Redlining, Racial Covenants, and Housing Discrimination in Spokane

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 8/19/2023
  • Essay 22767
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Redlining and racially restrictive covenants were used in in Spokane for decades in the mid-twentieth century as ways to steer non-white residents away from living in white neighborhoods. Redlining got its name from the color codes on maps that bankers used to determine home-loan worthiness. The phrase redlining later became shorthand for any form of housing discrimination, including steering nonwhite homebuyers away from white neighborhoods by real estate agents. Racially restrictive covenants were provisions written into property deeds specifying that no persons "other than the white race" could occupy a certain property or subdivision (Mack, 48). These covenants were common in Spokane from 1928 to 1955 but were later ruled unenforceable and then banned entirely. Historical researchers later discovered hundreds of Spokane property deeds containing such covenants, sometimes covering entire subdivisions. In the 1960s, Spokane civil rights leaders engaged in heated debates with real estate executives over such practices. The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended most of the overt forms of housing discrimination.

Black Pioneers

Housing discrimination had a different trajectory in Spokane than in many other American cities. The city’s early Black population had never been funneled into a clearly defined Black district. "The funny thing is, the original 300 (Spokane’s black pioneers), they lived all over Spokane," said Carl Maxey (1924-1997), the famed civil rights attorney from Spokane, who spent much of his career fighting housing discrimination in the state. "The dominant number lived in the East Side, but, by far, it couldn't be said that there was just one area. The original pioneers were spread all over, which was very much different from other cities" ("Breaking Down the Barriers").

This was partly because Spokane’s Black population was small – hovering between 1 and 2 percent. It may have also been because of an egalitarian pioneer spirit in the young city. The Black pioneers in the 1880s and 1890s dispersed through the city, residing "in rental properties, existing homes they purchased, or houses they built" (Mack, 6). Many of them, like other homeowners in the era, "grew a lot of their own produce and raised chickens in the backyard for food" (Franklin, 120). One black pioneer recalled that relations between Blacks and whites in those early days were "very cordial," because both groups would "stay in their place" (Franklin, 120). At least from a geographic standpoint, the place for Black residents was almost anywhere in Spokane.

Census and property records from those early decades confirm that Spokane had nothing resembling a Black district. When the Black population in 1905 was plotted on a Spokane map, dots are scattered throughout downtown, as well as to the south, north, west and – in slightly larger numbers – east. By 1905, many of the approximately 500 Black residents had been living in their homes longer than their neighbors and were for the most part accepted – or at least tolerated. For instance, an elderly Black widow named Cecelia Mash had been living in a white North Central Spokane neighborhood "for so long that other people had moved in around her, so nobody was fussing about that," recalled Ninon Maxey, Carl Maxey’s first wife (Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life, 31).

A 'Gentleman's Agreement'

The situation began to change in the 1920s and 1930s when the African American migration to Spokane began to accelerate. New Black residents found that they were not accepted in white neighborhoods as readily as the Black pioneers. While searching for a house, they encountered the tactics that would become familiar in ensuing decades: Owners declining to sell to non-whites, real estate agents steering Black homebuyers to poorer neighborhoods, banks declining to offer loans to Black buyers, and landlords jacking up the down payments for prospective non-white tenants. "It was a gentleman’s agreement type of thing," said Alfonse Hill, who moved to Spokane in 1934. "There were a lot of places the realtors wouldn’t take you. You could go to the East Side, but as far as the upper South Hill? Forget it" ("Breaking the Barriers"). The upper South Hill was considered the most fashionable part of Spokane, and the East Side was known mainly as a low-income Italian neighborhood.

