Racially Restrictive Covenants

What is a Racially Restrictive Covenant?

A racially restrictive covenant was a clause included in property deeds or other land records that limited who could own or use the land based on race, ethnicity, or religion. While the first racially restrictive covenants appeared in the U.S. before the Civil War, the use of these covenants did not become commonplace in Northern Virginia (NoVa) until the early twentieth century. 

Like other property covenants, racially restrictive covenants usually “ran with the land,” meaning that once recorded in the public land records, these restrictions applied to all future purchasers or users of that property. A restriction only ended if required by law or court decision, by a recorded agreement of specified parties, or by expiration of the covenant’s term. In 1968, the U. S. Congress made racially restrictive covenants illegal with the Fair Housing Act. 1

Exclusionary Language: Language restricting who could purchase, rent, and/or use properties found in NoVa land records referenced a number of racial, ethnic, and religious groups, including: “Negroes,” “persons of African descent,” “Assyrians,” “Syrians,” “Persians,” “Jews,” “Hebrews,” “Semitic race,” “non-Caucasians,” “non-Gentiles,” and “Unnaturalized Foreigners.” The most common phrase used in the region to exclude land ownership or occupancy referred to “any person not of the Caucasian race.” In certain cases, the scope of exclusion extended to corporations owned by persons of a particular ethnic or racial category. 

In a small number of parcels, developers placed racial restrictions limiting occupation of the property to “members of the Colored Race.” The rationales for use of Black-only covenants will vary depending on the parties involved & corresponding circumstances. Until conclusive research is available, the reasons are open to speculation based on past practices.

Length of Restrictions. Covenant terms extended from a few years to 20 years or more. At the end of the initial term, some covenants ended without further effect. Others contained automatic renewal periods, typically of 10 years, unless modified or terminated by a majority of owners. In many cases, racially restrictive covenants were described in land deeds as perpetual and required no renewal process.

Restriction Exceptions: Exceptions permitted property owners to employ persons of an excluded racial, ethnic, and/or religious group to work in or around the home and even live there with a white homeowner or tenant. “Domestic servants” were the most prevalent exception found in NoVa. 

Enforcement: If a racially restrictive covenant was violated, then other homeowners in the subdivision could file actions in court to request its enforcement. In the event of a covenant violation, some deeds provided that the sale would be declared null and void. Then the title to the property would revert back to the sellers, their heirs, or assignees.


1 There is a sizable historiographical literature on housing segregation, including racially restrictive covenants, in the United States. For more information, see Resources

NoVa’s Unique Context for Racially Restrictive Covenants

A series of social and political catalysts prompted the use of racially restrictive covenants in NoVa at the turn of the twentieth century. The expansion of the federal civil service combined with new transportation technologies spurred the region’s suburbanization. After the Civil War, railroad lines, such as the Alexandria and Washington Railroad, were reestablished, enabling a small number of civil servants to build homes across the Potomac River and commute to work in the District. The 1890s brought streetcars to NoVa, which facilitated a construction boom throughout the region. The Arlington, Washington, and Falls Church Railway and the Washington, Arlington, and Mount Vernon Railway (later known as the Washington-Virginia Railway) served commuters through the early 1930s. 1

Unlike other major American cities, federal employment drove migration to the Washington metropolitan area. Both Black and white Americans took advantage of the federal government’s growing need for civil servants to address the pressing economic, social and political problems facing the country. African Americans began moving to the region from other parts of the South during the Civil War. For most African Americans, federal employment opportunities were limited to unskilled labor. 2 In the meantime, increasing numbers of white men and women from across the U.S. arrived in Washington, especially after passage of the Pendleton Act (1883), that created the first civil service employment system based upon merit rather than political favor. Unlike other metropolitan areas, few immigrants made the Washington metropolitan area their home during this period.

