroe County Clerk’s office, where they can shock, anger, and pain those who encounter them, the guide says. 

“Racial covenants and their legacy continue to impact our community,” said Kevin Beckford, a member of both the Pittsford Town Board and the Rochester Anti-Racism Action Coalition. “Exclusionary zoning laws create very real barriers to access.

The ‘Whites Only’ signs may have come down, but exclusionary zoning laws achieve the same end. As a society, if we ‘engineered in’ the segregation we live with today, we are morally obligated to ‘engineer our way out’ of this to create better equity for all. We must address these terrible stains — now.”

Penfield Zoning Map
Unlike racial covenants, exclusionary zoning laws don’t explicitly mention race. Yet zoning maps show clearly how those laws work to segregate Monroe County. In the all-white portions of this zoning map of Penfield, people can only build single-family homes with strict requirements that make those homes expensive and unable to be transformed into duplexes or other multifamily housing. Without special permission from town officials, affordable housing can only be built in a few spots in town. Even in those places, zoning rules require developers to pay expensive fees and engage in costly permitting processes that suppress efforts to build housing for Monroe County’s low- and moderate-income residents—residents who are disproportionately non-White.

Drawing on an analysis of anti-covenant policies across the country, Confronting Racial Covenants provides an anti-racist framework for action that can help make Monroe County a leader in addressing racial covenants. The guide, which has already helped the Monroe County Clerk’s office implement important anti-covenant measures, details further steps that can deal directly with covenants on government records open to public view. It also outlines specific actions individuals, organizations, and government bodies — especially those who used and benefited from racial covenants — can take to address those covenants’ lasting effects. These actions include fighting exclusionary zoning rules that maintain the lines of segregation drawn by racial covenants, supporting anti-racist educational programs that teach students about the history of local segregation, and funding grassroots organizations working for and led by Black and brown people such as City Roots, Free The People ROC, The Avenue BlackBox Theatre, Flower City Noire Collective, Rochester Black Pride, and 540WMain.

“It’s very difficult and painful to continuously digest the abhorrent, violent nature of systems interlocking to prevent the survival of Black people in this city,” said Stanley Martin, City Roots board member and organizer with Free The People ROC. “The institutions that historically shaped those people’s existence by preventing people of color from accessing housing – a human right – are alive and well today and still actively upholding white supremacist policies and structures that harm Black people.  Today, racial covenants impacting access to housing and upward mobility for Black and Brown people still exist but have taken on a different form.  Public officials, and wealthy, powerful institutions, have a legal, racist covenant with the police. In order for the legacy of these state-sanctioned racist policies to truly be dismantled, we must address our County’s covenant with the Rochester Police and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Departments. We must defund the police in order to prevent them from upholding the violent and segregationist legacy of these covenants, and reallocate funds to the communities targeted by white supremacy.”

Work on Confronting Racial Covenants was led by a team including Yale School of the Environment student Regina Harlig ’20; Yale Law School students Alex Miskho ’22 and Aaron Troncoso ’22; City Roots attorney Jim Pergolizzi; and Clinical Lecturer in Law Conor Dwyer Reynolds ’17. The guide builds on years of research conducted by City Roots board member and Rush-Henrietta Central School District teacher Shane Wiegand and his students.

Inquiries about Confronting Racial Covenants can be sent to Conor Dwyer Reynolds at [email protected].


Did your home originally come with a racial restrictive covenant? How have you and your family been impacted by the legacy of these or other examples of institutional racism in Monroe County? Leave a comment below.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 4th, 2020 at 9:00 am and is filed under Rochester History, Rochester News, Urban Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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