Edna Potter, who came to Spokane in the 1930s, recalled what happened to her when she was looking for a house in one of Spokane’s white neighborhoods. "I tried to purchase a house from this real estate company, and even had my sister, who was light enough to pass for white, go down and put the down payment on the house," said Potter. "But when I went to the office to pay the rest of it, they told me they had sold it" (Franklin, 126-127). This was a recurring theme: A Black purchaser or renter would make an offer by phone or through a third party, but when the buyer showed up in person to close the deal, the seller or agent would look at them and suddenly announce that the house was already sold or unavailable. In this case, Potter got the last laugh. "I then purchased a lot (next door) and my daddy built the house for much less than I would have had to pay for the house that I had wanted in the first place," said Potter. "Like I say, every knock’s a boost" (Franklin, 126-127).

The Rise of Racially Restrictive Covenants

Around this time, racially restrictive covenants arrived in Spokane. Logan Camporeale, a Spokane historian and senior research consultant for the Washington State Racial Restrictive Covenants Project, said that the earliest known restrictive covenant in Spokane was on a 1928 deed for an Audubon Park lot. It included the provision that the lot could be used by no one of the "Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic race" (Camporeale interview). This awkward formulation was apparently code, which meant essentially, non-white. This deed referred only to one specific plot of land, but before long, entire subdivisions would include racially restrictive covenants, almost always using a boilerplate line: "No persons of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy a building on these premises," with exceptions only for domestic servants (Mack, 48).

Camporeale – along with Larry Cebula, the Washington State Racial Restrictive Covenants Project’s managing director and other Spokane researchers – have found 354 documents in Spokane County with these kinds of restrictive covenants, dating from 1928 to 1955. This included about 75 subdivisions that, in whole or in part, were covered by racially restrictive covenants.

Racially restrictive covenants were certainly not unique to Spokane. They had become a standard tool in real estate transactions around the U.S., as a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1917 that prohibited cities themselves from enact racially restrictive zoning. The use of covenants gained impetus after a 1926 Supreme Court ruling found that such covenants were lawful. In fact, Spokane was slow to use these covenants, and appeared to be following the lead of Seattle, which had enacted racially restrictive covenants earlier and much more widely.

Racial covenants were perhaps the most blatant method of enforcing housing discrimination. But they were by no means the most common. They were just one "tool," said Camporeale, alongside everything from redlining, steering – and even fear tactics such as throwing bricks through windows (Camporeale interview). Camporeale estimated that at least 70 or 80 percent of Spokane property had no racially restrictive covenants. Yet these covenants covered some of the most desirable areas of Spokane and were employed by some of the city’s leading institutions, including the real estate arm of the Cowles family, which owned the city’s two newspapers, and Whitworth College, which had land holdings near its campus. These covenants were declared legally unenforceable in 1948, but they continued to be used until 1955 in Spokane, probably serving as a "stay out" signal to prospective buyers and real estate agents, who may not have realized the covenants could not be enforced.


Meanwhile, redlining – the practice of mapping certain areas of a city as off-limits to minorities and other areas as minority enclaves – was rampant in the U.S., including Spokane. A 1940 federal Home Owners Loan Corporation map of Spokane, used by lenders, was drawn with color-coded neighborhoods ranging from green ("best") to yellow ("definitely declining") to red ("hazardous"). Some of these designations were made for non-racial reasons, such as an East Side neighborhood that had a red designation because of "odors from stockyards and packing houses." But others were specifically racial, such as a Northwest Spokane neighborhood that had a yellow designation because "there are said to be several families of Negroes" in the district ("Mapping Inequality"). On a red East Side district, "proximity to largest Negro concentration in the city precludes higher grading" ("Mapping Inequality").

These kinds of maps were also used by real estate agents for steering Black homebuyers into certain neighborhoods and away from others. In that era, agents did not think that steering was unethical. In fact, they believed the opposite. A national Code of Ethics for realtors, adopted in Spokane and Spokane Valley, put it in writing: "A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property of occupancy members of any race or nationality or any persons whose presence will be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood" (Franklin, 178 and Mack, 45). Maintaining property values was the overriding priority.

