Task force on removing racially restrictive language in Tallahassee neighborhoods holds meeting

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By: Monica Casey | WCTV Eyewitness News
July 9, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- The "Task Force for the Removal of Racially Restrictive Language in All Residential Covenants in Tallahassee Neighborhoods" met for the first time at the Bethel Family Life Center on Tuesday, July 9.

The task force was created after a woman looking to add on to a home in the Betton Hills neighborhood found racially restrictive covenants in the language.

Her attorney, Jami Coleman, said it's more complicated than simply "deleting" the offensive statements.

In the case of Betton Hills, the offensive language is embedded in the document, and runs with the land.

"It's one particular issue. There's an easement in the restrictive covenant that revives the restrictive covenant; even though it's expired, the easement revives it," explained Coleman. "So in order to get rid of the document, we need to get rid of the easement. In order to get rid of the easement, we probably need some judicial action."

Coleman said the ultimate goal is to stop circulating the document. She said the task force may need to involve title companies, property reporters, and real estate agents agreeing to strike the language.

Many at the meeting said the document causes people to relive segregation.

"Today I think was a good realization of people working together, coming together to solve this problem," said Betton Hills Neighborhood Association President Mike Brezin.

During the meeting, Brezin discussed the many reasons to work to remove the offensive language.

He cited wanting to make the neighborhood a better place to live, said the media response painted the neighborhood in a false, negative light, and said the covenant divides in a time when we should be uniting.

Brezin also said the painful, angry emotions that many have when they speak about the covenant is an obstacle to clear-headed solution-oriented thinking.

Others agree on the need to work as a community.

"We all must come together, put our heads together, and find a way to get rid this racist and old, repugnant language," said NAACP President and task force member Adner Marcelin.

The task force includes a representative from Lorrane Ausley's office, the Betton Hills Neighborhood Association, two local chambers of commerce, the Council of Neighborhood Associations, local realtors, attorneys, and professors.

Many said the issue does not only affect Betton Hills, but also those hoping to move to Tallahassee in the future.

"It's still baked and buried in the deeds, so we cannot be in the 21st century and live in a community where that kind of language is still here," said Dr. R.B. Holmes, the chair of the task force.

The language dates back to a federal housing grant in the 1930s, with the caveat that anyone looking to own or use homes on that property had to be Caucasian.

It is not only a Betton Hills issue, but a nationwide one.

Multiple options for how to remove the language were discussed; one involved a declaratory action.

"To have as many if not all of the residents involved, signed and on board, to say "we denounce,'" explained Betton Hills Neighborhood Association member Mario Taylor.

The issue with that option is that Betton Hills does not have a mandatory HOA, only a neighborhood association. The association could not force residents in the area to sign that kind of waiver.

However, Brezin and Taylor believe their neighborhood association has strong communication, and that many residents living in Betton Hills would sign such a document.

Although that option may work for Betton Hills in the short-term, it would not eliminate the language in all of Tallahassee, or the state of Florida.

A further reaching option involves state-wide legislation.

"Representative Lorrane Ausley is willing to file a bill to get that language strike, as well as Sentor Montford," said Dr. Holmes.

Others hope the City and County officials will enact a special ordinance against the offensive language; they also want the Tallahassee Bard of Realtors to disavow the language.

Another suggestion was having the Attorney General of Florida litigate the issue for the public.

The task force's Tuesday meeting included a professor from FAMU discussing the historical significance of the language.

Dr. Larry Rivers said between the years of 1932 and 1962, 98% of all mortgage loans were awarded to white people, and African Americans did not have the opportunity to move in to desirable neighborhoods.

The restrictive covenants were not just on African Americans, but other groups such as Latino Americans and Jewish Americans.

"Restrictive covenants are as old as America itself," said Dr. Larry Rivers.

Everyone at the meeting agreed; it is time for the covenants to be gone.

"We represent this all-American community; our language needs to be updated so that it's reflected in our housing," said Marcelin.

Dr. Holmes said he hopes the tasks force's actions could set a model for the state of Florida in eliminating racist language.

The task force's next meeting will be July 29 at 2:00 p.m.

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