This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
The cursor hovered idly as thousands of rows accelerated across the spreadsheet. Natasha Winfield leaned in close to the monitor, the mechanical click of the mouse wheel filling the silent University of Nebraska at Omaha lab.
Suddenly she found something.
“See, restricted cov right there,” the 25-year-old graduate assistant said.
It was a clue. And after panning through another spreadsheet, then searching a Douglas County website, Winfield found what she was looking for.
“It is further covenanted and agreed that the lots hereinafter described, shall not be sold … to any person or persons of any other race than those of the Caucasian race,” reads a protective covenant for a North Omaha neighborhood from July 18, 1946.
Language like this was part of a nationwide practice banning non-white people from living in certain areas.
While redlining, which barred people of color from obtaining mortgages, and inequitable development patterns, like highways that decimated many communities of color, are harsh examples of segregation in the 20th century, they are rooted in housing covenants. These agreements, created by individuals, neighborhoods and real estate developers, codified, if not started, segregation in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and many others.
They were legal, affirmed by Supreme Court decisions in the early 20th century, until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made them unenforceable. However, the documents were not destroyed.
Locally, they sit inside thousands of books kept by the Douglas County Register of Deeds, each containing thousands if not tens of thousands of the variety of documents properties accrue — all mixed together.
So trying to find them across the city, which has led to new laws and assisted in long-term city planning in some places, is less like looking for a needle in a haystack and more like searching an entire field — and then doing that 30,000 to 50,000 more times, which is the number of homes UNO researches estimate have covenants in Omaha.
But that’s the goal of the Omaha Spatial Justice Project at UNO. The project is in its early stages and includes a team of four people using software to identify covenants. Eventually the team hopes to enlist the community to map the data and connect systemic racism with the past and present in a more concrete, personal way than ever before.
“When you have been in the margin of history for so long,” said Jade Rogers, one the project’s researchers, “and then you’re learning these new aspects of history, and then you see this primary source document completely tied to you and your family, it just places you [there].”
Rogers, a community engagement manager at the university’s Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies, grew up on 27th and Pratt streets. Her home had a racial covenant created to keep non-white people out. The people who wrote that covenant left, along with many others during the period of white flight that was common in the mid-1900s, and families like Rogers’ moved in. But the community didn’t last.
“We [didn’t move] because my mom wanted a bigger house or because she wanted a better neighborhood,” Rogers said. “It was because something was coming.”
That something was the North Freeway, which displaced people and economically wounded the north side of the city. The highway didn’t happen by accident. A 1938 Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwriting manual suggests highways protect good neighborhoods from bad ones — the ones with more people of color, the ones home loan lenders considered “hazardous.”
What’s missing from understanding this history is where it all started. And researchers believe covenants help us get there.
There’s no timeline for finding the answers yet. The project has grant funding allocated for the next three years, though if results are informative, the team hopes to pursue more, because they think this wealth of information could add a new, challenging chapter to Omaha’s history.
Deciding what to do with it? That’s up to Omaha.
Words on Paper
On a hot August afternoon in 1917, Charles Smith, a 32-year-old Mississippian who had recently moved to Omaha, hopped a train near the northwest corner of town. Not long after, the Omaha Police Department arrested him for murdering a 40-year-old woman.
Smith maintained his innocence through two trials. A local expert in “criminals, murderers and degenerates” agreed. Even the county sheriff doubted the case. But Smith, a Black man, was still sentenced to life in prison, spurred by the hysteria of the woman’s husband, Claude Nethaway, who many thought was guilty of the crime himself.
Two years later Nethaway helped lead the mob that lynched Will Brown on the Douglas County Courthouse steps and adopted racist marketing for his business.
“C.L. Nethaway,” his business card from 1920 reads. “Real Estate.”
“I Never Sell or Rent FLORENCE Property to N******, Japanese or Chinamen.”
While Nethaway wasn’t advertising covenants, his sentiment wasn’t far off.
Racial covenants appeared in the late 1800s, but their use was scattered. By the early 20th century, a real estate broker in Kansas City started sharing his racial covenants with colleagues in a newly formed national association of people who buy and sell property. The idea spread and subsequent Supreme Court rulings upheld them.
As they grew in popularity into the 1930s, the federal government used covenants to help determine which neighborhoods in U.S. cities posed risks to mortgage lenders in its 1938 FHA underwriting manual.
“Generally a high rating should be given only where adequate and properly enforced zoning regulations exist or where effective restrictive covenants are recorded against the entire track, since these provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment and inharmonious use,” it reads. Effective covenants prohibit “the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended,” it goes on to say.
Covenants guided decisions to deny loans to certain people, a practice known as redlining. While redlining maps offer easy conclusions on systemic racism, the topic lacks the hard, localized data covenants can provide.
“When people pull out those redlining maps and are like, ‘This is what was going on.’ It’s like, it was much more complicated than that,” said researcher Jeannette Gabriel. “Just looking at those mortgage company maps does not explain the complexity of housing discrimination … there’s something wrong with this narrative. There needs to be more here.”
The Research Begins
The idea for the Omaha Spatial Justice Project grew out of a conversation on reparations at the Tri-Faith Inititative, which joins leaders in Christian, Muslim and Jewish faith.