The situation worsened after World War II when many new Black residents, some of whom had served at the area’s military bases, chose to make Spokane their homes. Historian Dwayne A. Mack, who has written extensively on Spokane’s Black history, put the matter starkly:

"Most black soldiers returning from World War II found the search for suitable housing in Spokane a daunting task. Finding apartments was difficult except for cramped filthy quarters in inadequate homes located in neglected areas of the city ... African Americans who attempted to lease apartments also encountered resistance from white property managers. Property managers of well-maintained apartments refused to lease to blacks. Rental agents nevertheless denied that they prohibited blacks from renting, claiming instead that African Americans never submitted applications" (Mack, 44).

A Black couple, Pauline and Sylvester Lake, tried to buy a home in Spokane in the mid-1940s and came up hard against the so-called gentleman’s agreement. They would drive by a nice prospective home and call the real estate agency. The seller would later "find out who you are," and then "come up with some excuse," said the Lakes (Mack, 46). Usually, nobody admitted to racial discrimination – the seller would simply say, for instance, that they had forgotten to take down the for-sale sign. "You just knew what was planted in someone’s heart; they didn’t have to tell you every time," said Pauline Lake (Mack, 46).

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Carl Maxey and his young family had found a welcoming home in Victory Heights, an integrated housing project aimed at returning veterans. By 1954, they needed a larger home. Maxey, with his law degree in hand and his passion for equal treatment, bought a house on Spokane’s posh South Hill, generally considered off-limits to Blacks. Maxey was a bona fide Spokane sports star, having won the NCAA Boxing Championship with Gonzaga University several years earlier. But even for him and his white wife Ninon, acceptance was hard to come by. "We sort of busted into that neighborhood, much to the dismay of some of our neighbors," recalled Ninon. "There was a Japanese family around the corner, but it was an all-white neighborhood except for that. The neighbor next door was so bitter about it. They complained to all of the other neighbors, and they wouldn’t speak to us when we first moved in. The [neighbors] next door ended up trying to be real good friends, but by that time I really didn’t care to meet them" (Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life, 99).

Shuffled into East Central

During the 1950s, Spokane acquired something it had never had before: a Black district. At least, that was the perception among the city’s white residents. J. W. Strong, the president of the Spokane chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (a Black union), said he had resided in the East Side (today called East Central), for many years, but he had recently heard Spokanites refer to his neighborhood as "the Negro District" (Mack, 84). When he moved there it contained only 14 Black families. But in the last 10 years, he had become convinced that "organized" efforts had been made – probably by real estate agents and lenders – to steer Black residents to his East Side neighborhood (Mack, 84). This was borne out by census figures, which showed that East Central’s Black population jumped from 1.6 percent in 1950 to 19.6 percent in 1960 (Camporeale).

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement was in full swing throughout the U.S. Black residents had known all along that discrimination was rampant, yet many white Americans had their eyes opened. Yet sometimes purchasing a home in Spokane’s white neighborhoods was more perilous than ever. Frank Hopkins, Black owner of the Ebony Café, said that in 1961 he purchased a house on the North Side near the Gonzaga University district. Hopkins said it was "a modestly priced neighborhood a block from the railroad, far from being exclusive" (Baumgart). But it was not in East Central, "the area for Negroes" (Baumgart). Hopkins was in the midst of renovating the interior before moving in, when someone snuck onto the property at night and broke out 28 windows. "I just had to let it go," said a resigned Hopkins (Baumgart).

Non-white homebuyers and renters were being steered increasingly to East Central. A black pastor in 1961 told The Spokesman-Review that "cases of renting or buying by Negroes outside this area are rare" (Baumgart). An incident in 1965 illustrated how the gentleman’s agreement was still preventing Black residents from moving into white neighborhoods. That year, Frank Burgess and his family put down a month’s rent on a house in 3009 W. Eloika, a solidly white, middle-class neighborhood on the North Side. Burgess was not just any renter – he was a former Gonzaga basketball star and the nation’s leading collegiate basketball scorer in 1961. Yet a few days later, the agent called Burgess back and said he was returning the check because of "complaints by neighbors" (Carl Maxey, A Fighting Life).