While unique in its proximity to the federal government, NoVa’s turn of the century suburbanization reflected a similar pattern of growth occurring outside of other major U.S. cities. Its rural landscape proved to be the perfect setting for planned development. Lots were relatively small with yard space that was more decorative than functional. Home structures were designed for single family use and increasingly included modern amenities such as indoor plumbing and electricity. Finally, asserting a desire to protect property values, developers, brokers, and individual homeowners inserted restrictive covenants into land deeds. While the first NoVa jurisdiction did not gain planning and zoning authority until 1923, private party use of restrictive covenants emerged as a popular means of imposing development controls on early subdivisions. 3 Initially few in number, covenants typically focused on mandating minimum building costs, building types, structural placement, and property usage. 

In NoVa, the appearance of racially restrictive covenants reflected national housing trends combined with local politics that were used to justify segregation. This type of covenant first appeared in bargain and sale deeds for individual parcels, with sellers who were often large landholders, developers, or builders. The earliest covenant found in NoVa was recorded in 1900 for a lot in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington County (then known as Alexandria County). 4 Developers of George Washington Park (1909) in Fairfax County and Rosemont (1909) in Arlington County also inserted racially restrictive covenants into individual deeds. Interestingly, the City of Alexandria promptly annexed these two subdivisions in hopes of expanding its housing stock that catered to white middle class families. 5 By the early 1920s, racially restrictive covenants appeared in land deeds in NoVa’s outer suburbs, starting with Langley Farms (1920) in Fairfax County and Woodland in Falls Church (1922). 6 

Newspaper advertisements during this time also reveal that racially restrictive covenants were heralded as a selling point for potential homebuyers. A 1921 advertisement for Ellison Heights in Falls Church noted that the subdivision was “Restricted to the Caucasian Race” as well as its proximity to the area’s “natural beauty,” several Christian churches, and “good public schools.” It also provided directions for white Washingtonians traveling either by streetcar or railway. 7


1 Nan Netherton, et al., Fairfax County, Virginia: A History (Fairfax, VA: Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, 1978), 460-541;  Cornelia B. Rose, Arlington County, Virginia: A History (Arlington, VA: Arlington Historical Society, 1976), 156-169, 175-193. 

Nancy L. Perry, L. Earle Reybold, and Nigel Waters, “‘Everybody Was Looking for a Good Government Job’: Occupational Choice during Segregation in Arlington, Virginia,” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 4 (June 2014): 719–41; Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 2013).

City Council Minutes, October 18, 1923 and November 2, 1923; Alexandria Archives and Records Center, Alexandria, Virginia. 

Deed Book 102-244 (1900), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia .

 5 Deed 119-490 (1909), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia; Deed 65-28 (1909), Fairfax County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia. See also C. B. Rose Jr., “Annexation of a Portion of Arlington County by the City of Alexandria in 1915,”  Arlington Historical Magazine 2, no. 2 (October 1964): 22-36.

 6 Deed S-8-477 (1920), Deed A-9-178 (1922), Fairfax County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia. 

 7 [Advertisement], Evening Star  (Washington, D.C.) August 6, 1921.

Corrigan v. Buckley: Covenants as Legal Private Agreements Upheld

In 1926, questions regarding the legality of racially restrictive covenants finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the case, Corrigan v. Buckley, a covenant enforcement dispute that arose in nearby Washington, D.C. In the Buckley case, the Court held that while the 14th Amendment barred discriminatory actions by the government, it did not bar such actions by private individuals. In confirming that parties could use and dispose of property under any terms they wished, the Court upheld the legality of racially restrictive covenants. 

Following the Court’s ruling, covenant usage in NoVA expanded beyond individual parcel sales to entire subdivisions. This practice incorporated the covenants into a deed of dedication, a legal instrument containing an approved plat and key terms for a planned subdivision development that developers were required to record. For example, three years after Buckley, Gunston Manor was approved and platted as one of the largest racially restricted subdivisions in NoVA. Located on Gunston Hall, founding father George Mason IV’s plantation in Fairfax County, this subdivision contained hundreds of lots to be marketed to white middle class families. Rather than including covenants in the deed for each lot, Gunston Manor’s developers streamlined the planning process by incorporating covenants in the dedication documents that governed every lot in the subdivision.


