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Modestans shine light on area’s racially restrictive housing policies of the past

A form of systematic, government-sanctioned racism — the kind we would call insidious today — was alive and well right here in Modesto and other area cities in the 1930s and 1940s.

Under loan regulations imposed by the federal government, developers here and elsewhere across the United States commonly barred people of color from buying homes in new whites-only subdivisions as cities grew beyond historic downtowns, adding layers of suburbs at the fringe. These rules were documented in covenants, conditions and restrictions at the Stanislaus County Recorder’s Office, where they remain today.

“No part of said real property shall ever be occupied at any time by any person or persons not of the white or Caucasian race,” reads language common to dozens of records for thousands of homes in Modesto alone.

Often, people recording these documents felt the need to specify who they really didn’t want in their neighborhoods: negroes, Mexicans, “Asiatics,” Chinese, Japanese, Hindus, Malayans, Filipinos, Turks, Armenians, Cubans, even Hawaiians all were singled out in various records. A common exception allowed such if they were servants.

“The South has always been scapegoated for racism in this country,” said Modesto’s David Froba, who with his wife, Sharon, is bringing our prejudicial past to light. “We say, `We’re not the South, where all the bad stuff happened.’ But that’s not true, it’s never been true and it’s something people need to understand.”

The Frobas, with dedicated help from a group of volunteer Modesto High School students, so far have found racially restrictive covenants in half of the Modesto subdivisions recorded back then — 85 of 169 — and their search is not yet complete. Having learned what to look for, students found more in spot checks of Turlock, Hughson and Newman subdivisions.

Modesto’s racially restrictive housing policies of the past are the focus of this year’s upcoming American Heritage Scholarship essays. The popular competition has engaged high school juniors and seniors in constitutional debates since 2002; this year’s subject is uniquely local.

We’ve known, at least anecdotally, of this shameful past. Now we have the actual documents to study, thanks to the Frobas.

As a reporter, I wrote nine years ago about Monterey Park Tract, a colony of mostly black families who lived in self-imposed isolation nine miles south of Modesto, west of Turlock. Descendants of proud and independent founders said they sought land of their own in 1941, when racism kept them out of white subdivisions going up north and east of downtown Modesto.

But Monterey Park Tract had room for only 38 families. Far more people of color remained in low-income neighborhoods in south and west Modesto.

Poor whites — Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s and ‘40s — also settled there during and after the Great Depression because those unincorporated settlements were close to urban jobs but unburdened by city building standards. They eventually transformed shanties into homes fashioned out of scavenged materials, relying on septic tanks instead of municipal sewers.

Residential segregation was blunted in 1948 when Thurgood Marshall persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to declare null and void all race-based housing covenants, and the Frobas have found no such documents recorded here after 1949.

Over the decades, parts of south and west Modesto have become predominantly Latino. What hasn’t changed much is a legacy of poverty and substandard government services there.

Twenty-one never-annexed, unincorporated islands covering 2,314 acres remain today in the city, mostly in south and west Modesto. Some don’t have sewers; soil softened by overtaxed leech lines from septic tanks has caused home foundations to shift, cracking stucco and tilting floors. Many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks, or street lights. Some don’t have storm drains, or parks.

Similar pockets remain in Ceres and Turlock as well. In all, Stanislaus County has 37 such islands with 3,900 acres, home to more than 20,000 people.

In 2004, four Latino neighborhoods in west and south Modesto, helped by civil rights attorneys in San Francisco, challenged the foot-dragging by Modesto and Stanislaus County in two discrimination lawsuits. One demanded better services, like those found in affluent neighborhoods ; the other, better representation, because the method for electing the City Council at that time all but guaranteed that poor neighborhoods would never have their “own” council member.

A court fight over the election issue went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. City Hall lost and finally switched to district elections, a system we continue to use today. Cities, schools districts and other agencies here and throughout California saw Modesto as the guinea pig and also changed how they vote.

The services lawsuit dragged on seven years before the city and county agreed to make specified improvements in several underserved neighborhoods, and setting priorities for upgrading others. The city’s legal fees came to $2 million.

Richard Rothstein, a U.C. Berkeley academic, sees a link between approved residential segregation of past decades and today’s social problems.

Why is black median wealth, across the United States, only 5% that of whites? Partly because government policies prevented blacks from building equity in property in nice neighborhoods, the main source of wealth for most families, Rothstein argues in his book “Color of Law.”

In a 2014 legal journal, Rothstein wrote, “During the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations, public housing programs purposely and self-consciously concentrated African Americans in urban ghettos, while federal housing finance programs purposely and self-consciously created whites-only suburbs.”

Including here in Modesto.

“Students learn about Rosa Parks and separate drinking fountains in the South, the heart of discrimination,” Sharon said. “But it also occurred in the north and west.”

Sharon, by the way, has long been an advocate for the disenfranchised. A retired English teacher, she in 1998 started Modesto High’s Day of Respect, helping students gain empathy for the vulnerable. She stumbled on the issue of residential segregation a couple of years ago, when a friend showed her race-based CC&Rs for a Modesto neighborhood, then got David involved in the research.

High school juniors and seniors throughout Stanislaus County have a unique opportunity to absorb and learn from this history, imperfect though it was, through the American Heritage Scholarship Program.

All, including home-schooled and charter school juniors and seniors, and their parents, are invited to a special presentation at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Little Theater at Beyer High, 1717 Sylvan Ave., Modesto. Speakers are the Frobas, Modesto attorney William Broderick-Villa and me.

Participants then have four weeks to craft an essay arguing whether victims of this discrimination are owed anything. If you’ve paid attention to the many heated debates over proposed reparations — whether for the World Wars, slavery or internment camps — you know this can be an emotional topic.

Students can win from $100 up to $2,000. Since the contest was created just after the 911 terrorist attacks in 2001, sponsors — the Stanislaus County Office of Education, The Modesto Bee and Modesto City Schools — have awarded $170,000 in these scholarships.

Although many young writers may tend toward compassion for victims, others will see legal decisions handed down by various courts defending cities and counties that are truly trying to bring disadvantaged communities up to snuff. Several judges favored Modesto and the county during the course of the lawsuits. And questions about children paying for the sins of the fathers are timeless.

The county has spent many millions of dollars over the past couple of decades marching through a long list of expensive improvements to underserved pockets, annexing portions. Top remaining priorities show $33 million more to be spent in 10 projects — six of the seven most needy are in west Modesto.

Whichever side you come down on, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Frobas. Sometimes it’s difficult to acknowledge mistakes, but pretending they never happened is worse, and learning about them makes us all richer.

“Our feeling,” David said, “is that this is the most important part of our history that people do not know.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390, @garthstapley1

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.