ANN ARBOR, MI — When an Ann Arbor neighborhood took steps to shed its 1947 whites-only policy in 2022, it was believed to be the first subdivision in Michigan to officially replace its racist covenants with new language banning discrimination.
Though the restrictions against Black residents and other people of color hadn’t been legal or enforceable for decades, residents in the Hannah subdivision said it was important to repeal them and affirm their neighborhood is welcoming and inclusive.
But there still may be about 10,000 homes across Washtenaw County that have racist covenants on file with their property records, according to a group called Justice InDeed and the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan, which is launching the next phase of a project to repeal them.
Mike Steinberg, a UM law professor and founder of Justice InDeed, is director of the initiative. He and his law students worked with the Hannah subdivision two years ago, effectively creating a template other neighborhoods can follow.
Racially restrictive covenants that contributed to segregation are still commonly found in property records across the country and are a reminder of widespread, systemic racism in America.
“It’s pretty shocking,” Steinberg said of some of the language in them that can come as a surprise to homebuyers.
Steinberg’s own neighborhood has since followed the Hannah subdivision’s lead, and his group is now also working with the West Willow subdivision in Ypsilanti Township to repeal racist covenants on file for roughly 200 homes there.
Aiming to expand the initiative countywide, Justice InDeed is inviting area residents to attend a meeting at the downtown Ann Arbor library from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, to learn how to join the movement. There also will be a meeting at the Ypsilanti District Library’s Whittaker Branch from 6-7:30 p.m. Feb. 21.
Justice InDeed now has all the digital deed records for properties in the county and, after running them through a search for key words, the group has identified about 10,000 homes that potentially have racist covenants, Steinberg said. The next step is to review each one to determine whether they actually have racist restrictions and transcribe them, he said.
Justice InDeed is calling on passionate community members to get involved and become transcribers to help expose the roots of systemic racism and envision a future where racism and oppression are actively addressed.
The group will be using a crowdsourcing program called Zooniverse and following a protocol developed by Mapping Prejudice in Minneapolis, Steinberg said, explaining the plan is to train residents how to participate using the program.
Their findings, which will be checked by multiple people, will be used to create an online map of the county allowing anyone to click and see which homes have racist covenants, see what they say and find out how to repeal them, Steinberg said.
“It’s very meaningful to work on this project to help build the map and help expose the fact that segregation just didn’t happen in Washtenaw County — it was imposed upon people of color and sometimes people of minority religions,” he said.
Justice InDeed has been giving presentations about the racially restrictive covenants in classes at local high schools, while researching examples in Washtenaw County from the 1920s to the 1950s where white homeowners successfully sued would-be Black neighbors to void a sales agreement where a Black family purchased a home in a neighborhood covered by a racially restrictive covenant, Steinberg said.
Ann Arbor’s history of racial segregation also is at the center of a new documentary about the old Jones School that once anchored a historically Black neighborhood that since has been gentrified, displacing Black residents. It’s now available to watch on the Ann Arbor District Library website.
City Council Member Cynthia Harrison, D-1st Ward, talked about the film at council’s meeting Monday, Feb. 5. As a lifelong resident who went through the Ann Arbor public school system, Harrison, who is Black, said she was deeply moved by the film and it resonated with some of her own experiences.
“As we celebrate Black History Month, let’s acknowledge the legacy of educational desegregation efforts here in the city of Ann Arbor,” she said. “Desegregation’s impact was complex. While it challenged racial segregation, the closure of Jones School scattered students, busing them to distant segregated neighborhoods.”
That had lasting consequences, contributing to the isolation and weathering experienced by many Black students, Harrison said.
“Imagine being the only or one of a few Black students in a predominantly white school facing implicit biases and micro aggressions daily,” she said. “That constant stress takes a toll.”
Harrison and Chris Watson, D-2nd Ward, became Ann Arbor’s first Black council members in 15 years when they were elected in 2022. They stand on the shoulders of giants like the Congress for Racial Equality, the NAACP and the late Ann Arbor civil rights leader Emma Wheeler, Harrison said.
“Their unwavering fight for desegregated schools mirrored the national civil rights movement,” she said.
Harrison cited city milestones she said signify progress, including the 2021 hiring of Milton Dohoney, Ann Arbor’s first Black city administrator since Sylvester Murray, one of Dohoney’s mentors, held the position from 1973 to 1979.
“Let us not forget the persistent need for diverse representation across all levels,” Harrison said, calling it crucial to support Black leaders who have navigated complex systems, overcome historical biases and faced unique challenges.
Harrison said she’s proud of the current council exemplifying that and supporting new laws and policies that move Ann Arbor forward, while city staff is laying the groundwork to make the community even more inclusive.
“But this isn’t just about celebrating milestones, it’s about building a future where equity thrives,” she said, calling for a commitment to amplify the voices of Black residents in city decision-making, invest in programs that empower Black leaders and create inclusive spaces where everyone feels welcome and valued.
“By acknowledging the past, supporting present leaders and working toward a more equitable future, we can honor the struggles of those who came before us and ensure that all residents of Ann Arbor can thrive,” Harrison said.