1 Deed N-10-501 (1928), Fairfax County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia. 

Federal Housing Initiatives Promote Covenants

Housing industry and federal government leaders promoted the value of racially restrictive covenants as well as the benefits of homeownership as they developed initiatives for suburban housing during the Great Depression. To bolster a devastated housing market, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal enacted major legislation in 1934 designed to enable many Americans to obtain long-term home mortgage loans for the first time. Through the newly established Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the federal government acted as a mortgage loan insurer for banks to stabilize the real estate and banking industries. By guaranteeing to reimburse a bank’s losses caused by a borrower’s default, the FHA increased the number of private lenders willing to provide long term financing to build and purchase homes. Additional federal initiatives soon followed, accelerating broad suburban development in NoVa.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA)

FHA policies promoted racially restrictive covenants as key tools for protecting home values and minimizing its mortgage insurance risk. The 1938  FHA Underwriting Manual articulated the loan approval criteria that was required to ensure the “. . . prevention of the infiltration of . . . inharmonious racial groups.” 1 To achieve such “harmony,” FHA expected clear evidence of racial homogeneity protections, including careful use of building setbacks, buffers, zoning provisions, and recordation of racially restrictive covenants. The homogeneity that FHA prioritized, however, favored white communities. 

Such racially exclusionary policies did not diminish FHA mortgage insurance program’s significance in stimulating the housing market throughout NoVA. FHA’s more affordable loan terms attracted an increasing number of civil servants eager to purchase a home in NoVA starting in the mid 1930s. To attract buyers, NoVa subdivision developers often highlighted both the restricted nature of their communities as well as the availability of FHA financing. 2

In addition to facilitating home purchases, FHA also insured construction financing for housing subdivisions and apartment complexes using similar racially exclusive policies. To provide maximum protections against asserted risks, FHA not only required subdivision-wide use of racially restrictive covenants but also published standardized covenant language for use. Developers of Alexandria’s Braddock Heights subdivision obtained an FHA-insured loan to finance part of their development in 1939. Prior to approving the loan, FHA sent developers racially restrictive covenant language to incorporate into their deed of dedication. The FHA covenant form barred any person other than “domestic servants” from using or occupying the residential property if they were not of the “race or nationality other than those for whom the premises” were intended. To ensure that FHA would support their project, the developers of Braddock Heights and other NoVa subdivisions inserted covenant clauses into subdivision dedication documents.

Although FHA had initially prioritized suburban homeownership, local developers soon lobbied FHA to insure financing for segregated apartment complexes to address NoVa’s population growth. Continuing its promotion of racially homogenous white communities, FHA approved Gustav Ring’s Arlington Village in Arlington County in 1939. 4 This apartment complex was one of the first of many to be constructed nationwide on land subject to racially restrictive covenants. Similar restricted communities included Arlington County’s Buckingham, Westover Apartments , and Fillmore Gardens. 5

Defense Worker and Veteran Housing

Growing numbers of newly constructed suburban communities dedicated to housing defense workers and veterans during and after the war were also segregated either by explicit or tacit government approval of racially restrictive covenant use. FHA, the Veterans Administration (VA), and the Defense Homes Corporation were among the federal agencies that approved financing for wartime and veteran housing developments in NoVa.

