New study exposes racial restrictions in historical Fairfax property deeds

A map of racial covenants in land deeds around Northern Virginia (via Documenting Exclusion and Resilience)

New research shows that thousands of Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church deeds from the early-to-mid 20th century had language barring people of certain races, nationalities, or religions from buying property.

Researchers contend that these practices, known as restrictive covenants, play a major role in the segregation of neighborhoods throughout the county and across Northern Virginia, the effects of which are still evident today.

“The demographic makeup of our region is very different today in comparison to the period that we are analyzing, in part because of major inroads made by civil rights and immigration policies after World War II,” said Krystyn Moon, a University of Mary Washington historian and one of the lead researchers. “That being said, the residue of the practice of using racially restrictive covenants remains with us today, and inequities persist.”

Moon and researchers from Arlington’s Marymount University created a website with interactive maps to showcase properties with discriminatory deed language that referenced specific racial, ethnic and religious groups.

The website notes that the most commonly used exclusionary phrase was “any person not of the Caucasian race,” which applied to both residential and business properties.

Unlike redlining, a practice where banks and insurance companies systematically deny services to residents in certain areas based on their racial or ethnic composition, restrictive covenants are explicit legal agreements prohibiting the ownership, lease, or use of property based on race.

To help people visually trace the impact of these policies, the researchers used public land records from 1900 to 1968 to construct the maps. Areas shaded in orange mark locations where racial covenants have been confirmed, starkly illustrating the geographical extent of segregation.

The project’s goal, as stated on the website, is to highlight that segregated neighborhoods in Northern Virginia were not simply a result of individual choices but were predominantly influenced by systemic, racially discriminatory practices that restricted where African Americans and others could live.

Racial and other discriminatory covenants are no longer enforceable because of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But researchers say the language is still part of localities’ public land records, unbeknownst to many home and business owners.

“Quite a few homeowners have emailed us to share their experiences upon discovering racial covenants on their property,” said lead researcher Janine DeWitt, a sociology professor at Marymount University. “They are often surprised to learn how common these restrictive racial covenants were in our region.”

Although nearly all homes with restrictive covenants in Falls Church and Fairfax City have been identified, Moon told FFXnow her team is gathering additional data for Fairfax County, which they plan to upload to the site in the coming weeks.

“We’re working mostly chronologically,” she said. “We actually have 5,000 parcels that we’re going to hopefully drop in the next week onto the map for Fairfax County.”

Currently, the map displays parcels in Fairfax with restrictive covenants dating from 1920 to 1939. The upcoming updates will include data from 1940 to 1946, followed by parcels from 1946 into the 1950s.

After identifying all local land agreements with racial covenants, researchers plan to “shift their attention to creating maps that integrate the African American, or ‘non-Caucasian’ resident experience.”

Moon explained that African Americans made significant progress in securing land post-Civil War until the introduction of restrictive covenants in 1915. Using a combination of data and anecdotal evidence, she and her colleagues intend to highlight how they continued to persevere despite these setbacks.

“It’s a story that really needs to be told [but] hasn’t been told,” Moon said. “…We should have told this story eons ago.”