RECAP: “Dividing the City,” Friday Colloquium with University of Iowa Prof. Colin Gordon

Making a return visit to Columbia, after being one of the Kinder Forum’s first speakers back in Fall 2014, University of Iowa Professor Colin Gordon used his October 8 colloquium on the fourth floor of Jesse Hall to introduce the next phase of his research on the history of racial segregation in Greater St. Louis. A prequel, as he described it, to his previous St. Louis-based monographs, Mapping Decline and Citizen Brown, his new work goes as far back as 1893 to reveal how private, race-restrictive deed covenants mark something of an original sin in the narrative he’s unpacking.

In the early 20th century, he explained, private restrictions stood in lieu of zoning and building codes and covered everything from manufacture and design (e.g., materials), easements and public space (e.g., sewers, roads, or alleys), public safety (e.g., no burning coal), and nuisances (e.g., no pigs or chickens, no commercial use, no slaughterhouses, dairies, or salons). It was under “nuisance” that race restrictions were subsumed. In terms of articulation, they were often overt—“shall not sell, convey, lease, or allow to be occupied by Negroes”—but also at times expressed anxiety regarding what, exactly, a racial category was, excluding, for example, “anyone of African or Mongolian descent.” In terms of application, Prof. Gordon noted how the restrictions disproportionately spanned swaths of properties versus individual parcels. Most common were subdivision restrictions, widely and openly recognized in advertisements that never explicitly mentioned race but instead used a language of “highly restrictive” to signal race-related exclusion to prospective buyers. Almost as frequent were petition restrictions, uniform agreements that applied to entire neighborhoods which were typically concocted by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange, an association of white real estate agents, and packaged to neighborhood groups.

Though it dates back to the 1890s, the formal practice of residential race restriction was relatively limited in the first two decades of the 20th century: a few subdivisions in Southwest St. Louis, scattered individual properties, and a couple private streets. A confluence of factors changed this, though, starting in the early 1920s. By the time that an initially successful 1916 attempt to install a full-blown racial zoning ordinance in the city was struck down as unconstitutional, the Great Migration was underway, leading to the “professionalization” of restrictive standards in the real estate industry. The rise of white subdivisions in St. Louis County was, to be sure, one aftershock of this, but perhaps even more conspicuous was the huge jump in neighborhood-level race-restrictive covenants that began around 1925.* Specifically, concerted efforts were made to use petition agreements to hem in The Ville, St. Louis’ largest African American neighborhood, a strategy that continues to scar the city’s built landscape in the form of the Delmar Divide. As Prof. Gordon laid out, after white homeowners north of Delmar challenged race restrictions that prohibited them from selling to Black homeowners and leaving their neighborhoods, the Exchange’s strategy pivoted toward widening Delmar, making it a commercial zone, covering everything south of it with restrictions, and effectively establishing the street, one of St. Louis’ major thoroughfares, as a hard, racialized boundary.

The deed covenants at the heart of this scheme were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), but their effects live on in many other forms. For example, Prof. Gordon pointed out how we see a dramatic rise in Black homeownership in Northern St. Louis post-Shelley, though for a number of reasons, such as the residual impact of organized segregation on private home appraisals, this rise often came without the equity building associated with homeownership. This is true right along the Delmar Divide as well, where segregation has remained more or less untouched. Though the housing stock north and south of Delmar is nearly identical, median home value more than doubles on the white-majority southside of the Divide, and family income data shows similar disparity. The long shadow of pre-Shelley segregation is likewise evident in a collapse in school equality north and south of Delmar and in the toll it [segregation] has taken on the private economy, creating food and employment deserts throughout North St. Louis. We can, Prof. Gordon argued in closing, thus understand the present with far greater nuance, and far greater accuracy, by taking into account the systematic, patchwork apartheid that divided St. Louis for the first half of the 20th century and that we still live with in the 21st.

*A note to prospective historians reading this recap. The needle for projects of this nature is buried deep within the haystack. The county recorder logged deeds by hand, often in inscrutable cursive, making OCR scraping impossible. Apparently title companies of the era were as frustrated by the recordkeeping norms as historians today are, as they kept their own typed records of deeds, which is where Prof. Gordon found the bulk of his source material.