FHA approved restricted subdivisions such as Flower Gardens, located near the Pentagon, for white defense workers. The title company advised builder Carlos Flowers to send an advance set of the restrictive covenants to FHA to ensure their support of his development. Flowers subsequently inserted covenants, including a restriction on persons not of “the Caucasian Race,” in the subdivision’s deed of dedication. 6

Similarly, the federally-authorized Defense Homes Corporation constructed a restricted 3,439 unit complex known as Fairlington in 1942. Located on the Fairfax County-Arlington County line, Fairlington was the largest defense worker housing project in the country. To acquire the project’s 300+ acres of land, Defense Homes Corporation accepted multiple deeds containing racially restrictive covenants that limited Fairlington’s occupancy to “persons of the Caucasian Race.” 7

As World War II ended, both the VA and FHA received authorization to prioritize housing for returning veterans, and did so by continuing to use policies that required racially restrictive covenants. Under President Roosevelt’s GI Bill, the VA guaranteed home loans made to veterans seeking to purchase a home, but prioritized loans for white veterans. Headlines from Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper called out the refusal of FHA approved subdivisions, such as Paisley Forest, to admit Black veterans. In 1942, FHA had approved the development of Paisley Forest. 8 

Throughout NoVa, the use of federal policies promoting white American access to home mortgage loans by prescribing or permitting subdivisions to exclude Black Americans was extensive. By 1950, FHA and VA were involved in backing nearly half of the nation’s single family home mortgages and financing for almost 80% of apartment complexes, including some of the largest ones in NoVa. 9


1 Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure under Title II of the National Housing Act  (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938), 935.

2 [Advertisement], Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) October 21, 1939.

3Restrictive Covenants which Meets the Objectives as Set Forth on Page 8 of Circular #5,” Braddock Heights, Davis-Ruffner Title Company Papers , Alexandria City Archives and Records Center, Alexandria, VA.

4 Deed 454-14 (1939), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia.

5 Deed 417-193 (1937), Deed 450-34 (1938), Deed 525-142 (1940), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia.

6 Flower Gardens, Davis-Ruffner Title Company Papers,  Center for Local History, Arlington Public Library, Arlington, Virginia; [Advertisement], Washington Post May 11, 1942; Deed 569-520 (1942), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia. 

7 Deed 565-373 (1942), 565-377 (1942), 565-497 (1942), 565-498 (1942), 583-67 (1942), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia. 

8 Deed 559-464 (1942), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia; “FHA-Sponsored Project for Vets Bars Colored,  Afro-American (Baltimore, MD) June 30, 1945.

9 Future Role of FHA, A Report of the Office of Policy Development and Program Evaluation, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (Washington, D.C., January l8, 1977), 3.

Racially Restrictive Covenants Persist

After World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court revisited the constitutionality of racially restrictive covenants, beginning the slow and disjointed process of ending the practice. In Shelley v Kraemer (1948), federal justices questioned the court’s earlier ruling in Corrigan vs. Buckley (1926) and acknowledged for the first time that the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants by the courts violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The case involved the Shelleys, an African American family, who purchased a home in a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri that was subject to a racially restrictive covenant. Louis Kraemer, a white resident who lived several blocks away, sued the Shelleys to stop them from taking ownership of the home. 

The Missouri State Supreme Court sided with Kraemer, but the Shelleys and their lawyers decided to appeal the case to the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the unconstitutionality of court enforcement of racially restrictive covenants, stopping short, however, of holding the same for individual use of racially restrictive covenants. In his summation of the court’s opinion, Chief Justice Frederick M. Vinson argued that “[the 14th] Amendment erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful.” 1 Under Shelley, real estate developers and other property owners could still insert racially restrictive covenants into property deeds but they could no longer turn to the courts to adjudicate violations.

In NoVa and elsewhere in the United States, responses to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) were mixed. 2 For many, the court’s ruling undermined decades of housing policies that had allowed enforcement of racially restrictive covenants. While some real estate developers and individual homeowners relied on previously recorded covenants, others continued to insert racially restrictive covenants into land transactions. This practice was particularly common in Fairfax County where suburban development began later in contrast to Washington’s inner suburbs.

