John West & Southall’s Meadow

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Over the last month I’ve been working with our tech team to set up the project’s crowd-sourced portion, so we can get everyone involved through Zooniverse. It’ll give us a way to easily log the covenants and other details into a database, which can then be joined with spatial data to come alive in our GIS map. And we’re nearing completion! We should have something to officially unveil pretty soon. All the while, I’ve been busy chipping away at the research for another aspect to our mapping project:

Black property ownership, Black wealth, and Black power.

It’s one thing to be able to look at the landscape from 1897-1968 and say, “Here are all the neighborhoods where white residents agreed to prohibit black residents from living.” But it’s an entirely different thing to tell that story and simultaneously detail the story of how Black residents succeeded and thrived on a large scale, in spite of white people using eminent domain to seize their land, in spite of them using racial covenants, in spite of them using urban renewal, in spite of them using the law in every way imaginable.

To that end, filmmaker Lorenzo Dickerson and I have begun digging through all of the property records of John West. Here was a black man born enslaved by a white professor at the University of Virginia, and 35 years after the Civil War ends, he owns half of Afton Mountain, 500-acres in Barboursville, multiple houses and store front along Main Street in Charlottesville, the building next to the Paramount Theater on Third Street NE, and more than 90 other properties spread throughout the city. He was one of the largest single property holders, black or white, in the area. And sure, the city named West Street after him, and Westhaven. But what else do we know about the man?

For starters, when did he buy his first property?

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Not too long ago, I got a text from the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s Curator of Education Elizabeth Klaczynski, saying that she’d been digging through records at the Albemarle County Courthouse and found what appeared to be John West’s first property purchase.

This deed made this the first day of November one thousand eight hundred and seventy, between Frederick M. Wills and Sally H. his wife of the first part and John West of the second part…that for and in consideration of the sum of One hundred dollars…the said Frederick M. Wills and Sally H. his wife, do grant unto the said John West…the following lot or parcel of land, lying and being in the County of Albemarle, and being a part of the tract of land known as ‘Southall’s Meadow.'”

Southall’s Meadow? It didn’t ring any bells. And normally that’s okay, because most deeds give reference within the deed to the prior deed or plat of land, which you can then track back to help answer the question: Where exactly was Southall’s Meadow?

But several lines lower down in the record, in the place where it should stipulate the prior deed and page numbers, there are two big BLANK spaces:

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“… in deed Book ____  page ____  in the Clerk’s Office of Albemarle County…”

So what do you do when you are totally clueless and it involves court records? You turn to Sam Towler of course. Sam’s probably forgotten more than we will ever know when it comes to all things historical in this region. And sure enough, Sam sent me a project he’s been working on in his free time that indexes all of the land surveys. And there, on July 9, 1859 for $3,500, was reference to the record of Valentine Wood Southall selling 12 acres known as “Southall’s Meadow” to Frederick M. Wills. In the deed, the boundaries of the property are given as follows:

North: Poor House Road

East: The road connecting Main St and Poor House Rd

South:  The road running to the University

West: The road connecting Poor House Rd and the road from Main St to the University.

This raised some flags for me, but I thought, “Nah, it couldn’t be.” So then I dug up the referenced survey from 1870 that Sam had found, which accounts for the first subdividing of the property.

And low and behold:

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Does that look familiar?

Yep, this is the initial subdividing of what would later become Vinegar Hill, the center of the Black economy for decades until the white City government bulldozed it in 1963, displacing hundreds of Black residents and shuttering more than two-dozen Black owned businesses.

And these records show that two of the very first properties ever sold after “Southall’s Meadow” was subdivided were to John West, a 20-year old Black man, who went on to become one of the wealthiest land-owning residents Charlottesville has ever seen. Amazing.

And here’s where the story gets oh-so-very Charlottesville. That guy Frederick M. Wills, the one who sold the property to John West? Well, he bought the 12-acre tract of land from Valentine W. Southall, a white man who served as Albemarle County’s delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates on-and-off from 1833-1846, where he was elected Speaker by his peers for two terms.

