CWU Archivists and students search Washington land deeds for racial covenants

Morgana Carroll, News Editor

The Ellensburg Archive Center holds over 26,000 cubic feet of documents in their storage, and a group of researchers has taken it upon themselves to sift through them with a goal in mind. 

Assistant history professor Dr. Josué Estrada and a group of students have joined an effort to dig through Washington archives to find land and property deeds to determine how many Washington properties still have active racial covenants. 

Estrada said these racial covenants are essentially wording in the deed of a property or home that states it cannot be sold to someone who isn’t caucasian or white. 

The search began when the University of Washington (UW) joined the Mapping American Social Movements Project. The program started in September 2022  by looking specifically at racial covenants in Seattle. According to Estrada, a researcher in Spokane started to look for racial covenants, but ran into an issue when they learned the covenants in Spokane were harder to remove because they were under the jurisdiction of the county and not the city. When the researcher brought the matter up to the state, the state asked if these issues were widespread. 

Estrada reported that the state was concerned to hear about this.

“The state came back and said, ‘are these widespread throughout Washington state?’ And folks started to say, ‘yes, I think they are widespread,’” Estrada said. 

Bipartisan legislation was passed to rewrite the language of these covenants and UW and Eastern Washington University (EWU) came together to partner to identify these racial covenants. According to Estrada, UW is responsible for the western half of the state and EWU is looking at the counties east of the Rocky Mountains. EWU asked CWU to join and look at the counties in eastern Washington, because the state archives are in Ellensburg. 

Estrada said it’s likely that a homeowner won’t even know about the racial covenants their home could have. 

“Today, if you look at some of these communities that had these racial restrictive covenants, their property values are extremely high, very, very high, and who got blocked out of those communities,” Estrada said. “It’s persons of color.”

On May 8, Gov. Inslee signed legislation that states if a family or descendants of a family were affected by a racial restrictive covenant, they’ll qualify for a downpayment assistance program that will help these families purchase a home today.

“The work that these students are doing is incredibly important. There could have been a home potentially in Benton County, where a family was not able to purchase a home … If those families demonstrate, [they] tried to purchase a home [and] were blocked, that family is going to potentially be able to access this down payment assistance program. To finally be able to purchase a home in the neighborhood that they desire and want.”