New subdivisions closer to the nation’s capital also continued to use racially restrictive covenants. Sections of Bellevue Forest, located in Arlington County, included racially restrictive covenants in their dedications until 1958. 3 One of the last Alexandria subdivisions was the exclusive neighborhood known as Malvern Hill. Developers inserted racially restrictive covenants as each section was platted from 1959 through 1962. 4 

In cases where properties with racially restrictive covenants appeared in court, judges ignored these covenants unless they were specifically part of the lawsuit. For example, when a judge placed a lien on the Columbia Pines subdivision in Fairfax County because developers had not paid their bills, there was no discussion of the development’s racially restrictive covenants. 5 In a foreclosure case involving Weyanoke, another development in Fairfax County, the judge again made no mention of the subdivision’s racially restrictive covenants, but one of the lawyers wrote a postscript in a letter, “[u]sual Restrictive covenants and easement to VPS [Virginia Public Service] apply.” Weyanoke had only one restrictive covenant:

It is expressly provided that the following conditions and restrictions shall constitute a part of this deed of dedication and be considered as conditions running with the title to said property or any part thereof, to-wit; That no lot in said sub-division, or any part thereof, shall ever be sold, rented, let or otherwise acquired, by any person of negro descent. 6

The same racially restrictive covenant appeared in Weyanoke’s 1963 title insurance policy after the lot was sold.

Unlike private individuals, federal agencies were bound by Shelley and could not promote the use of racially restrictive covenants. At the same time, agencies were reluctant to implement the Court’s ruling. The FHA took two years to update its policies to prohibit racial discrimination, providing several months of lead time so that developers could close deals with covenants before the effective date to end this discriminatory practice. Additionally, while they barred developers and property owners with federally-backed loans from inserting racially restrictive covenants, they did not require the removal of old ones. In 1958, when a white family purchased a home in Jefferson Park, a subdivision located in Alexandria, with an FHA-backed loan, the title insurance company included a non-discriminatory clause in its policy. It stated that “no such restriction is imposed subsequent to the date as of which this binder insures title, policy will insure that no restriction upon the sale or occupancy of the mortgaged property on the basis of race, color or creed, has been filed of record at any time subsequent to February 15, 1950 and prior to the recording of the mortgage.” However, the racially restrictive covenant first placed on the subdivision in 1926 remained on the books. 7


1 Shelly v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948).

2 Richard R. W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose, Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 168-186.

3 Deed 1027-491 (1951), 1129-226 (1953), 1151-458 (1954), 1143-122(1954), 1170-592 (1954), 1171-1 (1954), 1195-408 (1955), 1205-474 (1955), 1240-98 (1956), 1253-455 (1956), 1267-158 (1956), 1280-516 (1957), 1293-57 (1957), 1321-117 (1958), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia.

4 Deed 483-25 (1958), 491-351 (1959), 535-87 (1961), 542-258 (1961), 567-96 (1962), Land Deed Office, Alexandria City Courthouse, Alexandria, Virginia

5 Deed 548-344 (1947); Hylton and Pullen v. Columbia Pines, Inc. (1948), Case No. 3327, Circuit Court of Fairfax County; Fairfax County  Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia. 

6 Deed J-9-85 (1924); Walker-Phillips-Klynn (Southern Villa), Davis-Ruffner Title Company Papers; Fairfa x County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia.  

7 Deed 251-577 (1926), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia; Jefferson Park, Davis-Ruffner Title Company Papers, Archives and Records Center, Alexandria, Virginia.