He was also a buddy of Thomas Jefferson’s; he was the first secretary for the Board of Visitors at UVA; and like Jefferson, he amassed his wealth and success by enslaving people.  [Weird fact: Southall’s great-grandmother was the sister of Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”).]

As a legislator, Southall initially opposed Virginia seceding from the Union and voted with the majority against Secession on April, 4, 1861. But three days after the Battle of Ft. Sumter ended on April 14th, he changed his vote. And shortly thereafter, Virginia became the 8th state to secede. Screen Shot 2019-03-22 at 10.57.46 PM.jpgSouthall died later that same year, leaving his property and the people he enslaved to his widow and children.

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His house, however, sat about a half-mile east of “Southall’s Meadow,” on present day Market Street.

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If you look closely, you can see the First Baptist Church on the right, situated at the corner of 2nd Street NE and East Jefferson Street, where the Queen Charlotte condos are today.

So where is this house today?

Paul Goodloe McIntire had it razed in 1917 to make way for the park and statue of Robert E. Lee that he commissioned and installed in 1924. But before that, Southall’s daughter ended up living there with her husband Charles Venable, for whom the city named one of our elementary schools. Venable, who enslaved people and came from a long-line of enslavers, taught mathematics at UVA, fought in the Civil War as Robert E. Lee’s aide-de-camp, and was an advocate and architect of the Lost Cause narrative, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.

So, at the same time that Venable was living in Southall’s former house, working to construct this massively destructive Lost Cause propaganda campaign, the ramifications of which are still being felt today on that very same property — John West was acquiring  Southall’s other properties, a move that would eventually lead to the most thriving concentration of Black doctors and dentists, businessmen and women, hoteliers and restauranteurs, funerary directors and morticians, musicians and painters, carpenters and builders that Charlottesville ever saw.

Let’s tell those stories.

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Scanning, scanning, scanning

Picking up where I left off — with wanting this project to be as comprehensive as possible — after figuring out the “when,” that is, the set of years that we need to look at to get a truly thorough understanding of how prevalent racially restrictive covenants were in Charlottesville, we then needed to figure out the “how,” that is, how to find the clauses in each of these deeds.

In the scope of an entire deed, racial restrictions are contained in a tiny sentence.

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“No property in this subdivision shall be sold to any person not of the Caucasian race.”

And while the human eye enjoys a good old fashioned word-search puzzle, we increasingly are becoming aware of our ocular shortcomings. What’s even better than a manual search-and-find method is what’s called Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which allows users to look through entire documents for specific words using a search function. How much easier would it be to search batches of documents all at once for any mention of the word, “Caucasian,” for example?

So then the question became, how do we scan documents with OCR and — this part is key — on a small budget? (The best OCR technology tends to be pretty pricey.) After a long and novice exploration of scanning possibilities, we found the wonderful and free Adobe Scan, which runs every document it captures through OCR. This cuts down hugely on the number of steps it takes to get documents to a searchable stage — armed with nothing more than a smartphone, we can simply point, click, and upload batches of property records to the cloud. 

The catch, of course, is that there are tens of thousands of property records that we need to scan. So, it’s going to be a slog, but doable. And worth it.

Many of the property records we’re seeking are in the city courthouse. And that’s great, because the city has already digitized all of those records and made them individually available to the public. Currently I’m in talks with their digital security provider about getting them as several large batches, by year, which would be about 51 batches of documents in total, which we’ll then need to scan through OCR. But that’s a relatively light lift compared to the records that are at the County courthouse. The County? Ah yes, the County.

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If we’re trying to capture city properties as they exist today, which we are, then we had to address the fact that what we consider the City of Charlottesville today has not always been the City of Charlottesville. At various stages in our history — 1790, 1860, 1873, 1888, 1916, 1938, 1963, 1968, and 1988 — the City has annexed much of the surrounding Albemarle County.

And unfortunately, the County courthouse has not digitized its early 20th century records yet, so that means we have to scan them all by hand, one at a time.

