Justice InDeed aims to raise awareness about racist history – and present – of Ann Arbor housing

A local collaborative project is raising awareness of the decades-old “racially restrictive covenants” that technically prohibit people of color from living in local neighborhoods.
How does a community address its own past, take responsibility for it, and begin to rectify it in pursuit of the goal of racial equity and justice? That's the complex question behind Justice InDeed, a local collaborative project that's raising awareness, and responding to, the reality that the deeds to thousands of Washtenaw County homes contain “racially restrictive covenants” prohibiting Black people, and other people of color, from living there. 

"For many people, we've always been a liberal place that was committed to racial equity, when in fact, it's quite the opposite," says Matthew Countryman, an associate professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, American Culture, and History Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, at the University of Michigan. "We didn't have 'redlining' practices, but racist covenants were a real form of housing discrimination here, and the impacts can be seen today."
U of M Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies, American Culture, and History Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies Matthew Countryman.
Countryman serves on Justice InDeed's advisory board and has lived in Ann Arbor for about 30 years. He's just one of a growing number of local researchers, students, residents, and community activists combining their efforts to educate people about the impact that these racially restrictive covenants (and other racist housing policies) have played in economic inequality across Washtenaw County. One of the project's main goals is to repeal the covenants, and encourage the adoption of policies that address the harms of systemic housing discrimination.

"A big misconception about our work is that we simply want to make white folks feel better about where they live," Countryman says. "But our point is really to inform local conversation, and local debate, about what our housing, educational, and economic policies should be in the county today, and in the future."

A history of racism in housing

To date, Justice InDeed has mapped over 120 neighborhoods with racially restrictive covenants in Washtenaw County. The first such covenants were written into deeds of county homes in 1912, operating by the process of a "handshake credit." Countryman describes that practice as an understanding that white homeowners, developers, and banks would roadblock certain types of people from moving into certain white neighborhoods. 

The racial covenants hold no legal teeth today, as Ann Arbor city council passed a fair housing ordinance to end these practices in 1964. However, Countryman says that with the controversy surrounding affordable housing (particularly in Ann Arbor), acknowledging the history of racism that created unfair housing markets – and contributed to massive gaps in generational wealth between Black people and others – is important. 

"Everybody's sense of what Ann Arbor is, and what it should be, is based on what it was when they arrived and fell in love with this city," he says. "But the city hasn't always been that way. People don't remember that before it was Kerrytown, it was called the North Side. And it was where most Black folks in Ann Arbor lived. And, before there was a Water Hill, that was not the Old West Side, just the West Side. And again, it was a neighborhood that was Black and middle-class." 
Ann Arbor African-American Downtown Festival Coordinator Teesha Montague.
A staunch supporter of Justice InDeed's mission is lifelong Ann Arbor resident Teesha Montague. Montague coordinates Ann Arbor's annual African-American Downtown Festival and serves on a community leadership committee group for the Catherine Street Project. Montague, who is Black, is firmly rooted in the city's Water Hill neighborhood. She speaks candidly about the systemic injustice and racism that resulted in Black families' homes being bought out for pennies on the dollar. 

"White people need to stop turning a blind eye to racism. Do they really know that we were already put at a disadvantage and were blocked out of opportunities historically?" she says. "People ended up segregated. There was a lack of resources, and a lack of community because they were displaced, and disproportionately placed, all around. That limited the opportunity and the progression of Black people."

As Justice InDeed uncovers more of the county's history and brings the past to light, it's her hope that the project will move residents to elect officials "who will shape a community where everyone can succeed, where everyone can afford to have a house in their hometown if they want to."

Know your history

Local realtor David Malcolm says that while racially restrictive covenants may no longer be enforced, Ann Arbor's housing market remains restrictive to people of color. In today's market, Malcolm says, "there is the plain fact of pricing people out and keeping people out – people who would normally be able to go into a city and buy a house, but they just can't because it's too unaffordable to live here."

Malcolm is Black and his family has lived in Water Hill for 100 years. He was once Montague's childhood babysitter and his mom was her preschool bus driver. He describes a past when the Black community thrived until white buyers took over.

"We had police officers, judges, teachers, [and] the first Black mayor of Ann Arbor, until a shift in the '90s where you saw people starting to buy homes and tearing them down and doing what they wanted," he says. "Slowly but surely, the African-American population started to disappear. Today the running joke is that instead of Water Hill, the neighborhood is Whiter Hill."

While a ready remedy is not in sight, he applauds Justice InDeed because the project will give people a way to learn about the history of their neighborhoods.

"Just the other week, I was on my street when a white woman who was walking her dog slowed down and gave me the most suspicious look anyone has ever given me in my life," he says. "I had to laugh, because I thought, 'I'm not the stranger here. You are.'"
Title Track Co-Executive Director Jenny Jones.
Knowing the history of Ann Arbor's neighborhoods can be an important tool for becoming a better neighbor, says Jenny Jones. Jones, who is Black, is the co-executive director of the nonprofit Title Track. She's also connected to Justice InDeed, gathering insight through conversations with affected residents around the cultural significance of putting affordable housing units in Ann Arbor's (historically Black) Kerrytown neighborhood. She believes that "there's a load of opportunity, not just to educate people about the value of home ownership, but also about the value of community."

"Real estate can totally appreciate depending upon where you're living, and it also holds a lot of memories as a gathering place for families," she says. "When you take that value away from people, or from whole groups of people, where is their gathering place? And how can they thrive?"

Jones has been reflecting on those questions herself more recently. 

"My aunt is about to lose my grandparents' home, because she is in assisted living. She can't afford to be in assisted living and keep the house," she says. "We've had the house in our family since the '60s. It's painful, but what can be done?"

There are many questions that Countryman says "can't be answered at the level of the individual homeowner or even individual neighborhoods." As the Justice InDeed initiative unfolds, he's hoping that more residents will reach out and become more engaged in an honest dialogue.

"It has to be county-wide and collective, or a city-wide collective process. That process starts with honesty about our history," he says. "Only then can we engage in a clear conversation about how to begin to implement policies that address the past."

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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