Members of Tri-Faith asked Gabriel, director of the university’s Schwalb Center, how they could quantify the harm of racism in Omaha.
“I was like, ‘Well, we have no data,’” she said.
Gabriel had wanted to find that data for more than a decade. In 2005 the University of Washington’s The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project was founded to identify racially restrictive covenants in the city. By combining data and storytelling the project made an impact on Gabriel. In 2021, she and Christina Dando, an associate professor and chair of the university’s geology/geography department, put together a similar proposal, which was accepted by UNO’s grant program for social justice, inequality, race and class research projects.
The Omaha Spatial Justice Project started by analyzing documents from the Douglas County Register of Deeds with optical character recognition software to scan pages for restrictive covenants. That returned about 60,000 “hits,” said Paul Hunt, a researcher with the project and GIS Lab coordinator.
Alternate phrases, misspellings and other abnormalities means the software yields too many results. That’s where Winfield comes in. The graduate student checks which “hits” are complete duds and which may be legit. By mid-June she’d worked through about 13,000 of them. The next step is checking for the actual covenants, which can range from clear to subversive.
“We have found weird language that doesn’t say anything racial, but it says, ‘Subject to the matter of approval by the board,’” Hunt said. “That’s why we want human eyes on it, because it won’t say anything about not being white. There’s lots of things that go beyond looking for jargon.”
To unravel problems like that, the UNO team said it’s necessary to engage the community both to witness this hard history and to be part of its solution.
“In order to have any kind of reconciliation,” Gabriel said, “there first has to be reckoning.”
‘Did we ever fix anything?’
Even after racial covenants were outlawed, it didn’t end the idea some parts of town weren’t meant for non-white people.
When Rogers’ family left her childhood home, her mother fought to see homes outside North Omaha. Eventually she got a house in Florence. But it came with tradeoffs.
Rogers, who excelled in school before, hit a wall. As one of three Black students, she felt isolated. Family was much farther away, and almost everyone in the new neighborhood was white. She remembers people throwing beer bottles in their front lawn, covering their cars in toothpaste, stuffing snakes in the mailbox and painting the n-word over their garage door.
In 1987, Franklin Thompson also wanted to move out of North Omaha. The director of Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Department was getting married and applied for a mortgage on a home in West Omaha. Months went by with no updates from the real estate agent. At the time, Thompson was a teacher at Creighton Preparatory School and one of his students, who interned for the real estate company, offered to help.
“He looks inside the boss’s drawer,” Thompson remembered. “There was the file and it was never submitted.”
After the threat of a lawsuit, Thompson, who later represented the area on the Omaha City Council, said he and his family were, and still are, the only Black people there. Wounds from patterns like racial covenants are hard to heal, but Thompson hopes this project can do more to start those conversations.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Did we ever fix anything?’” Thompson said. “How can we fix something if we didn’t know it existed, or you’re in denial about it?”
‘Where my hope is’
It doesn’t matter how many times Kirsten Delegard sees a restrictive racial covenant. The words still get to her.
“They still have the ability to make the hair on my arm stand up,” said Delegard, who co-founded and directs the University of Minnesota covenant project, Mapping Prejudice. “It’s such dark language; it’s just so brutal.”
She’s not the only one.
When Delegard presented Mapping Prejudice to the Minneapolis City Council, it shocked people, she said. The project accrued 6,000 volunteers and helped inform the city’s 2040 Plan, which aims to address inequities and improve the lives of all Minneapolitans.
“Areas of the city that lack housing choice today were built that way intentionally due to zoning regulations and federal housing policies … One of the key projects that informed content for [a phase of Minneapolis 2040] was Mapping Prejudice,” reads a City of Minneapolis report.
Chris Rodgers, a Douglas County commissioner and president of the county’s health board, believes the Omaha Spatial Justice Project can provide key data for policymakers.
“People knew about the covenants, but now we’re really uncovering a lot of them and trying to remedy it through policy,” Rodgers said. “You have to document the history. Once you do that, then you could probably make the case of how do you now use policy … to eliminate the inequity.”
Thompson doesn’t think reparations should be left out of the conversation. Cities like Asheville, North Carolina; Detroit, Michigan; and Evanston, Illinois, either have plans to financially assist historically disadvantaged Black residents or commissions on the subject.
“For one person [reparations] might look like a check, for another person it might mean ‘Let’s have greater housing development in places that were financially depressed,’” Thompson said. “For others it might be funds that you can go to college on.”
Other possibilities could be legislation to rid property records of the racist language, or pass laws that allow property owners to modify their records to repudiate earlier discriminatory language, as has been done in Washington.
Jade Rogers doesn’t know what will come of this work. But she isn’t expecting it to be a bombshell. To her, the story of how Omaha’s minority communities have been mistreated is plain for anyone who wants to pay attention.
What she does have hope for is the next generation who seem to have more of an appetite to talk about social and racial inequity.
“We’ve had opportunities to fix a lot of things, and we’re not going to do it,” Rogers said. “My hope is always in what young people will do with it, and that maybe this reaches curriculums and it becomes a teaching tool, something that helps support a narrative that is being talked about. So that’s always where my hope is.”
contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org