UW News

February 6, 2023

UW project has uncovered thousands of racially discriminatory housing covenants in Washington state – and it’s not done yet

Artwork featuring newspaper articles about racial covenants in the background and a white family in the foreground. Family is walking by a sign that reads "Welcome: A restricted residential community."

In 2021, the Washington State Legislature authorized the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project to find and map neighborhoods where property deeds contained racial covenants.UW College of Arts & Sciences/Marissa Rowell

More than 40,000 property deeds containing racially discriminatory language have been uncovered in Western Washington by the Racial Restrictive Covenants Project, and director James Gregory and his team aren’t finished yet.

In 2021, the Washington State Legislature authorized the project to find and map neighborhoods where property deeds contained racial covenants. No longer legally enforced, racial covenants prevented certain groups of people, usually Black people, from buying or occupying property. This created segregated cities that reserved desirable areas for white people.

A group of college students on computers.

More than 40,000 property deeds containing racially discriminatory language have been uncovered in Western Washington.University of Washington

Gregory, professor of history at the University of Washington, oversees a research team at the UW that handles counties in Western Washington. Larry Cebula, professor of history at Eastern Washington University, leads a group that researches the eastern side of the state.

Mostly due to the work of students and nearly 800 volunteers, Gregory’s team has so far identified documents in several counties, including King, Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom and Thurston. Maps of the five counties are available on the project’s website. Some counties aren’t finished; others haven’t been started.

“This has become such a community venture,” Gregory said. “It goes to show how the University of Washington serves the broader community. So much of what we are thought of doing is just academic work that’s really abstract. This is a service project basically for the people of Washington state.”

On-site volunteers are increasingly necessary for the project because several counties, including King, don’t have the digital records that allow for a quick search of relevant terms. Examining physical books or microfilm is a more time-consuming process. For months, the project team has been removing batches of reels from the King County archives and reading them in the Suzzallo Library on the UW’s Seattle campus.

The effort was authorized and funded in 2021 by the Washington State Legislature under HB 1335, which addresses the presence of the covenants and gives property owners and residents options for legally removing the language from their deeds. Gregory plans to ask for renewed funding to continue the effort and purchase a high-speed scanner to digitize property records and speed up the rest of the work.

“We’re roughly halfway there,” Gregory said, “and I hope the legislature agrees that we should continue.”

Nicholas Boren, a UW junior who is majoring in informatics, develops and manages computer programs that use text recognition to automatically search for racial restrictions in those property records that have been digitized. Then Zooniverse, a citizen science web portal, allows volunteers to double-check documents flagged by Boren’s algorithm.

“People don’t think of software, artificial intelligence and machine learning as being used to help people,” Boren said. “But engineers should be thinking about the choices they make and how software can be actively used for good.”

Along with reviewing documents, the project also prioritizes community outreach. Students often present to community and church groups. Recently, students spoke with the Mercer Island City Council in a Zoom meeting that was attended by more than 300 residents. Several cities in King County had their diversity, equity and inclusion staff members complete training and volunteer with the project, Gregory said.

Recently, about 20 lawyers and staff from the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and real estate company Redfin volunteered at Suzzallo Library. After several students gave a presentation on the history of racial restrictions, the lawyers helped read King County deeds and identify restrictions.

Two female college students smiling at camera and standing next to people on computers.

Along with reviewing documents, the project also prioritizes community outreach.University of Washington

UW seniors Erin Miller, who is majoring in law, societies and justice with a minor in informatics, and Samantha Cutts, a history and international studies major, are both involved with research, data management and community outreach. They agreed the project has been an eye-opening experience

“It’s a learning process for me, as much as it is for the people I’m teaching,” said Miller, who got involved after writing a paper for one of Gregory’s classes on the dichotomy of her identity as a half-Black, mixed-race woman. “I’m being educated about things that have impacted my life, my ancestors and the way my family settled in Washington state.

“In our presentations, we talk about how we often assume that segregation and discrimination happened in the South and weren’t necessarily part of the Pacific Northwest. But they were. It’s happening in a lot of our backyards, and we don’t even know it. One of the most gratifying things is being able to educate people that these things exist.”

The documents uncovered by the project force people to face their history and reckon with systemic racism, Cutts said.

“As a Jewish individual, I know there is a long history of oppression of Jewish people,” Cutts said. “We’ve seen restrictions that specifically prevent Jewish people from living in certain areas. Through working on this project, I confronted my interactions with the history of ethnic and racial discrimination to see how direct it really was.”


For more information, contact Gregory at gregoryj@uw.edu and the project team at wacovenants@gmail.com.