Eliminating Use of Covenants

A small number of residents, both Black and white, began to advocate for the end of all forms of housing segregation after World War II. In NoVa, this latter group was a unique mixture of civil rights activists, religious leaders, and federal employees. A handful of developers and homeowners also dropped the use of racially restrictive covenants or decided to remove them from previously deeded properties. Citing Shelley v. Kraemer, one family requested that the racially restrictive covenant be removed from their property in Country Club Grove. Developers of the Belle Haven subdivision filed a deed of vacation to remove a racially restrictive covenant that they inserted in a deed just a few weeks earlier. This massive subdivision is located in Fairfax County between the City of Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. The updated deed noted that none of the lots in the section had been sold, and no homeowners would be affected. 2 Eleven households in the Moore-Hill Estates in Alexandria removed the subdivision’s racially restrictive covenants in 1954. One signatory on the Moore-Hill removal would become Alexandria’s mayor, Charles E. Beatley Jr., and his spouse, Marjorie Perry Beatley. 3 

Public criticisms of racially restrictive covenants also began to appear in regional newspapers. A year before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in
Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Edwin B. Henderson, an African American civil rights activist from Falls Church, wrote a letter to the editor applying ideas from Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma (1944) to the region’s housing situation. He noted that current local housing policies had forced African American families to migrate to Washington, D.C. However, housing in the District of Columbia was also segregated, and as a result most African Americans lived in overcrowded neighborhoods. Henderson argued that “[a]s soon as a desirable building area is located [in NoVa], covenants limiting homes to whites are imposed. Villages of colored citizens are disappearing as homesteaders. Whites have lived side by side with colored citizens in towns and cities all over the south, but this neighborliness is fading.” In the same article, Henderson noted that “there are thousands of white people in Virginia who recognize the dilemma we are in and are doing something about it.” These activists were part of church organizations and other groups who “realis[ed] that racial segregation is as dangerous to America as slavery.” 4

Lieutenant Colonel Marion I. Johnson, an Alexandria resident, spoke to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the region’s dire housing situation: 

Unless some consideration is given to the construction of new housing for Negroes… or unless the weight and prestige of the city government is placed on the side of open occupancy in the housing market, the Negro will be almost completely driven from the city. Only the public housing residents will remain to serve as a reservoir of domestic servants for the white community. 5 

Despite calls to action by civil rights leaders such as Johnson, local, state, and federal politicians continued to be slow to respond. Instead, NoVa residents attempted to change attitudes and practices themselves. 

Open Occupancy 

By the early 1960s, local debates about racially restrictive covenants and other types of housing segregation coalesced around the concept of “open occupancy,” a phrase used to describe policies that would end all forms of discrimination in home sales and rentals. Open occupancy was a precursor to federal legislation that would bar such discrimination and be known as the Fair Housing Act (1968). 6

In 1961, synagogues and churches in the Washington metropolitan area organized the Good Neighbor Campaign, asking residents to sign pledge cards welcoming “any person of good character, regardless of race, color, creed or national origin.” Bert Seidman, president of the Fairfax County Council on Human Relations, argued that “[s]uccess of this drive is important … in order that our Negro neighbors and members of other minority groups can be assured that they are welcome in our community, and that their desire for decent housing is supported by numerous people in our area.’” By April 1962, 1,131 NoVa residents had signed pledge cards, signaling their rejection of this exclusionary practice. 7 

African American property owners also took matters into their own hands. After the American Civil War, newly emancipated men and women bought and sold land with other African American families; however, the desire for more housing options after World War II spurred the establishment of the region’s first “open occupancy” subdivisions. The descendents of Anthony T. Jackson, a Black farmer who had migrated to NoVA from South Carolina, used their family’s land to develop the Jackson Hall subdivision in Fairfax County. Advertisements in the Washington Post noted that the developers believed in creating an “equal opportunity to build and live in houses that will help them [homeowners] build a favorable environment for their families.” 8

