Racial covenants

As the region celebrates Black History Month, many may not realize the impact that an obscure but disgraceful part of our history still has on our everyday lives.

Current racial demographics in several area towns may have been influenced by deed restrictions placed on properties as long ago as the 1920s — restrictions known as “racial covenants,” created on behalf of developers and private owners to keep their neighborhoods as white as possible.

Most of the restrictions stated that only whites could purchase or even live on a property, and that included huge sections of some towns. Some specifically banned groups such as African Americans, or occasionally, Italians and non-Protestants.

“Hereafter and forever,” reads one such deed from Somers Point in 1926, no building “shall at any time be occupied or permitted to be occupied by any person or persons other than those of the ‘Caucasian Race.’”

Such restrictions became unenforceable with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but by then, blacks had been kept out of large parts of suburbia for decades.

“Part of the reason why the covenants were put in place,” said Wendel A. White, professor of art at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, “is because people saw ... more and more African Americans come north just to work and get ahead. In the early 20th century, Atlantic City’s black population was the largest in southern New Jersey.”

Communities, he said, “might be responding out of fear. Atlantic City was a magnet for African Americans, and the population started to encroach upon what (residents) would consider to be enclaves of ethnic stability.”

According to the 2010 Census, many area towns that had such covenants, including Linwood, Somers Point, Margate and Longport, either have smaller black populations or lower rates of black homeownership than similar nearby towns.

In Linwood, for example, which had multiple developments restricted by covenants, the 2010 census listed 84 African Americans in a total population of 7,092, or just more than 1 percent. The number of blacks who live in owner-occupied homes stood at 38, or about 0.5 percent of the total population.

Neighboring Somers Point, which also had racially restricted development, has a larger black population, 1,346 in 2010 — but only 69 live in owner-occupied homes. That’s just 5 percent of African Americans and 0.6 percent overall, one of the lowest totals for a city of its size in Atlantic County.

However, other areas that used to be racially restricted now have large black populations, from Venice Park in Atlantic City — which banned “negroes” outright — to areas of Pleasantville such as “Tremont Terrace” at Park Avenue and New Road.

Both cities already had large black populations by 1930, as much as 17 percent in Pleasantville and whole neighborhoods of Atlantic City’s Northside. Covenants, then, may have had less of an impact in ultimately restricting movement within towns.

Nelson Johnson, author of “The North Side: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City,” said he believes that most blacks probably could not afford to move out of the city in the first place.

“They were 90 percent renters,” Johnson said. “Racial covenants may have made somebody feel good, but black people weren’t craving to get into Northfield or Absecon. Either they were working in the hotel industry or they wanted a decent piece of property (to farm), and you weren’t going to find that there.”

But historian James Loewen, author of “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” said the argument that African Americans simply couldn’t afford to move into certain towns — blaming the “whiteness” of certain suburbs on blacks’ lack of wealth — is the wrong way to look at it.

“I disagree with this idea,” he wrote in an email. “Even in the 1910s and ’20s, some African Americans could have afforded almost any suburb. Moreover, many suburbs were working-class or multi-class, and African Americans could certainly have afforded to live in them. ... Regarding farm property, ironically, in many suburbs African Americans did own little plots of land that they farmed, or anyway grew chickens and maybe a little corn. Then, as race relations worsened after 1900, suburb after suburb incorporated and pressured these early black residents out.”

In many cases, he said, the covenants actually served as “selling points” for the white community.

“The developer is not trying to warn African Americans, who are already few, but entice white buyers,” Loewen wrote.

One ad from Absecon in 1927 said it all: "Homes for Discriminating People."

The wall

In the 1920s, Linwood and many other area towns were experiencing a huge building boom, with its population doubling over a 10-year period.

According to Atlantic County records, some of those new developments included “Wood-Lynne Manor” along Shore Road — restricted to the “Caucasian Race” only; Crestlea Park, from Shore to New Road — Caucasians only; and a tract of land northeast of Vernon Avenue — limited to “respectable white persons.”

That meant that among deeds dating from 1926 alone, properties stretching from Shore Road to New Road and beyond contained racial restrictions — a proverbial wall across the city.

Many of the large-scale developments were slowed by the onset of the Depression, but the covenants remained on the land, including later provisions that the properties were “subject to existing restrictions.”

In 1930, there were just six black residents in Linwood among a population of 1,514. In 1940, there was one black resident; in 1950, three. This was while towns only slightly larger, such as Northfield and Absecon, often had more than 100 black residents.

Farther south, in Somers Point, the “Ocean City Harbors” development on Laurel Drive and Holly Hills Drive states as one of its restrictions that “no lot or any part thereof shall be sold to a person or persons other than those of the Causasian (sic) race.”

Somers Point, as it happened, had the lowest number of black residents of any city in the area. In 1930, four years after these particular deeds were written, the U.S. Census listed a total of one black resident. In 1940, there wasn’t a single African American living in the entire city.

The black population grew substantially from its starting point of just one in 1960, growing to 457 in 1990 and 1,346 in 2010 — but as mentioned, the vast majority live in the various apartment complexes across the city, not in owner-occupied homes.

Northfield and Absecon had larger black populations during that period, making up just more than 3 percent of the population in Absecon and almost 4 percent in Northfield, but new developments on the outskirts of town were limited to the “Caucasian Race” only, fulfilling a trend that saw restrictive language increase the farther a property is from black neighborhoods in Pleasantville and Atlantic City.

Northfield’s black population, for example, did not grow with the rest of the town in the years since new developments used racially restrictive language. By 2010, it had decreased to just about 3 percent.

The turn to redlining

For the past 25 years, whenever title agent Beverly Warner, of the Marmora section of Upper Township, came across a racial covenant, “I struck it off,” she said. “They’re unenforceable now, per the law.”

Even before the 1964 Civil Rights Act made them illegal nationwide, covenants across the country occasionally stopped being enforced for various reasons — sometimes through legal challenges, sometimes through pressure from the local black community.

White, however, said covenants have long since evolved into less-overt forms of prejudice, such as “redlining.”

‘“Oh, sorry, there’s nothing available,’” as White described what a banker or Realtor might say. “Or, ‘You couldn’t get financing.’ We know that it was a longtime, widespread practice. We also know that to some degree, every decade it became more subtle.”

Meanwhile, out in the actual places named on the property deeds, many do not even realize what once went on.

Joan Caffrey, who lives on Blenheim Avenue in Absecon, was surprised to hear that her entire neighborhood was once racially restricted. But after reflecting on what she knows of local history, she said she wasn’t too shocked.

“They had segregation even in Atlantic City — not in the written word, but just accepted,” she said — although she was optimistic about the future.

“People have matured,” she said. “Now, everybody’s the same.”

Contact Steven Lemongello:


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