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    Racial covenants found in West Lafayette home deeds featured in exhibit

    By Jillian Ellison, Lafayette Journal & Courier,

    30 days ago

    WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Rebecca Peters had always heard rumors since buying her home on Summit Drive that racial covenants were common in the deeds of homes in her neighborhood.

    She found it hard to believe.

    "I had heard of these covenants ranging from not being able to hang a clothesline in your yard to not being able to sell to Black people," Peters said. "When I'd heard those, I thought, 'No way.'"

    Peters, a member of the Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette group, said members hosted a book study featuring the title "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein, which explores the history behind the U.S. government-imposed racial segregation on metropolitan areas. Her curiosity got the best of her, leading her to research and discover the deed to her own home.

    Written in clear print on the deed showed a boilerplate statement reading, "The ownership and occupancy of lots or buildings in this subdivision are forever restricted to members of the pure white Caucasian race."

    A part of Peters was shocked to find that language written in her home's deed, she said, but given Indiana's history with the Ku Klux Klan, she wasn't entirely surprised.

    "It was a moment of, 'No way.' But it's Indiana, so it tracks. We really like to think that racism is just within the Klan, but people still talk about when they came to Purdue in the '90s, asking how could that be," Peters said. "But racism is baked into our society, and the language in that deed is what is baked into our community today."

    Peters said she understood that she couldn't go back in time to fix the damage that racial covenant had likely done to non-white families in West Lafayette during the time in which the property her house stood on was sectioned off and sold, but she and fellow members of Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette knew the community deserved to be educated on what had taken place decades ago.

    'We found so many of them'

    After Peters took her deed to fellow members of Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette, member Patti O'Callaghan said through further research, the group was able to find dozens more homes in West Lafayette with the same boilerplate racial covenants written into their deeds.

    In a partnership with the West Lafayette Public Library, O'Callaghan said the group wanted to offer its findings to the public but wasn't quite savvy enough to develop a display.

    "What we'd found wasn't exposing anything personal or private," O'Callaghan said. "But we had found so many of them that we felt we needed to get this information out there."

    After discussing the project with then-director of the West Lafayette Public Library Nick Schenkel, O'Callaghan said the library was immediately on board with hosting the exhibit detailing the research in the Grand View Cemetery's caretaker's cottage. After Schenkel's retirement in 2023, Devon Roddel, local history librarian and head of archives and collections, said he happily took the exhibit project on.

    "The caretaker's cottage was a good, natural location for this, because we wanted to turn it into local history museum with shifting displays," Roddel explained. "We'd planned to have this begin running in the spring, but the timing for the grand opening to happen on June 18 worked very well."

    But finding a way to take the group's newfound data to organize it into an exhibit required expertise that the Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette members didn't have, O'Callaghan explained. Coming together with Nathan Swanson, clinical professor in the John Martinson Honors College at Purdue University, O'Callaghan said one of Swanson's classes spent a semester organizing the data in a visual format while identifying further key information to complete the historical aspects.

    The interactive exhibit will feature a map detailing the properties in West Lafayette with racial covenants in their deeds, information on the history of discriminatory housing practices in the United States and information on ways to become involved in racial reconciliation initiatives around Greater Lafayette.

    During the grand opening event for the exhibit at the caretaker's cottage on Tuesday at 10 a.m., West Lafayette Mayor Erin Easter will read a proclamation acknowledging racial discrimination in housing in the city.

    Christin Pruess, a recent graduate a student from Swanson's Honors College class, said after presenting their exhibit model to the Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette group members, students were given the opportunity to stay involved on the project after the 16-week class had commenced, as the model would need to be condensed to fit into the area within the caretaker's cottage.

    Her choice to stay on with the project, Pruess said, stemmed from her own passion for housing and racial justice in America. But as time went on, her passion rooted itself a bit deeper.

    "I didn't really know a lot of the local history around racialized housing in West Lafayette," Pruess said. "A lot of that research contextualized what we see across the country, and honestly the work we put into this made me care a lot more about the local community."

    Keeping themselves accountable

    From the beginning of the project, O'Callaghan said the group recognized that it was made up of mostly white women. Seeing the need for voices and perspectives of diverse community members, O'Callaghan said the group brought in what they called "accountability partners."

    Paula Davis, owner of Blooms and Petals Flowers and Events in downtown Lafayette, said when O'Callaghan reached out to her, explaining what the project was and if she would come on board to advise, it was a no-brainer.

    "From the beginning, it meant a lot for me, particularly in my background of working within Greater Lafayette's social justices initiatives," Davis said. "I consider it an honor and a duty, because these racial covenants were real ... I myself live in a covenant neighborhood in Lafayette."

    Although racial covenants were outlawed in 1968 when U.S. Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act, O'Callaghan said the effects of those in West Lafayette can still be seen today.

    "By prohibiting non-whites from owning this property, it creates limitations on generational wealth. They couldn't go to the West Lafayette schools, they didn't have equal access to educational resources, and there really haven't been any sort of systematic measures to right these historic injustices," O'Callaghan said. "That's why we are so grateful to Mayor Easter for her willingness to acknowledge and apologize on behalf of the city for the injustices that have occurred here."

    Peters said she knows the topic of the exhibit will make some people uncomfortable, but that's part of learning and growing.

    "I am of the belief that if you only learn history and facts that are comfortable to you, then you aren't really learning history and facts," Peters said. "The other thing is that when people don't want to talk about hard history, you end up with a lot of myths and rumors spread instead. What is important is to acknowledge how our history continues to effect us today."

    Davis said she knows the discussion of racial covenants is hard, but bringing this local research to the public is a first step in rectifying historic wrongs.

    While the exhibit has a one-year time frame in the cottage, Davis said she would like to see it find a permanent home somewhere in Greater Lafayette, one that could host expanded research on the group's research while also profiling historic people of color who helped build the framework of Greater Lafayette.

    "I do think we need more people with the courage to have these hard discussions like the Racial Reconciliation of Greater Lafayette group. I thought it was very brave of this group of white women to do this, because they knew the backlash with this sort of thing could be huge, but I wanted to be in lockstep with them," Davis said. "It takes a certain type of courage to bring these things to the open, and we need more white people to have that same courage to speak out against injustices."

    Jillian Ellison is a reporter for the Journal and Courier. She can be reached via email at Follow her on X at @ellison_writes.

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