Before the Fair Housing Act, representatives from several federal agencies spoke at public debates held in NoVa in support of open occupancy legislation. A representative from the Defense Department explained that military families in the region relied on off-base housing, and the department had begun to sanction private property owners who denied African Americans housing, using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a justification. The lack of non-discriminatory housing policies also hurt federal efforts to recruit a diverse workforce. A representative from the U.S. Patent Office explained “that his agency employs 2,000 people and that they would like to live where they choose, regardless of race, creed, or color.” The Assistant Postmaster General stated that his 115 African American employees working in Arlington County “can sort mail here; they can deliver letters here; they can serve the people who live here—but too often they can’t live here.” Finally, the special assistant to the chair of the U.S. Civil Service Commission explained the federal government’s overall stance on housing discrimination and its impact on the civil service: “[w]e urge you to further evidence your concern by passing an effective open housing ordinance and promote justice for men and women in the federal government, in our fighting forces, and in all walks of life.” A growing number of federal agencies wanted to recruit a diverse workforce, but racially restrictive covenants and other discriminatory housing practices made it difficult for prospective civil servants to find a place to live near their work. 9 

In response to local debates, a grassroots organization known as the Council for Open Occupancy Legislation (COOL) drafted open occupancy legislation they hoped local jurisdictions would pass. As COOL’s chair, Allison W. Brown Jr., a civil rights activist and lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), spoke at public debates throughout the region. Brown recommended that each jurisdiction create a fair housing board that could investigate claims of discrimination with subpoena powers. COOL’s lobbying efforts influenced local policies throughout NoVa.

By the late 1960s, cities and counties in NoVa had passed open occupancy ordinances to address all forms of housing segregation, including racially restrictive covenants. Vienna (1966) and Alexandria (1967) were the first jurisdictions to pass such legislation but they lacked enforcement power provisions. For the time being, city leaders in both communities could request that property owners stop discriminating against African Americans and other marginalized communities but neither jurisdiction could require it. The Cities of Falls Church and Fairfax and Arlington and Fairfax Counties passed open occupancy ordinances after the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act (1968). Unlike earlier ones, these ordinances were more rigorous and included enforcement powers based on the new federal discrimination ban. In 1969, Alexandria amended its open occupancy ordinance to align with the Fair Housing Act (1968). It was the last jurisdiction in the region to do so. 11


1 Deed 1588-556 (1965), Land Records Division, Courts and Judicial Services, Arlington, Virginia.

2 Deed 935-388 (1951), Fairfax County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia. 

3 Deed 396-443 (1954), Land Deed Office, Alexandria City Courthouse, Alexandria, Virginia. 

4 Edwin B. Henderson, “Letters to the Editor,” Fairfax Standard  (Falls Church, VA), April 4, 1947.

5 “Testimony of Marion I. Johnson, Vice President, Alexandria Council on Human Relations,”  Hearings before the United States Commission on Civil Rights: Housing in Washington (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1962), 106. 

6 Robert C. Weaver, “Non-White Population Movements and Urban Ghettos,” The  Phylon Quarterly 20, no. 3 (3rd Qtr. 1959), 239-241.

7 “County Lacks Plan for Negro Population Boom, Report Says,”  Northern Virginia Sun April 12, 1962; “County HR Group Endorses Good Neighbor Campaign Which Judges Good Character of All Citizens,” Fairfax County Journal-Standard  February 9, 1961.

8 [Advertisement], Washington Post  February 25, 1963; Jackson Hall, Davis-Ruffner Title Company Papers; Fairfax County Historic Records Center, City of Fairfax, Virginia.  

9 “Open Occupancy Laws Gain Heavy Support from County Citizens,” Northern Virginia Sun  January 16, 1968; James Hildreth, “Open Housing Support is Reaffirmed during Second Public Hearing,” Northern Virginia Sum January 18, 1968.

10 “COOL Program to Aim for Law on Fair Housing,” Northern Virginia Sun  July 31, 1967; Paula Herbut, “Fairfax Board Oks Open Occupancy Law ‘In Principle’ on a Vote of 6-2,: Specific Wording to be Drafted,” Northern Virginia Sun September 5, 1968; Bart Barnes, “Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist Allison W. Brown Jr. Dies,”  Washington Post April 12, 1984.

