Racist, unlawful restrictions remain in historic East Texas property deeds

Racist language found in old property deeds

TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Buried deep in the small print of property deeds across the country is a startling restriction meant to prevent black people from owning property.

The restrictions are illegal and unenforceable today, but the racist wording remains and can be found in documents for property in East Texas.

Jessica Richardson, of Tyler, said she was startled to discover the restriction in her property documents dating back to the 1950s.

“It really was not that long ago," Richardson said. "But it really casts a long shadow when you look at our neighborhoods in Tyler.”

Richardson said a neighbor who had recently purchased nearby property brought the racist language to her attention. A trip to her filing cabinet would reveal an alarming truth about the history of her property and neighborhood.

A restriction in property documents belonging to Jessica Richardson of Tyler.
A restriction in property documents belonging to Jessica Richardson of Tyler. (Source: Jessica Richardson/Facebook)

The restriction reads, "No lot shall be sold to or occupied by anyone of African blood or descent, provided, however, that this shall not prohibit the occupancy of any servant house by servants of African descent or blood. The above restrictions shall run with and be a part of the title to said subdivision. Witness my hand this 5th day of September A.D. 1959.”

A visit to the county clerk’s office shows similar language can be found in other property documents, unchanged for decades after a federal law banned the racial covenants.

“These are really common, they were in practice for a long time and that sort of made me think, 'wow we’ve really normalized something that should be really shocking to people," said Richardson.

When Richardson purchased the property in 2019, she said she didn’t even notice the restriction buried within hundreds of pages of paperwork.

“The person who put this in place in 1959 built the subdivision, and these restrictions apply to the entire subdivision that this property exists on," Richardson said.

As for a solution, a real estate attorney tells KLTV 7 that the remedy is complicated. The attorney said the documents are functionally a contract shared between Richardson and others who live in the development. He says while unsettling, restrictions based on race, religion, and sex are already stricken by federal law.

“This really is the community level that would need to change it," Richardson said. "It’s very expensive in Texas to change it personally.”

Options for those looking to strike language like this from their property documents include talking with your homeowner’s association. If you don’t have one, a real estate attorney can help.

“Do we strike it from the record and kind of sweep it under the table as if it never existed? Or do we leave it and modify the language to update that it’s unconstitutional," Richardson said.

Racial covenants first appeared in deeds back in the 1920s and were eventually banned by the federal government. And while the restrictions are illegal, it’s unlikely they will ever be removed completely, since they are a part of the official property record.

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