Mapping Racist Covenants: How a UArizona geographer's research informed a new Arizona law

two people pointing at a posted board with a map on it

Attendees at a community event for the launch of the Mapping Racist Covenants project look at a map of racist covenants in Tucson. The project, after launching last August, helped inform a new state law that allows homeowners to remove racist language from their property records.

Courtesy of Logan Havens

When Jason Jurjevich and his husband Charles Walker went to close on a house a mile from campus in fall 2021, they expected plenty of paperwork. 

But they were shocked to see the racist, antiquated documents they were required to sign before they could get the keys. 

The home's chain of title included covenants – agreements or terms written into housing deeds – that explicitly barred people who are Asian or Black from living in the subdivision, unless they were servants to white homeowners. Such covenants, reminders of American housing discrimination, are still found in property records across the country, though they have been unenforceable since 1948 and illegal since 1968.

Jason Jurjevich speaking at a podium in front of a projector screen

Jason Jurjevich, an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development and the Environment, was inspired to create the Mapping Racist Covenants project after finding a racist covenant in the deed to the house he and his partner bought in the fall of 2021.

Courtesy of Logan Havens

Jurjevich, an assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development and the Environment in the UArizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, learned of the covenants on his home when his realtor, a close friend, pointed them out as a courtesy. Despite the racist language, they would need to be signed to close the sale. Walker, who is the diversity and inclusion coordinator for the College of Applied Science and Technology, is Black.

With no other recourse, Jurjevich and Walker signed the documents. But by the next day, they were already thinking about solutions.

"It illuminated a set of questions for me as a researcher," Jurjevich said, adding that Walker then asked him what he could do as a geographer. "I said, 'I'm going to make a map.'"

Nearly three years after Jurjevich and Walker's experience buying their house, Mapping Racist Covenants, which launched last year, has become much more than an interactive map showing all racist covenants in Pima County. Visitors can also learn where the covenants have been removed, and they can view the deeds as they were recorded, some more than a century ago. 

The project also has been the focus of community forums on Tucson housing policy.

"We as a community members need to be part of a conversation that talks about the history of racist covenants as part of a larger legacy of housing discrimination that affects and denies opportunities for people of color and other marginalized communities," Jurjevich said. "One of our goals was to start that community conversation."

The project has had clear civic impact, too: In late March, Gov. Katie Hobbs signed Senate Bill 1432, which allows homeowners to remove unlawful restrictions, such as racist covenants, from their housing deeds and other property records. Jurjevich took inquiries from state legislative staffers during the bill's drafting process and shared his team's research data.

How racist covenants proliferated and endured

Racist covenants were once central to housing discrimination in the United States. 

A 1917 U.S. Supreme Court decision made it illegal for cities to create ordinances barring homeowners based on race. But neighborhood associations and other private owners, not bound by the same regulations, created the covenants as the next legal mechanism to keep neighborhoods segregated.

They proliferated across the U.S., including in Tucson. Jurjevich and his team found racist covenants in deeds for most of Tucson's housing subdivisions in the years after the 1917 Supreme Court decision.

The language in the covenants is explicit.

A collection of blocks in the Sam Hughes neighborhood, just east of campus, lists a 1925 covenant that once prevented the sale, rental or lease of homes "to any person of African or Asiatic descent, or to any person not of the White or Caucasian race." Housing deeds in one stretch of the Catalina Foothills still carry a 1930 covenant preventing sales, rentals and leases "to any person of Negro or Mongolian descent, or to any person not of the White or Caucasian race."

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a city's enforcement of the covenants was unlawful under the U.S. Constitution. In 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act made the covenants outright illegal.

Nearly 60 years later, 1 in 3 Tucsonans still live on a property with a deed that includes a racist covenant, according to the research by Jurjevich and his team.

Historically, many subdivisions could modify any covenant so long as 75% of their residents supported the change. But racist covenants were the exception – a perpetuity clause that came with most of them mandated that they remain as written forever.

The new state law makes it easier for homeowners, homeowners associations and other neighborhood groups to work around these perpetuity clauses and modify the deed language, Jurjevich said.

Building a 'community record'

Jurjevich led a team of two other faculty members and two students to build the Mapping Racist Covenants project: 

  • Arden Holloway, an undergraduate student studying urban and regional planning, collected and verified data on the covenants and helped organize community events around the project.
  • Christine Kollen, librarian emerita in University Libraries who had years previously studied racist covenants, collected data about the covenants from county records. 
  • Yoga Korgaonkar, assistant professor of practice in the School of Geography, Development and the Environment, developed software to identify racist language in housing deeds.
  • Liz Wilshin, a graduate student studying geography, managed public records requests to the Pima County Recorder's Office and verified the records.