11 “Vienna Council Endorses Open Housing Resolution,” Northern Virginia Sun  November 8, 1966; Maurine McLaughlin, “Alexandria Council Urges Voluntary Open Housing,” Washington Post October 26, 1967; “Housing Advisory Board is Appointed by Council,”  Northern Virginia Sun May 22, 1968; “Open Occupancy Law Board Passed Hovers under Legal Clouds,” Northern Virginia Sun  June 24, 1968; Richard Monk, Eileen Remington, “Court Test Seen,” Northern Virginia Sun September 19, 1968; “City Adopts Mild Open Housing Law,”  Northern Virginia Sun December 11, 1968; Maurine McLaughlin, “Open-Housing Law Adopted by Alexandria Council, 5 to 1,” Washington Post  February 26, 1969.

Fair Housing Act

To end the use of racially restrictive covenants and other exclusionary practices that had been permitted to continue in court decisions such as Shelley v. Kraemer , Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson enacted the Fair Housing Act of 1968. This landmark legislation was the first of its kind to address housing discrimination on the federal level. Specifically, the law prohibited “any person or other entity whose business includes engaging in residential real estate-related transactions to discriminate against any person in making available such a transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” 1 Racially restrictive covenants were no longer legal to use nor could existing covenants be enforced. 

Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act, African Americans and other marginalized communities still faced local resistance. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Sullivan vs. Little Hunting Park, Inc. (1969) provides an important example of racial discrimination in housing at the local level. The case involved Paul E. Sullivan, a white civil servant who rented a home in the Bucknell Manor subdivision in Fairfax County to another African American civil servant, Theodore R. Freeman, and his family. Developers had inserted racially restrictive covenants only into the deeds to Bucknell Manor’s earliest lots, but the subdivision had remained white-only through the 1960s. In addition to renting a house, Sullivan gave the Freemans a membership to Little Hunting Park, which came with all of the homes in the surrounding subdivisions. When the Freemans attempted to use the park, which had a pool, tennis courts, and other recreational amenities, they were told that it was a white-only private club and they could not use the facilities. Sullivan and Freeman sued Little Hunting Park, asking the courts to address the question of whether the park was private and therefore could discriminate against African Americans. Although their suit was denied in local and state courts, Sullivan and Freeman won in the U.S. Supreme Court. Federal justices unanimously sided with them on the grounds that the denial of access to the park, which functioned as a public entity because it catered to the surrounding neighborhoods, violated the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws. 2


1 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601-19.

2 Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc. 396 U.S. 229 (1969).

Racially Restrictive Covenants Today

Thousands of racially restrictive covenants remain on NoVa’s land records even though they are illegal and no longer in line with American property law. For most, these restrictions are buried in land records transferring the property from one owner to the next (known as the chain of title) and may require a complete title search to find them. Several states, including Virginia, have authorized a form that can be completed by property owners who wish to release known racially restrictive covenants from their land records. 

As interest grows among NoVa and other property owners nationwide regarding how to identify and release such covenants, the manner of release or removal (the terms are often used interchangeably) has become critical. Covenants played a historical role in the creation of suburban communities in NoVa and elsewhere. Because of the related impact upon those excluded, many historians, covenant researchers, and members of the public have supported a form of removal or release that includes basic historical information about the covenant rather than a method that completely purges covenant information from land records. As a result, the Virginia legislature adopted a form of release that requires basic information regarding the covenant that preserves continued access to this history. 

Emerging Research

The manner of covenant release is just one topic emerging from a body of research occurring nationwide that examines the distribution of racially restrictive covenants in cities such as Washington, D.C. ( Mapping Segregation), Minneapolis ( Mapping Prejudice), St. Louis ( Dividing the City), and Chicago ( Chicago Covenants). Washington State ( The Racial Restrictive Covenants Project) is currently doing a state-wide project.

The National Research Covenant Coalition documents the different forms of exclusion that were used to reinforce housing segregation, and the impact of racially restrictive covenants on communities today.