Featured photo: A map of Winston-Salem

It’s June 1945.

The end of World War II is on the horizon with Germany’s surrender a month prior. In North Carolina, HG Thacker and Paul Hemrick have just signed off on the sale of several plots of land in Forsyth County, with a stipulation in the deed stating that ownership and occupancy of the property must be “limited exclusively to people of the white or Caucasian race.”

It’s a chilling example of how the phrase, “All men are created equal,” penned in the country’s own bid for freedom, did not live in the hearts of many Forsyth County residents who clung to racist ideology and actively worked to prevent people of color from advancing.

Not only do the physical remnants of racist language in deeds like this remain on many Forsyth County real estate records, their constraints still linger in the landscape of the city. These policies stood in the way of Black residents’ ability to purchase property and accumulate wealth, and even after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to fold restrictions based on race into deeds, discrimination still continued.

Fed up with the stains these deeds have left on the area, local researchers and community partners have started a project called Mapping Prejudice that will shed light on the role racist real estate records played in transforming Forsyth County into what it is today. 

Heading this project is Dr. Russell Smith, a geography professor who has worked at Winston-Salem State University for the past 15 years. He’s also the faculty lead for the Spatial Justice Studio, which is funding and facilitating this research. SJS is a collaboration between WSSU and UNC School of the Arts housed at the Center for Design Innovation.

In an interview with TCB, Smith explained that the task won’t be easy. It’s a project that will span two to three years and involve the time-consuming examination of 1.4 million pages of documents dated between 1900-70. Smith also hopes to get some financial support for the project from the city, which played a major role in preventing Black residents from living in certain parts of town.

For example, in 1912, the Winston Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance that prohibited white and Black people from living on the same streets, segregating neighborhoods. City leadership continued to enact and enforce racist policies in the decades to come.

Mayor Pro Tem Denise D. Adams spoke in favor of Smith’s project in May.

“We have so many people in this city right now that weren’t born here, weren’t raised here,” Adams said. “They really don’t know what happened in our city and why our city is the way it is now.” Adams noted that one of the problems is that some people “don’t want to know the history.” But projects like Smith’s — that include data, history, maps and documents — can “validate and verify what took place,” Adams said. And while the city had its hand in racist policy creation, this project will uncover the private individuals and corporations that were also responsible for these injustices, Smith says.

Dr. Russell Smith, a professor at Winston-Salem State University, is heading a project that will examine racially discriminatory deeds in Forsyth County. (Courtesy photo)

‘This happened on purpose’

This summer, those 1.4 million documents will be scanned for keywords, looking for patterns, narrowing that massive number into something “much more manageable.”

In the fall, they’ll start examining the deeds, and that’s where the community comes in. 

Smith says he doesn’t want it to be strictly an academic project. Instead, he hopes that it will be fueled by the residents.

“I want it to be a community project,” he says.

Through the project, residents can have a hand in real research and take a look at the documents that shaped where they live. Smith says that dozens of people have expressed interest in helping out. Community involvement and volunteering opportunities could look like meetings at schools, churches and neighborhoods, as well as standing meetings where people can “play with the data and participate.” Those details will be ironed out in the coming months.

An excerpt from a 1941 Forsyth County deed containing a racial covenant. (Screenshot from the Mapping Prejudice website)

The research that comes out of this project will be a stepping-stone toward change; Smith explained to the city council in May that they want to develop a community fund to provide financial support to neighborhoods that were disadvantaged by these policies as well as explore legislation that would expunge racially restrictive language from deeds.

This project also aims to piece together people’s experiences with racial covenants, encouraging people to share their first-hand accounts or family history.

“We know the values of homes from the east side to the west side of [Highway] 52 can differ dramatically, and so being able to purchase property in one area or not could really have generational impacts on individuals,” Smith explained. “We want to collect those stories. We want to hear about what people went through.”

One of the outcomes Smith hopes the project will achieve is to make people aware of the city’s past, he says. “The city is the way it is because of deliberate, purposeful policies and procedures,” he explains. “This happened on purpose…and as a result, we have seen these patterns cement over time and create discrepancies in everything from income to housing values to access to healthy foods.”

“We can’t go back,” he says, but there are things we can do today.

First off, we can “acknowledge those grievances,” Smith says. Doing this research lays the foundation for people to see which properties and communities were affected — in pinpointed fashion.

The second part of that involves equitably distributing resources and helping out the communities that have been disadvantaged. That could look like investing in infrastructure, sidewalks, streets, lighting and parks, while offering low-interest loans for rehabilitation work.

But this work needs to be done thoughtfully. Smith says that in the US, redevelopment and revitalization tends to happen at the expense of the people living there, driving housing prices up and pushing residents out. The goal instead should be to “create sustainable communities where people already live,” Smith says.

“You want to take those places and make them desirable locations without displacing people,” he adds. That’s why he’s encouraging people to volunteer and bring their ideas for solutions to the drawing board. 

Although Forsyth County is just one small speck floating in a country that has a long way to go in terms of atoning for its past, it won’t be alone in its efforts to put a magnifying glass on how prejudice shaped its landscape. Projects like Mapping Prejudice have already taken root elsewhere, emerging in cities from Charlottesville to Chicago, Seattle to Milwaukee. Cities in Minnesota such as Saint Paul and Saint Cloud are doing this work, too.

This research is going to “spark” a conversation in the community about what happened, Smith says, and what needs to happen next in order to “repair decades of harmful policies toward the African American population of the city.”

“I think people are ready to have those conversations.”

Find out more about the project and how to volunteer here.

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