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Mapping Prejudice Partners with
Mapping Segregation in Washington DC

By: MARA CHERKASKY and SARAH JANE SHOENFELD

February 25, 2021

Recently Washington, D.C. showed up on the Project Page of the Mapping Prejudice website. No, the nation’s capital has not moved to Minnesota! Rather, the Minneapolis team is partnering with Mapping Segregation in Washington DC to review DC deeds using Zooniverse.

Mapping Segregation launched in January 2014. Co-directed by public historians Mara Cherkasky and Sarah Shoenfeld, of Prologue DC, the project has thus far documented and mapped more than 20,000 Washington properties with racially restrictive covenants.

Unlike in Minnesota, not all the DC property records are digitized (none before October 1921), and the city government has not made the digital files fully accessible to the project. Research thus involves a lot-by-lot review, in a publicly accessible database, of deeds that may or may not have covenants and, for earlier years, skimming through enormous books of chronologically organized property records at the DC Archives. Meanwhile, the DC Office of Planning has relied on Mapping Segregation in policy documents, and the Mayor’s Office has recommended the project as a useful resource for residents.

Prologue DC interns research covenants at the DC Archives.

In 2017 the project was awarded a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund to create a dedicated Mapping Segregation website. That is when Prologue DC officially teamed up with Mapping Prejudice’s Kevin Ehrman-Solberg to map DC data. The collaboration has continued since then.

Over the many years that our DC team has been working to map covenants, we’ve also developed a series of story maps showing other ways in which racial segregation was established and upheld in the nation’s capital. For example, mapping properties that were the subject of lawsuits over racial covenants revealed that DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood was a national epicenter of such legal challenges. Other story maps show how the federal government, along with private developers, real estate brokers, and citizens associations, segregated not only residential subdivisions, but also schools, playgrounds, and public housing. In addition, we are mapping the eviction of black communities from areas they had occupied for generations, places that became exclusive neighborhoods or parks. Overlaying Census data puts all of this in the context of DC’s mid-century racial transformation—the population was 70 percent Black by 1970—and a dramatic White resurgence as the city gentrified during the last two decades.

In DC, racial covenants formed barriers around areas where Black people lived.
Popups show each block’s racial composition and housing conditions.

More than half of the lawsuits over racial covenants in DC arose in the Bloomingdale neighborhood,
including the case that went to the Supreme Court, Hurd v. Hodge.

Returning to our partnership with Mapping Prejudice:

In 2020 Mapping Segregation received funding to purchase 20,000 digitized deeds from the contractor that manages DC land records. Kevin processed the deeds through OCR software to make them character-readable, and then sorted out the ones that likely contained racial covenants—the same way that Hennepin and Ramsey county deeds were processed for mapping covenants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The approximately 2,200 deeds that appear to have racial restrictions were uploaded to Zooniverse in early February, and research has proceeded quickly since the first volunteer training session on February 10. Thank you, volunteers!

This research will likely uncover covenants in parts of the city that we have not yet mapped. It may also persuade the DC government to get behind this project, because understanding how systemic racism shaped DC’s housing landscape is essential to the city’s goal of achieving racial equity today.