Webster Groves High School student works to remove racist housing deeds

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A high school sophomore is helping rid Webster Groves of the residual effects of decades-old racial segregation. 

Samantha Enlund presents her project on racially restrictive covenants at the Webster Groves Family BBQ Sept. 9 2023. Contributed by Samantha Enlund

Samantha Enlund is working with the city of Webster Groves to amend racially restrictive covenants in her community. Restrictive covenants prevented people from owning, leasing, or occupying a property based on race, color, religion or national origin. 

“It shows that Webster is trying to make a more inclusive, welcoming community that is open to people of all backgrounds,” Enlund said. “It shows that we don’t like the actions that were taken in our past and we want to move forward.” 

Sara Strasser has lived in Webster Groves since 2006. When she first heard of this issue, Strasser checked a map detailing which areas in Webster had restrictive covenants. She noticed her house was located in one of those areas. She contacted Enlund and confirmed her house had a restrictive covenant, and is in the process of amending it. 

“We’re trying to battle some of these racial tensions,” Strasser said.”I don’t like it, so if I can do something about it, I want to.” 

After Strasser amends her deed, she aims to share the process with people in her community and encourage them to do the same. 

Enlund attended a summer camp held by STL Changemakers in June of 2023. The camp aimed to educate and explore prevalent issues in today’s society and develop projects to help design a better future for the St. Louis area. 

Each participant was expected to have an “impact project” to work on. Enlund’s aunt, Jodie Allen, recommended the topic of racially restrictive covenants, an issue the mayor of Webster Groves, Laura Arnold, was also interested in tackling. 

“I talked to the mayor about it first. She double-checked emails that I was going to send out to community members, and we’ve had meetings and talked about ideas for what to work on next,” Enlund said. 

Racially restrictive covenants were a way to implement segregation into neighborhoods in the early to mid 1900s. The deeds of restrictive houses state that the owner cannot “sell, convey, lease, or rent to a negro or negroes,” or that “no lot in this subdivision shall be sold to members of the African race.”

Segregation in the housing market lasted until Shelley vs. Kraemer (1948). The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that state enforcement of these covenants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. 

Colin Gordon, professor at the University of Iowa with a doctorate degree in history, wrote a book titled “Mapping Decline,” which looks at the drivers of racial segregation and economic decline in St. Louis over time. 

“While the court ruled that the police couldn’t enforce covenants, it didn’t prevent other forms of discrete segregation. Realtors could continue to steer people to particular neighborhoods,” Gordon said. “There was nothing preventing realtors and banks from still respecting the boundaries of these restrictions, and not showing an African American house or a rental in a restrictive neighborhood.” 

It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that made discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex, in the terms of sale, rental and financing of housing illegal. 

Gordon believes that even after 1968, those forms of discrimination still exist. 

“The basic assumption that African American occupancy is a nuisance and destroys property values never goes away, and remains a pretty powerful force in housing markets, even today,” Gordon said. 

Changing legislation fixes problems on paper, but changing mindsets is another issue entirely. 

“There’s stories in the newspaper, a couple every year, of a middle class African American family that gets a dismal housing appraisal because of the color of their skin. We know this because if they take the pictures off the mantle and have another appraiser come in, the value is much higher,” Gordon said.

Enlund wants to do what she can to create change right here in her community. She understands that not everyone is willing to get their deeds changed, but hopes to get as many amended as possible.

The process by which a homeowner can change their deed is free and only involves a few steps. Residents must first acquire a Certificate of Release of Prohibited Covenants form from an area realtor and submit it to the Recorder of Deeds. From there, homeowners can add their name to the list on the city’s website of others who have amended their deeds.

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Gabrielle Lindemann
Staff Writer | + posts