Thankfully, I’ve had some tremendous help so far. I’ve had several Charlottesville High School and UVA students reach out and help me scan records for a day. My girlfriend, Nell Boeschenstein, also helped. What’s the saying? A couple that scans together, stays together.

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The Albemarle County property records room

But the largest amount of help on this front has come from Andrew Kahrl, an associate professor in UVA’s History Department and the director of undergraduate programs at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African studies.

Andrew taught a class last semester called “From Redlined to Subprime: Race and Real Estate in the U.S.” in which he had 77 students log 2 hours each at the County courthouse scanning and uploading records for this project. All in all, they scanned about 33 deed books, amounting to more than 16,500 pages of property records ranging from Aug. 12, 1909 to June 1, 1936 — nearly 27 years worth of records, all scanned, all run through OCR, and all ready to start searching for racially restrictive covenants. Amazing.

No doubt, we still have more to go, but this is a serious dent, and we’re well on our way to being able to flag every single racially restrictive covenant in the city. And then the fun part begins, because once everything’s scanned with OCR, not only can we map those deeds, but we can then start telling the story of how these covenants came to be, and why they were so widespread — the roles of the banks, the lawyers, and the development companies.

1897 – 1948: Charlottesville’s first racially restrictive covenants (UPDATED)

 

In thinking about sources and methods for this project, I came to the conclusion early on that we have to be comprehensive. We have to find every single racially restrictive covenant in the property records. But first, we needed to figure out the “when” — what is the period of time we should be looking at?

For years, people in the 20th century had been legally challenging racially restrictive covenants. But it wasn’t until May 3, 1948, that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Shelley v. Kraemer, which found that these covenants violated the Equal Protections Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment and were therefore unconstitutional and could not be enforced.

(For the next 20 years — until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was signed into law — it was illegal to enforce racially restrictive covenants, but white people found other ways to make sure black residents were not given the same access to neighborhoods. Rest assured, this project will explain how that period unfolded here in Charlottesville as well, and what mechanisms — realtors, banks, private sales — were used to discriminate against our black neighbors.)

But for the purposes of racially restrictive covenants, though many are still contained within property deeds to this very day, it’s safe to end our search in 1948 when they were effectively banned.

So when did they begin? It’s a question I’m still actively pursuing here, but I’ve narrowed it down considerably. Throughout the country, these covenants began to be found in property deeds and agreements as early as the late 1800’s.

In Charlottesville, for the last year that I’ve been researching these deeds, the earliest I had ever found was 1903 in a deed for 22 properties located in what is today the Martha Jefferson neighborhood.

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“It is also agreed that the land herein conveyed, is not at any time to be sold to, or owned by negroes.”

According to property records, in 1903 the Locust Grove Investment Company sold these 22 properties to George B. Marshall, who owned properties all over the area, for $5 cash and 39 shares of the Locust Grove Investment Company’s stock that Marshall transferred back to the company.

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Today, houses in the immediate neighborhood are commonly valued between $600,000 and $800,000, and some for as much as $1.2 million.

And that’s as far as I had gotten in the great search for the city’s original covenant. But today, all that changed as I was mapping this 1903 covenant….

 

On the left is the original 1903 plat. Pictured on the right is what that plat looks like when I georeferenced it. The red colored-in areas are the 22 properties that were part of that 1903 sale, which all contain racially restrictive covenants. As you can see, not all the properties referenced in the bill of sale are in fact pictured on the accompanying plat (see the grouping of red plots hanging off the left edge of the plat).

I knew those were the right properties, because the deed describes them in detail, but it raised the question: Is there a plat that precedes this 1903 one? Usually, if there is, it is referred to, so you can track it back. But there was nothing in this one, no mention of anything prior. So down the rabbit hole I went, spot checking properties in the general vicinity of those dangling ones. And sure enough, after a couple of searches, I found the following…

 

It’s a plat and a bill of sale for 140 properties in what was then called the Locust Grove addition, and it’s….from 1897.  So I then took a look at the language in the deed, which is written in heavy cursive, as was standard for that time…

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And sure enough, if you look about halfway down the page, you’ll see the following…

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“It is also agreed that this land is not at any time to be sold to or owned by negroes.”

