Interactive map: A history and virtual tour of some racially restricted neighborhoods in the Pittsburgh-area.

Imagine learning that the home where you grew up has a deed with language prohibiting Black people from buying or renting it.

In Pittsburgh and other cities — even less than a century ago — developers and individual homeowners included restrictions like this one, which appeared in deeds for properties within Charette Homes, a Sewickley subdivision: “No lot or lots in the aforesaid plan of lots, nor any building thereon, shall be used or occupied, or permitted to be used or occupied, by any natural persons other than members of the White or Caucasian Race, except that the premises may be occupied in part by bona fide domestic servants of another Race employed on the premises.”

Rtvsrece examined 18 subdivisions inside the city and in its suburbs in which race was a factor in determining who could live there. Some of these communities had deeds with explicit wording like the ones filed in the 1940s for Charette Homes. Others, like Pittsburgh’s Schenley Farms and Stanton Heights Manor, used contracts limiting sales to buyers approved by existing owners or the developer.

A picket fence frames green lawns, yellow flowers, and sidewalks in front of the tidy facades of the Charette Place homes.
Houses along Charette Place in the formery racially restricted neighborhood of Charette Homes, photographed on April 2, in Sewickley. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Racially restrictive deed covenants were contracts that reinforced segregation. Along with redlining, they contributed to the creation of urban and suburban ghettos where Black people and other ethnic minorities were forced to live. The impacts went far beyond housing and may be seen in enduring inequities in education, health and employment.

Though racially restrictive covenants are still attached to properties, technically carrying through from one deed to the next, they have been unenforceable in the courts since 1948, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a law making it possible for property owners to repudiate deeds with racially offensive language. But the effects of the covenants echo on: Many of the segregated subdivisions created in the 20th century remain mostly white. 

The racial contract

Segregation gained a strong foothold in American society around the turn of the 20th-century. Jim Crow laws enabled transportation companies to separate passengers; hotel, restaurant and theater owners could deny service to non-white people or force them into segregated spaces; and racial zoning and the use of racially restrictive deed covenants gerrymandered landscapes into Black and white blocks and neighborhoods.

In an age when eugenics was a popular belief and when many people believed in cultural evolution, non-white people (and non-Christians) frequently were considered inferior and harmful — “nuisances” that were threats to property values and public health.

Historians have identified isolated examples of property deeds dating to the 1850s that excluded purchasers of specific races and ethnic origins. It wasn’t until the 1890s, though, and the creation of Baltimore’s Roland Park subdivision that white people deployed racially restrictive deed covenants across an entire planned community to exclude Black residents.

Four children, one holding a babydoll, stand in front of a concrete wall. Below them, overgrown foliage. Above, the peek of clouds and the top of a tree.
Archival photo from August 1941 of children standing in front of half mile concrete wall in Detroit. The wall was built in August 1941 to separate a Black neighborhood from a white housing development going up on the other side. (Photo by John Vachon/Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection)

In 1911, Baltimore enacted the nation’s first racial zoning ordinance. The law delineated down to the city block where Black people and white people could live, purportedly to “promote general welfare” and prevent conflict. Within a few years, other cities adopted their own racial zoning laws.

In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial zoning was unconstitutional.

Racial covenants, though, were not barred by the ruling. Covenants are contracts among private individuals, not government actions like zoning laws. As part of a property’s title history in documents filed in public records, they exist in perpetuity. Many covenants explicitly read that they “run with the land.” This means that they apply to all future owners.

Covenants typically contained language that explicitly excluded Black people, Jews and other ethnic groups. For example, Perrysville Manor, a McCandless subdivision created in 1922, prohibited lots from being sold to or rented “by any negro or colored person or persons of negro blood.”

Rtvsrece found many examples of this language in deeds we examined for this story, despite the many court decisions and laws meant to end the practice.

Federally sponsored racism

The federal government got into the racial real estate business with the formation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation [HOLC] in the 1930s. The new entity surveyed cities and created color-coded maps denoting mortgage lending risk levels.