Maxey took on Burgess’s case and hauled the landlord into court. Meanwhile, a group called Citizens for Reconciliation took out ads in both Spokane newspapers that said, "We are ashamed that we have participated so long in a community attitude of racial discrimination in regard to housing ... We believe that the case of Burgess v. Griepp demonstrated that racial discrimination in housing does exist in Spokane, and it should be recognized and protested" ("We Are Ashamed"). Maxey chose to use a non-racial legal issue as his main argument, saying that the down payment constituted a binding contract. But Maxey also told Judge Ralph E. Foley that he believed the refusal was implicitly because of race. Foley agreed and, in awarding Burgess $250 in monetary damages, noted that Burgess had also found it difficult to find an acceptable house after the first deal fell through.

Maxey later engaged in what he called "tremendous arguments" with James S. Black, a Spokane real estate agent and president of the Washington Association of Realtors. One such debate occurred at a West Spokane Kiwanis Club meeting at which Black said that "every property owner has an inherent right to choose who shall purchase their property" ("Proposed Real Estate Restrictions"). Maxey argued that real estate agents did not have any more right to discriminate than restaurants, hotels, doctors, lawyers, or anyone else licensed by the state. In another talk, Maxey said he believed the Washington Association of Realtors was playing on the "prejudice of many white citizens," by "exciting them into believing that there will be a Negro in every block" ("Realty Stand Hit").

Progress in the 1960s and Beyond

These arguments came during the state Referendum 35 campaign, which proposed revoking the real estate licenses of agents who discriminated because of race. Voters approved the referendum in November 1968. Earlier that year, the U.S. Congress had already passed the Federal Fair Housing Act, which banned restrictive covenants and forms of redlining. These victories gave Maxey what he called "a foothold to blast their legal foundations out from under them" (Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life, 137).

From this point on, most forms of housing discrimination were illegal and violators could be taken to court. Subtle forms of housing discrimination continued, but blatant redlining and racially restrictive covenants were gone. This perhaps explains why the East Central neighborhood’s Black population would decline steadily from 1970 onward, while Spokane’s overall Black population continued to grow. The Black population was once again spreading out over the city, as it had in the pioneering days.

Racially restrictive covenants were back in the news in the 2000s, after the University of Washington launched its Washington State Racial Restrictive Covenants Project. The project revealed that at least 50,000 properties, including many in Spokane, still had restrictive covenants on their deeds, although the covenants were no longer legal or enforceable. Getting this language removed from the deeds proved difficult, since they were still part of the historical record. As a result of the project’s research, the Washington State Legislature passed the Covenants Homeownership Account Act in 2023, which provides compensation for victims of the covenants. As of 2023, researchers in Seattle, Spokane, and elsewhere continued to uncover deeds which contained these outdated – and now toothless – covenants.


Joseph Franklin, All Through the Night: The History of Spokane Black Americans, 1860-1940 (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1989]; Jim Kershner, Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2008); Dwayne A. Mack, Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014): Jim Kershner, “Breaking Down the Barriers,” Spokesman-Review, May 28, 1997, p. E-1; Logan Camporeale, interview with Jim Kershner, May 23, 2023, transcript and audio in possession of the author; Mapping Inequality – Redlining in New Deal America, a website from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (; Logan Camporeale, East Central Historic and Cultural Context, a paper prepared for the Spokane Historic Preservation Office, 2022-2023, available through that office; Don Baumgart, “Negroes Review Conditions Here,” Spokesman-Review, March 6, 1961, p. 6; “We Are Ashamed,” an ad in Spokesman-Review, June 22, 1965, p. 14; “Proposed Real Estate Restrictions,” Spokesman-Review, February 9, 1968, p. 6; “Realty Stand Hit by Rights Leader,” Spokane Chronicle, January 5, 1968, p. 3; Racial Restrictive Covenants – Washington State, the website of the Washington Racial Restrictive Covenants Project ( accessed July 17, 2023.

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