Duke Files Waivers To Disavow Restrictive Covenants in Historic Deeds

Duke University has filed waivers of any rights it may have with Durham County to enforce restrictions on the deeds of 232 properties in Duke Forest that decades ago prohibited their purchase by African Americans.

Duke officials said that although the waivers are largely symbolic, they represent an important statement on the part of the university. The properties, which Duke sold as early as 1931 and as late as 1969 to its faculty members, have deeds with racial covenants that have not been legally enforceable since the Supreme Court ruled them illegal in 1948. Duke had previously repudiated these covenants and announced its intention to never enforce them. In its current action, Duke has taken the further step of amending each of the deeds to eliminate the possibility that the exclusionary provisions could ever be revived.

"Several decades have passed since anyone enforced these types of covenants," said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead. "Even though we have no reason to expect the covenants ever to be enforceable in the future, we have revised each deed to disavow symbolically the language that is a reminder of the segregation of a past era."

The deeds said the properties could not be sold to persons of "Negro blood." In 1989, the director of Duke's real estate office sent a letter to affected homeowners saying, "Duke University regrets the presence of this ugly specter from the nation's and the University's past. Just as Duke must bear responsibility for its prior actions in creating these covenants, we now wish to do what we can to eliminate their vestiges."

The 1989 letter added that "the University can and hereby does make it clear that it repudiates racially restrictive covenants and regards them as morally wrong in addition to being legally void."

The suggestion that Duke take legal action to waive the right to enforce the restrictions was made a few years ago by an alumnus, Ed Rickards, and has been the subject of several columns by Duke student Kristin Butler in the campus paper, The Chronicle. Pamela Bernard, Duke's vice president and general counsel, reviewed the request shortly after she assumed her post in July 2006 and agreed, recommending to Brodhead that Duke file the waivers. During the past year, Duke attorneys have been researching hundreds of deeds, culminating in the filing of the waivers in the public record in early October.