Green-shaded neighborhoods were all white and lacked immigrants and industry; they were considered the “best” risk. Red-shaded or “redlined” neighborhoods were deemed “hazardous” and the riskiest; they contained large numbers of Black households and immigrants, poor housing stock and industries.

In 1937, HOLC coded 11 Pittsburgh neighborhoods as “best”; 27 as “still desirable”; 42 as “definitely declining”; and 34 as “hazardous.”

Also in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration began encouraging developers to use racially restrictive deed covenants to secure federal mortgage insurance.

Racially restrictive deed covenants became unenforceable in the courts in 1948. Shelley v. Kraemer was the landmark case that should have ended their use. But deeds continued to be filed in property sales that excluded Black people.

Racially restrictive covenants included in an Erie County deed filed in 1924, barring Black people and people of "Polish, Italian, Austrian, Romanian, Hungarian, Slavish" descent from owning or leasing property. Photo shows paper with black type in old fashioned typewriter style.
Racially restrictive covenants included in an Erie County deed filed in 1924, barring Black people and other ethnic groups from owning or leasing property. (Erie County Land Records, Deed Book 604. Courtesy of Marshal Granor. Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Housing discrimination didn’t end after 1948. Redlining and practices within the real estate industry, such as steering white people and Black people to specific neighborhoods, persisted. In 1958, Pittsburgh enacted a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity. A decade later, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.

Practices like subprime mortgage lending, also known as reverse redlining, bypassed laws and court decisions meant to protect consumers. Many Black homebuyers and homeowners were lured into high interest loans that set them up for foreclosure.

The racially restrictive deed covenant, though, remains one of the most insidious tools devised to enforce segregation. Finding them is as simple as digging into a folder of family papers or sitting down at a computer terminal inside the County Office Building.

Oak Ridge Park

In 1939, the Barone & Lind Company created 27 home sites in a subdivision in what was then Baldwin Township. The company advertised Oak Ridge Park as a “beautiful wooded plan” near churches, stores and the South Hills Country Club. “The plan will be restricted,” the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspaper reported Aug. 13, 1939. “Each home will have the approval and architectural advice of a resident architect.”

Larry Pearson’s parents bought a home in Oak Ridge Park in 1942. His father, Gustave, was a Swedish immigrant who emigrated in 1910 as a teenager with his family. They settled in Clairton where Gustave’s father worked in the U.S. Steel mill there.

A black and white advertisement for Oakridge Park with several different fonts and a photo of a house. "See it today–Move in May 1st" reads the headline.
An advertisement for the racially restricted Oak Ridge Park development, from the April 28, 1940 edition of the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. (Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph via

Gustave followed his father into the mill, and he and his wife Anna got a $5,500 mortgage to pay for their new home. Larry was born two years later.

After his mother died, Pearson moved back into the family home in 2000. “Most of my life I've lived here,” he said standing in the doorway of the two-story brick house.

Now 80, he remembers it as mostly rural with open fields where he could fly a kite. “That was our woods,” he said pointing toward the back of his house. “We had the creek and the crabs and the lizards and everything — all gone.”

He can’t think of any Black families currently living in his neighborhood. “About six or eight houses down the street there. There was one for a while, I remember,” he said.

A man in a baseball hat stands in front of his brick home on a sunny day.
Larry Pearson outside of his Oak Ridge Park home on March 12, in a subdivision built in what was then Baldwin Township, which is now in Whitehall. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Pearson didn’t know about the racially restrictive deed covenant attached to his home, but he knew of the practice. “That was very routine,” the retired schoolteacher told Rtvsrece after seeing a copy of the restrictions for the first time. “I know cemeteries did that, too. It just was a different world back then.”

How does he feel about it?

“Is that what you call an anachronism? Yeah, it seems a little bit backward,” he said.

What was then Baldwin Township has been divided into several municipalities. Whitehall, in which Pearson’s home now sits, has a population today that is 6% Black, lagging behind the county’s 13% Black population.

Like Pearson, Gail Smith is white and a retired schoolteacher. She lives across the street in a home that her parents bought in 1962. Her father was a mail carrier and her mother was a nurse.

Smith also recalls Oak Ridge Park as a very homogeneous white neighborhood. Like Pearson, she was surprised to learn about the racially restrictive covenants.