Here is what it looks like when it has been georeferenced and overlayed with today’s parcels…

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All’s to say that, as of right now, we’re looking at every racially restrictive covenant in housing deeds between the time period of 1897-1948.

Next up: How do we make sure we capture every single covenant?

Geo- what? Geo-referencing!

One hundred years ago, Charlottesville was still very much a developing city. What was once farm land, was being bought and sold into smaller and smaller plots. And what we consider today to be well-established neighborhoods were just beginning to form, most often as subdivisions.

Take for instance, Park Plaza. The area is just two blocks north of Court Square. It’s bound by Wine Street to the north, 2nd Street NE to the west, Park Street to the east, and Hedge Street to the south. In the fall of 1927, according to property records, co-owners Emily H. Michie and John S. Graves joined forces to create a subdivision that they called Park Plaza.

db 58 pg 125-1There are 36 properties laid out in the Park Plaza plat.

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And so, what I’m doing is — having gotten a digital scan of that plat — I’m then georeferencing it in ArcGIS to its modern day location within the neighborhood.

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One interesting aspect to many of the subdivisions and plats created during this time is that, in the neighborhoods that were restricted to white families, not many of them have changed over the years. The property lines are largely the same as they were 90-some years ago when they were first drawn. Nevertheless, I want people to be able to see these original plats both in their original form and as they exist today. So here’s what the plat looks like with the modern day parcels highlighted over top of it.

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And here it is without the plat, just as the 36 individual parcels.

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For each of these properties, as they were sold off to private homebuyers, deeds were drawn up and signed. And within those deeds was all the information about the property and the transaction.

Take for instance, this property in Park Plaza. It’s described as Lot No. 3, in Block W on a plat of Park Plaza. And it sold for $2,000 — $500 of which was paid in cash. The dimensions of the property are outlined in the deed, the history of prior owners, and then towards the bottom a series of rules that the property owner, in purchasing the property, agrees to is detailed.

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  1. That for a period of twenty (20) years, said property shall be used exclusively for residential purposes.
  2. This lot shall not be sold to any person not of the Caucasian race. 
  3. No building costing less that five thousand dollars ($5,000), except the usual and necessary outbuildings used in connection with the residence, shall be erected on said property.
  4. All buildings, exclusive of the porches, erected on the property, shall not be less than twenty-three (23) feet from the front line of the property.

In future posts, I’ll delve into how this deed language — known as a covenant — was constructed, why, and to what end. But for now, I just want to lay out a bit of my process.

Next up: Scanning and digitizing property deeds with Optical Character Recognition…

Mapping inequities

In the summer of 2018, I received a grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation to fund a project for the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center (JSAAHC) that maps inequities in Charlottesville from past to present.

Ultimately, this project will live online, as an exhibition at the JSAAHC, and as part of a broader curriculum unit in area schools. It will have many different maps and layers for people to interact with, so that we can see how the patterns and decisions of the past impact our realities and outcomes today. Through maps, I’m hoping that we can begin to see the bigger, more complicated, structures and decisions that have gotten us to where we are today — so that we may better think about where we want to go tomorrow.

The project will undoubtedly span many years, evolving in ways both predicted and unforeseen, so this blog will chronicle that journey, noting its progress along the way as well as some of the more interesting discoveries and developments.

I’m using ArcGIS as our software, and Chris Gist and the team at UVA’s Digital Scholars Lab have graciously given me a thorough crash-course in how to geo-reference old property records.

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For our first map, I’m plotting every single deed in the city that contains a racist covenant within it. (There are thousands.) These covenants prohibit the sale of homes to African-Americans. See clause #2 in the above deed in the Park Plaza neighborhood in North Downtown.

“No property in this subdivision shall be sold to any person not of the Caucasian race.”

This deed is from 1928, and yet here we are, 90 years later, and the vast majority of residents in this neighborhood are still white. As we’ll show throughout the life of this project, this isn’t by accident or coincidence.

Next up: Our first mapped racially restrictive covenants….