Q&A with Desmond Odugu
Their activities have ranged from low-tech visits to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, where cameras aren’t allowed, to the high-tech creation of a digital map that tracks racially restrictive housing covenants from 1923 to the present day. The work is supported by Odugu’s participation as a Chicago Fellow in 2016 and 2017 with the College’s Digital Chicago: Unearthing History and Culture grant sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.
SPECTRUM: What sparked your interest in housing discrimination?
ODUGU: A majority of Americans encounter schooling very differently depending on where they live. Some go to well-resourced schools, often high-achieving schools, while others go to poorly resourced, often failing, schools. I started asking why, and it struck me that the government and civil society played key roles in creating a wealth disparity that is at the heart of educational disparities today.
SPECTRUM: How did this lead to your research of racially restrictive housing covenants?
ODUGU: Any community that has high property values likely generates high tax revenues, and their schools get a lot more money than schools in areas with low property values. My original question was, “Why do we have communities with very different property values?” I am focusing on racially restrictive covenants—contractual language added to the deeds of homes that determines how properties can be used or disposed of. These racial restrictions state that these properties could not be sold to or inhabited by any minority, unless they were domestic servants. You are agreeing to this covenant when you sign the deed.
SPECTRUM: What has surprised you about your findings?
ODUGU: Certainly, how widespread racial restrictions were. I was originally thinking that there were only a few disparate cases happening underground, but it was widespread. So far, we have found 200 subdivisions that had racial restrictions in Cook County alone.
SPECTRUM: When were these covenants most prevalent?
ODUGU: The very first one we uncovered was from 1923 in Evanston. The practice continued until the first major legal win in 1948 with the landmark Shelley v. Kraemer United States Supreme Court case that said courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate. Interestingly, the court ruled that racial restriction by itself was not unconstitutional. But even after this practice was challenged in court, many properties continued to have racially restrictive covenants all the way into the 1980s and 1990s.
SPECTRUM: What is the benefit of digitally mapping the housing covenants?
ODUGU: I thought that if we put this research on a digital map, people could begin to connect the dots and better appreciate the historical evidence. There are pedagogical and social benefits to being able to look at the map and find some personal connection with the places. People always have a unique relationship to spaces. The map also includes a timeline that allows you to see when this practice started and grew in popularity and at what point it started falling out of favor. [Watch for the public launch of the website this fall.]
SPECTRUM: What will be the ultimate outcome of your project?
ODUGU: I’m planning to create units with lesson plans for high school and middle school teachers to teach history. I’m hoping that will be the ultimate and most lasting impact of the project, because that was the reason I got involved in the first place.
–By Sophie Mucciaccio ’18