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Primary Sources in African-American History

Tips, techniques & links to help you find answers for your research papers & projects

Finding Old Racial Restrictions at the Recorder of Deeds Office

To locate any restrictive covenants that may have been applied to an individual property, one can speak with someone at the Recorder of Deeds office about establishing a chain of ownership transfers. Restrictive covenants of any kind (including restrictions still legal today, such as those governing how or what a homeowner may build on their home) are not required to be recorded with the Recorder of Deeds, but it is usually "advisable" to record them, so it is worth looking for them. Racially restrictive language is most commonly found in the warranty deeds themselves, or in "restrictions" or "covenants" that appear in the same books in which property deeds are recorded. Often, the language from a restriction or covenant applied to an entire "addition" or "subdivision" is reproduced in the deeds recorded with the sale of all individual lots carved out of that larger piece of land. The language may still be present in recent deeds on homes sold at some point during the time such clauses were used, just because it was never formally removed, or it may be present only in older deeds for that property. Any home sold between around 1917 and 1948 may have, or have had at one time, a racial restriction that can be found in one or more deeds or related documents from that time period. These restrictions may be listed prominently, or they may be tucked in among restrictions on the size of home or auxilliary buildings that can be built on the property.


Deeds are typically recorded as individual documents placed in large books, in chronological order. To find out which deed book you must look in, you will need to establish a chain of ownership for the property. Establishing this chain is fairly simple for Boone County warranty deeds going back to 1973:

1. Set up a free account to search the Boone County property records.
2. Search on the last name of the current owner of the property you are interested in, as a Grantee. Use the Advanced search to specify Warranty Deed (WD) as the type of document you are looking for.
3. Locate the record for the WD for the property. Look for the name listed as the Grantor, and also note the legal lot name of the property. The grantor may be an individual person or a company.
4. Search the person or company named as Grantor on the WD as a Grantee. This should show you the deed for the previous sale of the property. Knowing the legal lot name of the property will make it easier to identify the correct property if the seller owned and sold many properties.
5. Repeat this process, making a chain of Grantors and Grantees, until you run into the 1973 wall. You will need to note the last Grantor in your chain, and the legal lot name of the property. From this point on, you will need to go to the Recorder of Deeds office and look at deed index books for the pre-1973 records, to keep your chain going back to the 1927-1948 period.
6. You may see racial restrictions in a deed, or you may just see references to "covenants" and/or "restrictions" governing the use of the property. These references usually come with deed book numbers and pages, which can be checked. Generally, the covenants or restrictions likeliest to specify race will be those drawn up between 1927 and 1948.

The above procedures and examples are for Columbia, Missouri, but in general, the process will be to locate pre-1917 city ordinances, and do research with the local Recorder of Deeds office.

The other way to find restrictive covenants in general, if you are not interested in any one property, is simply to page through the deed books for the relevant time period, and look for them. Deed books containing the types of documents most typically containing restrictive covenants in Boone County are usually marked on their spines as Warranty Deed or Off Deed.  Warranty Deeds are easier to skim through, as they are generally typewritten onto preformatted forms, with any restrictions typed into the large section in which the property's physical location is described. "Off Deed" volumes tend to contain longer text and more elaborate restrictions, or documents that are not simple transfers of property. Racial restrictions are also seen on some cemetery deeds, and these may be found in the deed volumes marked "Misc Deeds."

If you are interested in participating in a project documenting racially restrictive deeds in Boone County, MO, please contact Rachel Brekhus, MU History Librarian.

City Planning Documents

Sometimes, it is possible to locate internal city planning documents such as this 1935 City Plan for Columbia, Missouri. In the 1930's in mid-Missouri, at least, racial segregation is visible as an explicit ideology and shared assumption of urban planners and city commissioners.

“The Douglass School, providing both elementary and high school facilities for negroes, is well located to serve this population. A site farther west on McBaine Avenue, held for school purposes, is too near the westerly edge of the area now occupied by negroes, and as previously discussed, there is no reason for this district to expand. The grounds of the Douglass School are inadequate, and should be enlarged to provide not only better school play area, but a general recreation center for negroes….”p.28