“I was clueless that that was part of our community here,” she said in a telephone interview.

Smith feels terrible about the restrictions. “Nowadays we're thinking of, you know, gated communities,” with physical gates, she said. “But those gates were very invisible.”

Sampson Acres

Orin, Glenn, Harold and Stanley Sampson inherited their family’s Penn Hills farm. Their father, Albert L. Sampson, and uncles George and John Howard Sampson, began subdividing it in 1921, creating the Sampson Farms subdivision. In 1936, Glenn Sampson divided a portion of the larger Sampson Farms to create Sampson Acres.

A black and white view from above of the swirling streets and single family homes of Churchill Valley.
Orin Sampson’s Churchill Valley subdivision in Penn Hills in the foreground. Created in 1947, it didn’t have racially restrictive deed covenants. Neighborhoods with racially restrictive deed covenants are located nearby, including Sampson Acres. (Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center)

Soon after creating the subdivision, Glenn Sampson began selling lots there. Orin Sampson even built a home there and raised his family on Orin Street.

On Feb. 14, 1941, Sampson filed restrictive covenants for Sampson Acres; all of the individuals who had bought properties there since 1936 were signatories. The restrictions prohibited nuisance industries and activities, set lot and house sizes, set minimum costs for new houses ($4,500) and required all architectural designs to be approved by Glenn or Orin Sampson.

And this: “No lot shall be sold to nor shall any building or buildings thereon be occupied by persons of the negro race, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy of servants of the negro race employed by the owner, owners or lessees of the premises.”

Brick homes line a street at dusk as a single streetlight shines down on a parked car. In the foreground, a chainlink fence and well manicured lawn.
Houses along Orin Street in Sampson Acres, on April 1, in Penn Hills. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Sampson Acres was one of many subdivisions that the Sampson brothers created between the 1920s and 1970s. The Sampsons built thousands of homes in now familiar eastern suburban subdivisions, including Eastmont and Garden City. They also were among the first commercial developers in Monroeville.

In the deeds reviewed by Rtvsrece, only Sampson Acres contained racial restrictions.

Most of the people living in Sampson Acres approached for this story declined to speak about the neighborhood’s history and the racially restrictive deed covenants attached to their homes.

A 27-year-old Black man who lives in Sampson Acres, and declined to give his full name, said he has lived his entire life there.

Showed a copy of the Sampson Acres restrictions, he said he hadn’t known that the restrictions were attached to the home. He said he had seen examples of them in school.

How did the language make him feel?

“It makes me feel like that, you know, Black people in America haven't been treated fairly,” he replied.

Sue Fisher also lives in Sampson Acres in a home just steps from where Orin Sampson once lived. She’s a white woman who bought her parents’ home in 1978. Her parents were the second owners of the two-story brick home where Fisher has lived for 68 years. Its first owners, Vincent and Theresa O’Leary, were signatories to the 1941 Sampson restrictions.

She, too, was unaware of the racially restrictive deed covenant.

“People should be able to live right wherever they want to live,” she said. “And back then, everything was different.”

A few Black entrepreneurs began buying homes in Penn Hills in the 1920s. Many more came after World War II. By 1980, some Penn Hills neighborhoods were becoming majority Black.

The Cathedral of Learning looms beyond Lytton Avenue, a street with cars on one side and tall trees arching over it. On the left, houses and green lawns.
The Cathedral of Learning looms beyond Lytton Avenue in a formerly racially restricted plan in the Schenley Farms Historic District, in Oakland on April 3. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Schenley Farms

In 1983, Schenley Farms was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 1980s nomination form and a 2012 update to increase the historic district’s boundaries have a lot of history about the homes and the neighborhood. Missing, however, from the historic preservation documents and other published histories is a long-forgotten episode that exposed the neighborhood’s segregated development.

Pittsburgh Urban League Executive Secretary R. Maurice Moss told a congressional committee in 1947 that housing discrimination was a leading cause of poverty among the city’s Black residents. “Negroes are kept ghettoed by the agreements made by private real-estate operators who refuse to rent or sell property to Negroes in other than so-called Negro areas, or who arrange restrictive covenants in deeds,” Moss said.

