By: Stephen Lee Lockwood, Esq.
It was the summer of 1966. I was 22 and between my second and third years at Albany Law School. I was one of the many thousands of White college students caught up in the cause for justice for Blacks in the Civil Rights Movement.
Each summer I would come home to New Hartford where I would have a job waiting, a place to stay with my parents, family, and friends. To provide some context I had graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in 1964 during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was sitting in an American History class. We had all in various ways been enthralled by and engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. All at once in one intentional horrid act a nation’s dreams of progress in equal rights, journeys to space, callings such as, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” came to an abrupt yet tragic end.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination, that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee during the sanitation workers boycott. Our nation has never admitted the true source of these tragic assassinations can only be assigned to its White racist foundings and a 400-year heritage of abuse. We have been engaged in and waging this civil rights movement for generations yet, as a nation, Americans have never truly acknowledged its White racist roots and heritage.
That summer I was hired by the State of New York and assigned to the Real Property Department which as I remember had an office on N. Genesee Street and another on Wurz Avenue. They surveyed and obtained easements for roadways and other eminent domain takings as they are referred to in the New York and the United States Constitutions.
Within the Department was the unit I was assigned to which handled title searches. I was under the supervision of Newton Herrick, Esq. who was originally from Great Britain. He lived in Canajoharie and commuted to wherever there were titles being searched. He spoke impeccable English and was a wonderful mentor. We spent the summer researching land titles in various counties in Upstate New York for properties from whom easements would be required for various road projects.
I was searching land titles in one of the new suburban housing developments in North Utica when I noticed the regular presence of racially restrictive covenants in all of these deeds prohibiting the sale of the properties to non-Caucasians.
Caucasian is a term that refers to the White European race of humankind as classified according to physical features and color. I was appalled that these restrictive covenants, which were illegal, remained in these deeds. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kramer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948) declared these racially restrictive covenants unenforceable. Despite Shelley, these racially restrictive covenants continued to be written into deeds until the practice was made illegal through the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
I pointed out these covenants to Mr. Herrick and asked how these restrictions could still appear in deeds when they had been declared illegal by the Courts. I complained that these restrictive covenants were a trap for the unwary and could lead one to believe they could not transfer their lands to anyone who was not White. On the other hand, a person who was racist would feel free to impose the restriction on a person of color.
Mr. Herrick agreed it was wrong and suggested we send the deeds to New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, which we did.
Approximately two to three weeks later the Attorney General sent back several summons and complaints in a legal action by the State of New York against North Utica homeowners intending to strike these clauses from the deeds in this development. Mr. Herrick showed them to me and asked, “Would you like to serve these?” I responded I would be privileged to do so.
When I would knock on the front doors of the defendant homeowners to be served and hand the owner the summons and complaint, (my recollection was that all were women), they were alarmed and wished to know why they were being sued by the State of New York.
I would immediately attempt to calm them by indicating they had simply been selected as representative of those in the development with identical racially restrictive covenants in their deeds. The purpose of the lawsuit and was simply to remove these racially restrictive covenants from their and their neighbors’ deeds. I explained that they were illegal and presented a trap for the unwary.
This local example of racial restrictions in deeds was repeated throughout our country in an attempt to restrict Black’s freedom and keep them and other Americans of color segregated from the White population. It was housing discrimination.
Despite the passage of The Fair Housing Act of 1968, Richard N. Nixon became President in 1969. Nixon had run as a law and order candidate intended to attract the conservative White community by fear of Blacks. Nixon soon ignored the strictures of The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and did nothing to enforce the law.
Astonishingly, just this October it was revealed that these same covenants remain in deeds in the Rochester, New York area. We should ask our Legislature, our Governor, and ourselves how may these hateful racial restrictions still persist in deeds today?