Living in Society

Business as Usual

Cottage Reserve from Lake Macbride Beach

In a first for this blog I’m publishing a post by another author. I met Kim Painter during her election campaign for Johnson County Recorder in 1998. She continues to serve as recorder. I have the Painter yard sign I put up back then but don’t use it any longer because she has run unopposed for reelection. Readers may recall I frequently write about Big Grove Township. The Cottage Reserve, the subject of this article, is located in our township.This article first appeared in The Prairie Progressive in print edition. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Business as Usual by Kim Painter

Once in a great while, though you think you know what your job is and what it means, the earth of the greater wide world beyond will shift, sending you off-balance in a signal moment of realization. Suddenly the job is not what you thought, but rather all that and much more. For me, it’s happened a few times. Once, when same-sex marriage went from being a contentious back-room LGBT community issue to a national, front-burner fastball coming hard across the plate. Suddenly the media spotlight was intense, emotions ran high, and I was operating at a whole different level than on a day-to-day basis. Day-to-day kept coming to be sure, but so did this other social and civil rights issue with a life and velocity all its own.

It happened more recently when a gentleman wrote to me asking for some assistance with a research project. The man was F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the University of Iowa, Colin Gordon. He wanted all our deed document images from 1900-1950. It was a new kind of request, for which there was no current template.

He explained that he hoped to get the digitized images into a file to run through optical character recognition (OCR) software. He and his class would then scan for phrases like “the Caucasian race” to locate what we now call ‘racially restrictive covenants.’ Back then, they were called business as usual. I was hooked on the idea, and proceeded to work with our software vendor and county IT staff to load the entire 50 years of deed documents into a file for him. It was a privilege to play a small role, and it is a marvel that today, all documents of this sort in Johnson County and Iowa City are online and mapped. The work is found here:

As I began this article I was struck to recall a third occupational epiphany, a personal one. Some 15 years ago, I was printing off some covenants and restrictions for a customer with questions about a potential property boundary dispute. The situation was unfolding out around Lake Macbride, at what is known as the Cottage Reserve. My eyes stopped on a page, widening considerably, as I slowly comprehended in full the following verbiage:

(6) The said Cottage Reserve area is hereby platted for the sole use and benefit of the Caucasian Race, and no lot or parcel of ground shall be sold, owned, used, or occupied by the people of any other race except when used in the capacity of servant or helper.

Please note the awful and purposeful use of the word “used,” as in “used in the capacity of servant or helper.” There’s no mistaking that meaning. People of color are able to occupy space on this property only if being used… by white people.

As if the above weren’t clear enough, consider the fast-following item (7). It prohibits the ‘keeping or maintaining of hogs, cattle, horses or sheep.’ So in near proximity to reserving the Reserve for the sole benefit and use of the Caucasian race, people of color are categorized alongside hogs, cattle, horses, or sheep.

Again, there is no mistaking the meaning. This is what we thought at the time. This is what we ordained and enforced in legal documents. It is a mark of racism’s insidiousness that such documents were so
often mundane in one paragraph — stipulating maximum heights of garages or number and kind of outbuildings, delineating collective
use of shared roads or wells—only to pivot in the very next to equating entire swaths of humanity to livestock, allowing their presence only if white owners were using them.

Often, when the topic of reparations is raised, one observes the heads of certain kinds of white people exploding, if quietly. People of that sort might seek enlightenment in these covenants and restrictions, which were stipulated in property transactions from the early 1900s until outlawed in 1948. They were of like kind across the nation.

Consider the financial implications of the sheer volume of parcels
restricted in this manner. Tote up the generational losses of wealth caused by the absence of just one home and its plot of land from one family. Have you ever borrowed against your home and land? Think of all those who help kids through college by doing that very thing, and how many people of color had no means to do so. How many lost educations, how much lost income, what final tally of all the wealth lost forever to families over time? It is breathtaking to contemplate. And it all starts on pieces of paper, the day-today documents that come through an office as people buy and sell homes and property. It is that simple, and that monumental. In way, it mirrors racism itself.