Decades-old racist covenants on property deeds have lasting effect in New Jersey

Occasionally, New Jersey residents who attempt to sell their homes make a surprising discovery in the deeds and paperwork filed decades ago – a disturbing reminder of the history of discrimination faced by African Americans and other minorities.
In 1940, former River Edge Mayor John Pell Zabrisek and his brother were selling a large section of their 100-acre family farm to home developers. In the paperwork for the sale, a clause reads: "No person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or lot" except domestic servants.
Another deed from a tract of undeveloped land being sold in Ramsey in 1948 reads: “No person of the negro blood or race shall be permitted to own rent or occupy any part of said premises.”
Such racial covenants were common across New Jersey, on large developments and individual homes alike, from Cape May to Sussex County throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Such covenants were struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 1948. Laura Sullivan, of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, says the practices, along with red lining by banks and other policies, had already taken their toll.
“It's really important that people know that our policies have helped white families build wealth while creating barriers to those opportunities for Black families and other families of color,” she said.
Across broad swaths of suburban New Jersey, Black families were locked out of that source of wealth. It's a prime reason why the median net worth for Black families in New Jersey today is just $6,000 compared to $300,000 for white families, according to a report from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Sullivan says the discriminatory policies, dating back to slavery, are still having impacts on the state.
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