Heal Fund Grant as Mapping Tool
Jordy Yager began visiting the county clerk’s office on his lunch breaks. “If you’ve ever been in there,” he said, “there’s a back room that is filled floor to ceiling with these giant books that look like wizard tomes. They’re huge, they’re heavy, they’re old. They go all the way back to the 1700s.”
As it happens, these books contain Charlottesville and Albemarle County property records, which tell the story of land ownership across generations. In particular, they show how that ownership was often restricted by race.
So-called racial covenants, attached to many property deeds, restricted sales to whites only, which limited where black people could live—often to parts of town neglected by local government investment. This, in turn, limited the accumulation of generational wealth, which, in turn, affects much more than just a family’s bottom line.
1897 Locust Grove plat
It has a critical impact on “healthcare, education, and access to resources,” Yager, an independent journalist, said.
With help from the city, the county, and volunteers, Yager has begun digitizing and analyzing those wizard tomes. And with money from a Heal Charlottesville Fund grant, he is presenting his findings online, in a project he calls Mapping Cville. The project is hosted by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where Yager is a Digital Humanities Fellow.
A recent entry highlights a covenant from 1906: “the property hereby conveyed shall not be sold to or owned by negroes.” Other deeds excluded Jews, Syrians, Greeks, Gypsies. The property in question was sold by Charlottesville’s Locust Grove Investment Company, so the restriction would have extended across the company’s entire sub-development, or about 140 properties.
While the first layer of Yager’s map will present covenants, the second layer will detail infrastructure. In order to receive water and sewage lines, each neighborhood had to petition the city, with services tending to go to the wealthier and more powerful neighborhoods first. Home values rose in neighborhoods such as Locust Grove and plummeted in 10th and Page and Kellytown, two historically black neighborhoods that were among the last to receive city services.
“What we’ve designed with Mapping Cville is a way for the public to interact with this information,” Yager said. “We’re talking about people’s back yards here, so it stands to reason that a lot of them are interested in the history of that. How did these neighborhoods develop and evolve?”
Yager plans to supplement his map with oral histories to help trace the effects of homeownership and geography over generations.
“One of the interesting things made possible by a Heal Fund grant,” Yager said, “is that you begin to see individual experiences show up as systems. You begin to see how each of these individual choices and actions, when taken in a cumulative fashion over a long enough period, create this system.”
It’s a system many economists see as partially responsible for a median net worth for black families in the United States that is one-tenth of that for white families.