Community, students fight to repeal racially restrictive covenants in Washtenaw County

'We should all work together to fight against racism.'
Posted at 12:25 PM, Feb 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-20 18:25:03-05

(WXYZ) — Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood is one of the largest neighborhoods in Washtenaw County. It has more than 1,200 homes in the area, and is now a melting pot when it comes to diversity.

But the neighborhood’s past was recently brought to light after documents showed how racism played a part in who could own a home in the area.

While most of the residents who now live in Ypsilanti Township’s West Willow neighborhood are mostly People of Color, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in the 1940s there were restrictions in place that prevented anyone who wasn’t white from buying a house in the neighborhood.

Part of the covenant reads as follows: “no lot nor any part of any lot in said tract shall ever at any time shall be used or occupied ... by anyone whose bloodline that is not of white or Caucasian race."

The covenant or documented agreement was used to govern the West Willow neighborhood in 1946.

“It shouldn’t never been in, I think we are all equal as far as I’m concerned," said Robert Harrison, a West Willow resident.

Harrison moved to west willow in 1977… 9 years after the federal housing act of 1968 made discriminatory covenants illegal.

“These are well-built homes over here and even if they were built for just white people only, they was good," he said.

Even though the 1946 covenant is no longer legal or enforceable, it is still documented on the deeds for some homes in West Willow.

Another part of the covenant reads: "excepting that a person or persons not of the white, not of the Caucasian race may be kept there strictly in the capacity of a domestic servant or servants of any white or Caucasian residents.”

“As soon as they made it illegal, that should have been erased from all documents," said Jo Ann McCollum, president of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association.

McCollum has lived in West Willowfor 30 years and acts as the president of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association.

McCollum recently learned that the illegal covenant was still written on her home’s deed after she was contacted by University of Michigan law students who are with the “Justice InDeed” project.

"We grew up with segregation, we grew up with you can’t live in a certain place, because of your skin color, so it just reminded me of the blatant racism that went on in that time," she said.

Justice InDeed has been working with residents of West Willow to make them aware of the covenant.

Web Extra | How did this language remain?

If 50 percent of the homeowners in West Willow agree to repeal the covenant, it will be taken out of the deeds.

“I also want to note that it’s not sort of goal of erasing history but rather like making people feel welcome where they live," said Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, a member of Justice InDeed.

For the past few years, the program has identified over 120 neighborhoods in Washtenaw County with racially restrictive covenants.

“We want to make sure that policy makers are aware of these and can use the understanding how restrictive covenants worked in the past to try and fix housing right now and kind of fix the segregation that came about because of these covenants," said Appiagyei-Dankah.

As for West Willow residents, they will continue working with Justice InDeed to make sure their deeds reflect the values of their community.

“It’s one more step to fighting racism, because that’s what it is and we should all work together to fight against racism," said McCollum.

Robert Harrison, another West Willow resident, said: “we want to come together to be as one, not chopping at each other each night.”