Schenley Farms, a subdivision of 90 homes in Oakland, was the only neighborhood Moss named in his statement. “The so-called Schenley Farms area was cited as one area in which covenants operate,” Moss said. “Contracts in this area are not drawn specifically towards Negroes, although they are so constructed as to block Negro occupancy.”

Created in 1906 by developer Frank Nicola, Schenley Farms continues to rely on the original deed covenants — which required company approval of buyers and set minimum costs — to regulate development. Nicola envisioned Schenley Farms as an exclusive enclave of architect-designed single-family homes. Schenley Farms homeowners have vigorously defended those covenants, going so far as to have the neighborhood designated a city historic district with strict regulatory controls.

Brick homes and green lawns line a sidewalk going uphill away from the camera. Daffodils bloom in the foreground.
Houses line Lytton Avenue in the formerly racially restricted plan of Schenley Farms, in Oakland on April 3. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

Schenley Farms remained all-white until the 1970s. In 1975, K. Leroy Irvis bought a home in Schenley Farms. Irvis was a civil rights leader who became the first Black speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Four years later, University of Pittsburgh history professor Larry Glasco bought a Schenley Farms home. Byrd Brown, another prominent Black civil rights leader who ran unsuccessfully for mayor, also lived in Schenley Farms.

Rob Squires is a white pediatrician. He and his wife have lived in Schenley Farms since 2003. As the current president of the Schenley Farms Civic Association, Squires has a deep appreciation for neighborhood history, but he did not know about the congressional investigation until Rtvsrece showed him documents in February.

“It makes me sad,” he said. “I think the idea that one would discriminate on the basis of race has always made me sad.”

He believes that Schenley Farms is still mostly white. Squires mentioned that Irvis and Glasco were among the handful of prominent Black residents who have lived there.

Like Squires, Glasco was surprised to learn of the 1947 investigation. Though he’s written extensively on Pittsburgh Black history, Glasco didn’t know that his neighborhood once acted proactively to exclude Black people and that it had been singled out by Moss.

Irvis and Glasco moved to Schenley Farms three decades after Shelley v. Kraemer. Their arrivals broke Jim Crow’s long stranglehold on the neighborhood, but its moment in the national spotlight and the restrictive covenants that still stand today are all but forgotten.

"There are Black people in the future" is written in white on a black yard sign posted beside a sidewalk and a brick structure that holds two turtle decorations. Behind this, the brick walls of the house and spring plants.
“There are Black people in the future” reads a sign in Sampson Acres, in Penn Hills, on April 1. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

‘There Are Black People In The Future’

A sign in the yard of a two-story brick house in Sampson Acres reads: “There Are Black People In The Future.” Inspired by a 2019 East Liberty art installation, it stands out among the neighborhood’s few Black Lives Matter signs.

Though developers like the Sampsons didn’t envision Black people in their subdivisions’ future, others did. Black developers and homebuyers vigorously resisted segregation any way they could. In suburban Cleveland and Atlanta, Black developers bought large tracts of former farmland and converted it into cul-de-sacs with yards, ranch houses and period-revival homes. These became some of the nation’s first Black planned residential communities. 

In Pittsburgh, Black newspaper executives affiliated with the Pittsburgh Courier developed Belmar Gardens, the city’s first single-family-home cooperative. Charles Davis, a former Sampson subcontractor, developed subdivisions in Penn Hills and inside the city. Despite using a racially restrictive covenant in Sampson Acres, the Sampson brothers helped Davis to acquire land from white people unwilling to sell to Black people. The Sampsons bought the properties and flipped them to Davis who then built homes for Pittsburgh’s growing Black middle class.

A family stands in front of the brick homes of Belmar Gardens. The mother, in a flowered dress, smiles towards her husband in a suit and tie. The young men with them wear suits.
Archival photo of the Gaddie family – Morris Jr., Morris Sr., Ella, and Gregory – at Belmar Gardens in Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, undated. Belmar Gardens residents first moved in during October 1954. (Gaddie-Truman Family Papers and Photographs, MSS 504, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center)

In the wake of Shelley v. Kraemer, Pittsburgh’s 1958 open housing law and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Black families moved into previously segregated neighborhoods and restricted subdivisions like Sampson Acres. These moves happened slowly and mostly quietly, from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Unlike the violence that erupted in places like Levittown, Pennsylvania, where white opposition arose to new Black neighbors, diversity arrived in Pittsburgh with just a few history-making flashpoints.

