Environmental Protection Clinic Releases Report on Racial Covenants

Racial segregation plagues communities across the United States, including those in Rochester, New York and in surrounding Monroe County. On July 29, 2020, Rochester’s City Roots Community Land Trust, in partnership with the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic, released a guide — Confronting Racial Covenants: How They Segregated Monroe County and What to Do About Them — for those looking to understand and address such segregation.

Racial covenants are racist agreements in property deeds that gave white people the power to enlist their neighbors and government officials in barring Black and brown people and others, including Italian people, Polish people, and Jewish people, from living on a piece of land. These covenants were created and enforced well into the 20th century, building “Whites Only” neighborhoods in Rochester and its suburbs.

If you live in a home built in Monroe County before 1950, check the historical deeds linked to your property,” said Aaron Troncoso ’22, a member of the Clinic who worked on the guide. “You might be shocked at what you find.”

Confronting Racial Covenants shows the ways private individuals and organizations, along with government officials, spread and profited from racial covenants. Those who made and agreed to racial covenants include the Catholic Diocese of Rochester, ESL Federal Credit Union, the cofounder of Wegmans Food Markets, and leaders of the Monroe County Bar Association, Nixon Peabody LLP, the Rochester Home Builders’ Association, and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Kodak placed racial covenants on the neighborhoods it built for its employees. Newspapers including the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle advertised and promoted racial covenants, as did members of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors. The Monroe County Clerk’s Office filed racial covenants without objection for decades. In acts of state-sponsored segregation, Monroe County, the Town of Gates, and other government institutions placed racial covenants on public land and property sold to builders, legally forcing neighborhoods to become “Whites Only.”

“What this guide shows is that Monroe County was intentionally segregated not only by its most prominent citizens and organizations, but by its elected officials,” said Clinic supervisor Conor Dwyer Reynolds ’17.

The guide also explains the lasting effects of the racial covenants on Monroe County. These covenants increased the acceptability of racist ideas, created patterns of segregation maintained today by exclusionary zoning laws, and expanded the racial wealth gap by channeling government mortgage aid to white people for over a generation, according to the Clinic.

While racial covenants were made illegal in the 1960s, they remain on government records kept open to public view in the Monroe County Clerk’s office, where they can shock, anger, and pain those who encounter them, the guide says.

“Racial covenants and their legacy continue to impact our community,” said Kevin Beckford, a member of both the Pittsford Town Board and the Rochester Anti-Racism Action Coalition. “Exclusionary zoning laws create very real barriers to access. The ‘Whites Only’ signs may have come down, but exclusionary zoning laws achieve the same end. As a society, if we ‘engineered in’ the segregation we live with today, we are morally obligated to ‘engineer our way out’ of this to create better equity for all. We must address these terrible stains — now.”

Drawing on an analysis of anti-covenant policies across the country, Confronting Racial Covenants provides an anti-racist framework for action that can help make Monroe County a leader in addressing racial covenants. The guide, which has already helped the Monroe County Clerk’s office implement important anti-covenant measures, details further steps that can deal directly with covenants on government records open to public view. It also outlines specific actions individuals, organizations, and government bodies — especially those who used and benefited from racial covenants — can take to address those covenants’ lasting effects. These actions include fighting exclusionary zoning rules that maintain the lines of segregation drawn by racial covenants, supporting anti-racist educational programs that teach students about the history of local segregation, and funding grassroots organizations working for and led by Black and brown people such as City Roots, Free The People ROC, The Avenue BlackBox Theatre, Flower City Noire Collective, Rochester Black Pride, and 540WMain.

“It’s very difficult and painful to continuously digest the abhorrent, violent nature of systems interlocking to prevent the survival of Black people in this city,” said Stanley Martin, City Roots board member and organizer with Free The People ROC. “The institutions that historically shaped those people’s existence by preventing people of color from accessing housing — a human right — are alive and well today and still actively upholding white supremacist policies and structures that harm Black people. Today, racial covenants impacting access to housing and upward mobility for Black and Brown people still exist but have taken on a different form. Public officials, and wealthy, powerful institutions, have a legal, racist covenant with the police. In order for the legacy of these state-sanctioned racist policies to truly be dismantled, we must address our County’s covenant with the Rochester Police and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Departments. We must defund the police in order to prevent them from upholding the violent and segregationist legacy of these covenants, and reallocate funds to the communities targeted by white supremacy.”

Work on Confronting Racial Covenants was led by a team including Yale School of the Environment student Regina Harlig ’20; Yale Law School students Alex Miskho ’22 and Aaron Troncoso ’22; City Roots attorney Jim Pergolizzi; and Clinical Lecturer in Law Conor Dwyer Reynolds ’17. The guide builds on years of research conducted by City Roots board member and Rush-Henrietta Central School District teacher Shane Wiegand and his students.

City Roots Community Land Trust is a community-driven organization that works to establish and promote permanently affordable, equitable housing in Rochester, ensuring development without displacement by empowering neighbors, having the community both own and manage land, and bridging socioeconomic divisions.

The Yale Environmental Protection Clinic is an interdisciplinary program jointly offered by Yale Law School and Yale’s School of the Environment that trains students in environmental advocacy through skills-based seminars, interdisciplinary project work, and collaboration with organizations across the country.

Media inquiries about Confronting Racial Covenants can be sent to Conor Dwyer Reynolds.