Campaign seeks to amend antiquated, racially restrictive deeds in Ypsi Township neighborhood

Though the residents of Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood are predominantly people of color, an antiquated legal document technically bans anyone who isn't white from living in about 196 homes there.
Though the residents of Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood are predominantly people of color, an antiquated legal document is still on the books that bans anyone who isn't white from living in about 196 homes there.

In an effort to change that, the New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA) has partnered with the Justice InDeed project at the University of Michigan Law School's Civil Rights Litigation Initiative to repeal the racially restrictive covenant covering the plat of land where those homes are situated.

The first racially restrictive covenants appeared around 1912 and grew more popular in the 1920s, says Anna Silk, a law student who works with Justice InDeed. The covenant covering a plat referred to as "West Willow One" was created in 1946. By 1948, it was no longer enforceable, and the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 made these types of covenants illegal nationwide.
Justice InDeed member Anna Silk.
"This is more of a symbolic gesture," Silk says. 

So why bother to remove the racist covenants covering West Willow One and more than 100 neighborhoods across Washtenaw County? Justice InDeed student attorney Collin Christner says he and colleagues often talk about why it matters.

"It's like if somebody put a sign in front of a neighborhood saying 'Only White Christians Allowed Here.' It's not enforceable, but it would and should alarm anybody that sees it," Christner says.

Why it matters

NWWNA President JoAnn McCollum says that, before speaking to representatives from Justice InDeed, she knew that racially restrictive covenants existed in the past, but had no idea they were still on the books.

"I didn't understand why, as soon as they became illegal, they weren't thrown away," McCollum says. 

Much of the covenant language in other neighborhoods says that nobody except "a person of the Caucasian race" can own or occupy a property on the covered plat. The West Willow covenant language is even more specific than most.
NWWNA President JoAnn McCollum.
It says that no lot should ever be occupied by "...any person whose blood is not entirely that of the white or Caucasian race" and goes on to specify that no one with "Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Hindu, Filipine, Ethiopian, Indian, or Mongolian" ancestry may qualify as white. The only exception to the rule in the covenant regards live-in domestic servants. (See the full text here.)

Justice InDeed and NWWNA have been working in tandem to educate neighbors, particularly those living on the plat in question, which covers Desoto and Nash Avenues between Tyler Road and the I-94 service drive. A small group of association trustees met with representatives from Justice InDeed in late 2023 to discuss the issue and how to get the word out to residents. Now the two organizations are working to gather signatures from at least 51% of the property owners in West Willow One to approve the addition of new deed language that would render the covenant ineffective. Organizers wish to amend the deeds without removing the racially restrictive language so as not to erase or "whitewash" history.

"I'm doing it because I think it helps people feel more empowered that we've made some progress in society against segregation and racism," McCollum says. "And we need to do it to do something positive for the community."

"Only built for white folks"

Robert Harrision, a Ford Motor Co. retiree, lives on Desoto Avenue on the affected plat of land. He says he knew about the racist language covering his property when he bought it.

"I found out at the time I bought my house that they were only built for white folks," says Harrison, who is Black. "They weren't built for Black people."

The language didn't discourage him, though. The most important thing to him was to buy a house in a good neighborhood, and while housing discrimination was illegal by the mid-'70s, that doesn't mean it wasn't happening.

He'd already been turned away from buying a home in subdivision covered by a homeowners' association, he says, so he was just happy to be allowed to purchase his home in the West Willow One plat. He says he's observed "white flight" and changing demographics since he moved into the neighborhood in 1974.
Robert Harrison at his West Willow home.
Harrison says the racially restrictive covenant should have been removed 40 or 50 years ago. 

"But it's not going to help you to go backward," he says. "You have to go forward." 

Still, Harrison says he generally supports the effort to remove the covenant.

"Anybody should be able to buy wherever they want, if they can afford to and can take care of it, without anybody putting a roadblock up," he says. 
Robert Harrison at his West Willow home.
Mona Mclain also lives in West Willow One and serves on the NWWNA board. Mclain's parents bought the house for her in 1989 so she could be closer to her accounting job in Ann Arbor at that time. She says she's always liked the neighborhood.

"West Willow is a great place to live, and we have such a strong neighborhood association," she says, noting that it's more than three decades old and grew from a small neighborhood watch group.

Copies of racially restrictive covenants are often included in closing packets of paperwork for home sales. But Mclain, who is Black, wasn't aware of the one covering her parcel.

After Justice InDeed representatives asked her to sign their petition to eliminate the covenant, she says she was confused since the covenant is not indicated on her deed. She had to pull up county plat maps to prove to herself that she did, in fact, live in the affected area. 

Mclain says she supports the removal of the covenant "for historical purposes." She says it won't change anything in practical terms, but it's "something we should do."

What's in the future?

Justice InDeed and NWWNA are planning a postcard blitz to every homeowner or landlord in the affected area to let them know about the initiative. They also plan to host a series of meetings in February and March to spread the word about the project, answer questions, and gather signatures needed to repeal the covenant.

Further, Christner and Silk say they are working on a mapping tool that will make it easier for people to research racially restrictive covenants in their neighborhoods and start the process to remove them. 
Justice InDeed member Collin Christner.
"Basically, the goal is to map Washtenaw County so that, at the house level, someone can type in an address and know whether the house has a restrictive covenant on it," Christner says. "Our goal is for them to be able to go in and do it themselves, without us having to do it neighborhood by neighborhood."

He says that project is nearly done and will launch in conjunction with the Ann Arbor District Library in early February. Another program about the mapping project is also scheduled at the Whittaker Road branch of the Ypsilanti District Library from 6:00-7:30 p.m. Feb. 21. More information on the free library events is available here.

You can find more information about the New West Willow Neighborhood Association here and more about Justice InDeed here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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