Oswald Nickens was an obstetrician practicing at Magee Womens and West Penn hospitals in 1962 when he tried to buy a home for his family in Stanton Heights. The developer refused to sell to Nickens, and the physician filed a successful discrimination complaint with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations. The developer didn’t like the decision and took his case to court. The case was settled in 1965 after an existing homeowner in an adjacent subdivision, developed by the same builder, sold the Nickens family a home.

Houses seen through the gap in a "for sale" sign on a sunny day. Another red "for sale" sign is in the green yard beyond.
Doyle Road in Oak Ridge Park, on March 12. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/Rtvsrece)

When Larry Pearson bought his parents’ home in 2003, his deed contained a clause binding him to the restrictions filed in 1940.

Pearson is among many Pennsylvania homeowners whose land titles contain unenforceable and offensive language. Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a new law enabling property owners to repudiate racially restrictive deed covenants. Rep. Justin Fleming, D-Dauphin, sponsored the bill signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro Dec. 14.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development is working on a system that, once implemented, will allow any homeowner to go into a Recorder of Deeds office, complete the form for their property and file it free of charge as part of a property’s title history.  

Most of the people interviewed for this story are interested in taking advantage of the new law.

Gail Smith, of Whitehall, said that repudiating the racially restrictive covenant was the right thing to do. “I mean, we can go into a long discussion of it, but it is the right thing to do. Everyone is equal, can live where they'd like in America,” she explained.

Lasting consequences

Redlined and racially restricted neighborhoods are not simply part of history. The effects of these long-abandoned segregation methods persist. One way to see them is in how neighborhoods today remain segregated.

Deed covenants and redlining contributed to cycles of poverty and limited the choices of generations of Black Americans like Pittsburgh reparations activist Rick Adams’ family. “I feel my dad, if he hadn’t been restricted or we would have a lot more family assets, let me put it that way. From going to college to wanting to be a journalist. I'm not sure what else he might have done,” Adams said.

Rashad Williams is a University of Pittsburgh public policy professor who also works on reparations for Black Americans. He sees deed covenants as another barrier to entry for 20th-century Black homeownership.

“They have the effect of denying Blacks access to the wealth building opportunities that were opening up as a consequence of the homeownership programs that were created in part to relieve the pressures placed on families during the Great Depression,” Williams explained.

A sign on plywood reading "We want white tenants in our white community," in all capital letters and two American flags affixed to each top corner. Photographed in the snow with leafless trees.
Archival photo from a February 1942 riot at the Sojourner Truth homes, a new U.S federal housing project in Detroit. Whites rioted in an attempt to prevent Black tenants from moving in. (Photo by A.S. Siegel/Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection)

He sees the legacy of racially restrictive deed covenants in many places, from overcrowded Black neighborhoods with substandard housing to the justifications for urban renewal and highway construction that isolated and destroyed Black neighborhoods.

Except for Penn Hills, where the Sampson brothers slapped covenants on Sampson Acres properties, and Stanton Heights, census tracts where the other racially restrictive deed covenants were filed remain overwhelmingly white. The inequities created by 20th-century housing segregation continue to be felt, as reports on regional racial inequity released in 2016, 2019 and 2021 show. Black residents lag white people in wages, homeownership and health care. There is a bright line connecting 21st-century social problems with the conditions created by racially restrictive deed covenants.

“There's no telling how many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, have had those restrictive covenants,” Adams said. “And how much real estate, housing and economic development was thwarted or held off because of such things.”

Clarification: Oak Ridge Park was developed in Baldwin Township, from which Baldwin Borough and Whitehall Borough were later carved. This story has been amended to reflect that.

David S. Rotenstein is a historian and writer and can be reached at

This story was fact-checked by Lucas Dufalla.

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