The School of Library and Information Sciences Library at NCCU, Durham, NC

Discovering Racial Covenants in Durham’s Property Deeds
Partner organizations: DataWorks, NC; The City of Durham Register of Deeds, Yinsome Group
While the history of redlining and its impact on American cities is increasingly well-known, the similarly widespread practice of encoding racially restrictive covenant clauses on property deeds has received significantly less attention. Faculty at The School of Library and Information Sciences partnered with community organizations and residents to to engage citizens of Durham county in building an online collection of transcriptions of these covenants. One important finding was about process: the project team learned early on that they would need help facilitating community meetings to make sure they addressed the emotional effects of reading the restrictive language in the deeds. This project demonstrates that libraries (in this case, researchers within Library & Information Science) can serve a lead role in engaging with local stakeholders on public records information.
Our goals for this project were:
  • To inform community members about the history of exclusionary zoning restrictions in Durham,
  • To provide context for the city’s current affordable housing crisis, and
  • To empower community participation in translation efforts and analysis of legacy documentation, turning handwritten documentation into human and machine-readable “data,” making it searchable and accessible, and facilitating future GIS work linking deeds to plats.
Originally, the project planned to hold in-person workshops, training, and events. We made the switch to online sessions to accommodate restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The central project activity has transitioned into teaching community members about the history of racial covenant clauses, and offering training to read through, identify, and transcribe covenants with these clauses. To date, we have held nine workshops with community groups (such as Legal Aid and the Durham Men’s Council) and will be hosting Durham public school educators in a workshop next week.
The Library School organized workshops, conducted research, and created and tested workflows for the Hacking into History platform. DataWorks and The City of Durham directed outreach efforts, managed the data conversion process, and helped publicize our public workshops. An ongoing challenge has been the experience of volunteers interacting with sensitive, harmful language such as those found in the deeds. Shortly after our first few workshops, we were lucky enough to gain the interest and expertise of a local community activist to help guide us in this work, who has since joined the project team.

".... the [event] held today was so powerful - reading the hateful language embedded into so many documents, talking about them with other community members, thinking & learning together."

Feedback from one member after an event: ".... the [event] held today was so powerful - reading the hateful language embedded into so many documents, talking about them with other community members, thinking & learning together." Having a technically and professionally diverse group allowed for a tremendous range of perspectives to be considered in the creation of the public facing elements of the project which only strengthened the product. A number of the organizations represented on the project team already had strong organizing ties within communities in Durham from previous engagement on issues ranging from public health equity to citizen satisfaction. Project partners had worked together previously which helped lay the groundwork for portions of this project.
Hacking into History Project team, Photo courtesy of
Our project demonstrates that libraries can serve as a central organizational hub for working with different local entities on engagement with public records information that demonstrate histories. It provides an example for other communities and cities that want to support the work of more equitable housing practices and the aims of housing justice overall. Moving forward, we are well-prepared to accomplish the following activities:
  • Community outreach to groups interested in housing justice
  • Future transcription workshops with community members
  • Networking with other housing justice advocates to advance initiatives focused on housing reparations.