The team first needed a list of properties that had been developed in between 1912 and 1968, the years when racist covenants swept across American cities before being made illegal.

a screenshot of a map of Tucson with various shades of blue, pink and magenta overlaid on top of the city blocks

The project maps all covenants recorded on subdivisions in Pima County before 1968, when the Federal Fair Housing Act declared racist covenants illegal. Subdivisions whose deeds still include racist covenants in the county record are shown in dark magenta.

Courtesy of the Mapping Racist Covenants project

A grant from University Libraries' Digital Borderlands Project, which is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, funded the project.

All Pima County Recorder's Office records before 1982 are nondigitized, meaning researchers had to go to the recorder's office in person and review the records on microfiche. 

"This project would not have been as successful as it was without Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cázares-Kelly and her team being as committed, responsible and diligent as they were in helping us access the records," Jurjevich said. "And that is not, unfortunately, the story in other cities, where it is more difficult to do this work. We did not have that problem here."

The team identified 1,338 properties developed in their target date range. Once they had the list of subdivisions, the team used software to create a map of the subdivisions across the city. 

They then searched property records to see which subdivisions contained racist covenants. Team members also logged which marginalized groups were mentioned in a racist covenant, whether the covenants contained a perpetuity clause and whether the covenants have been amended or canceled.

The team then built a user-friendly website that allows users to click on any of the mapped subdivisions across Pima County to see whether a given subdivision has or used to have a racist covenant.

Visitors to the website can also download a PDF of the original record with the covenant's language, a feature that sets Mapping Racist Covenants apart from similar projects for other cities. The PDFs are stored on archives managed by University Libraries.

"This way, at the library, it's part of the community record," Jurjevich said. "We felt that making the records accessible was a really important part of the project."

The records have been downloaded more than 1,500 times since the project launched in the fall.

Contributions to something 'much bigger'

On a Friday last August, Jurjevich presented the project to an audience of community members at Tucson's Department of Housing and Community Development offices just west of downtown.

The hour-and-a-half-long event featured a presentation of the project website and remarks from city officials and leaders from local cultural organizations, some of whom now sit on the Mapping Racist Covenants community advisory board. During a panel discussion, attendees heard from Tucsonans whose lives had been affected by racist covenants.

They included Delano Price, who moved to Tucson from Gary, Indiana, in 1959 when he was 8 years old. Price, who is Black, lived in with his family at Lester Street and Third Avenue in Tucson's Sugar Hill Neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood just northwest of the university's main campus.

Delano Price sitting at a table and gesturing while speaking into a microphone

Delano Price, speaking here at the event last August, shared how racist covenants had shaped his upbringing in Tucson. Being involved in the project, he said, added valuable context to his lived experiences. "It's wonderful to know that we contributed to something that became much bigger," he said.

Courtesy of Logan Havens

Price's mother worked as a domestic in the Miramonte neighborhood in midtown, east of campus. It was always understood, he said, that his family could not live there. Price learned years later, as a college student, about covenants.

In Gary, "the lines of demarcation were drawn," Delano Price said. "As a young kid, I just thought that was the world."

Jacque Price, who is married to Delano, is a Tucson native who also lived in Sugar Hill as well as the Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood, another historically Black neighborhood. She recalls her mother, who had acquaintances who worked in local real estate, explaining racist covenants and other restrictions.

"That's how your mind was opened up to these restrictions," Jacque Price said. "There were all kinds of ways you found out."

The Prices became involved in the event to launch the project after Beverely Elliott, founder of the African American Museum of Southern Arizona on the UArizona campus, connected them to Jurjevich. Being involved in the project, Delano Price said, added valuable context to his and Jacque's lived experiences.

"Being a part of this committee allowed me to look in retrospect at our experience growing up here but also understand there's a reason why we lived in those areas," he said, adding that being involved in the project was "one of the highlights of my life."

"It's wonderful to know that we contributed to something that became much bigger," he said.

While he was long familiar with the covenants by the time the project began, he said, "the detail that this research project brought out – and just the sheer number of those covenants that existed – was mind-boggling."

Delano Price had a long career as an educator – including as a history teacher – in the Sunnyside and Tucson Unified school districts. He thinks of the value the project provides to students and the local and national historical record.

"All of us should be aware that these things did exist," he said. "I'm just over the top that we were involved in that."

The project's success, Jurjevich said, hinged on its connections to the wider Tucson community. In the future, he hopes he can incorporate oral histories into the project to help people see a broader picture of housing discrimination in Southern Arizona.

He also envisions seeing how the project can better capture how the covenants impacted other areas of life – "exploring the intersection between racist covenants and disparate home values, food injustice, air pollution, and a number of other structural issues," Jurjevich said.

"When we start to connect housing inequality with discrimination and broad denial of opportunity, the links to present-day injustices become apparent," Jurjevich added. "That's something that I'll continue to explore."