Ypsi and Ann Arbor events to muster community assistance in identifying racially restrictive deeds

Racially restrictive covenants enacted in the first half of the 20th century banned non-white people from living in homes in Washtenaw County and beyond – and while they are unenforceable today, they remain in the deeds for many homes. Washtenaw County-based coalition Justice InDeed plans to host two events, both titled "Uncovering Hidden Stories of Washtenaw County," on Feb. 8 and 21 to educate the community about the issue and recruit volunteers to help with a county mapping project.

The Feb. 8 event will take place from 6:00-7:30 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. 5th Ave. in Ann Arbor, while the Feb. 21 program will take place from 6:00-7:30 p.m. at the Whittaker branch of the Ypsilanti District library, 5577 Whittaker Rd. in Ypsilanti Township. The events are free, but an RSVP is required. Food, beverages, and child care will be provided. 

Justice InDeed's mission is to expose racially restrictive covenants, educate about their role in segregation, and work toward systemic change. Community members are being called on to help record and map these covenants through an online tool called Zooniverse.

Justin Schell, director of creative spaces and learning technologies at the University of Michigan (U-M) Library, says the U-M Library has helped Justice InDeed's effort with electronic tools, including one Schell calls "the deed machine."

"It examines something like 650,000 documents and generates a list of results we think have covenants," Schell says. 

Ideally, though, humans are needed to find the covenants, and then review documents and transcribe them. Schell says the task isn't well suited to artificial intelligence because the covenants differ so wildly in format.

"The documents are all really different, and some are not printed well or have been photocopied a bunch of times, or they may have handwritten amendments," Schell says. 

Not only are humans better at the task, but engaging the community in the work is a way to build community and create partnerships as well, he says.

"It's a way to educate everyone about a part of the community's history that isn't well known by a lot of people," Schell says. "We want to make sure this part of our shared history doesn't get erased, because it's a huge factor in inequality and segregation today. This is an opportunity to repair some of the harm done." 

Registration for the Feb. 8 event is closed, but registration for the Ypsilanti event Feb. 21 is open through Feb. 19 here. You can also see a demo of the mapping project on the Zooniverse site (scroll down the page and click on "Washtenaw County, MI").

For more on Justice InDeed's work, click here for our feature on the organization's effort to eliminate racially restrictive covenants in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood.

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.
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