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Diversity In Fresno: How Racial Covenants Once Ruled Prestigious Neighborhoods

Dec 8, 2015

A few weeks ago we brought you a report about how rare maps are shedding new light on the history of racial discrimination in Fresno. In the 1930’s many neighborhoods with high minority populations were frozen out of government backed home loans by the federal government, in a practice called redlining. But that wasn’t the only government backed segregation that happened in the San Joaquin Valley. In fact, decades ago, in some prestigious Fresno neighborhoods being white was a requirement. FM89’s Diana Aguilera visits one of them with this special report. 

The unincorporated community of Fig Garden in Fresno is known for its vintage homes, large Cedar trees and a homey historic feel. But local historian Bill Seacrest says the neighborhood has a long often overlooked history starting from its beginnings in the early 1900s.

“What they wanted of course in Fig Garden was a well to do white clientele. Anybody else could really stay out of it.”

And that meant minority groups.

“Anyone who was Hispanic, anyone who was African American, anybody who was Asian, anybody who was Chinese, Japanese I’m certain would have been unwelcomed in the Fig Garden in the 1920s and Armenians too.”

Back in the day, deeds to properties explicitly restricted any minority group from purchasing, leasing, or occupying homes in this area and other parts of town. This practice was known as a racially restrictive covenant, a legally enforceable contract in a deed.

During the early to mid-1900s, it was used nationwide to prevent people of color from purchasing homes in white communities.

"There was a lot of latent, a lot of background prejudice that was here in Fresno and many other cities and towns throughout the United States. And the way Fig Garden was protected at the time was emblematic of that." - Seacrest
Historians say during the 1900s the underpass on Van Ness Boulevard represented a symbolic division line separating minorities and the white community of Fig Garden.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

These type of covenants weren’t only practiced between property owners. They were also used by real estate boards and neighborhoods associations. In 1948, the Supreme Court found that while racially-based restrictive covenants were not themselves unconstitutional, enforcement of the covenants was unconstitutional.  But it wasn’t until 1968 when racially-restrictive covenants in deeds was ruled illegal.

Local attorney Howard Watkins was surprised when he bought a home in 1975 a block away from Huntington Boulevard, another prestigious neighborhood in southeast Fresno.

“The ones that went with the home we bought on Fifth and Balch, a block of Huntington, barred ownership by people from the Ottoman Empire explicitly saying Armenians couldn’t buy.”

Even though it wasn’t enforceable at the time, it still triggered a reaction from him.

“It brought it home on somewhat of a personal level,” Watkins says. “It wasn’t discriminating against me but I found it appalling that in a democracy, in America, we would have formal recognition of discrimination.”

This historic district is now home to many racial groups including Hispanics and Armenians. Back then Armenians were viewed as recent immigrants and often were specifically excluded from purchasing a home.

Barlow Der Mugrdechian with the Armenian Studies program at Fresno State says tensions escalated to a point where many Armenians moved out of Fresno to bigger cities.

"Many people went to the Bay Area or Los Angeles and they simply didn't move back. The memories were too hard too painful to remember to come back that they were discriminated against."

Besides not having purchasing power, minorities also suffered from job discrimination and overall segregation.

I asked Der Mugrdechian to read a deed from a home in Fig Garden written in 1944.

“Neither said premises nor any part thereof shall be used in any matter whatsoever or occupied by any Negro, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Armenian, Asiatic or native of the Turkish Empire. Now you don’t really have the overt discrimination but you have other forms.”

Decades later, local historian Bill Seacrest and I walk through Fig Garden. We’re right by the underpass on Van Ness Boulevard leading from the Tower District to Fig Garden.

“It represents a symbolic division line,” he says. “Minorities and people of color lived on one side of the underpass and then the privileged, entire white, lived on the other side of the underpass.”

But he says times have changed and even Fig Garden has become more racially diverse.  He says it’s now based on your socioeconomic status whether or not you can afford to buy a home and not on your skin color.