Santa Clara Valley Lives: Family papers reveal Jim Crow restrictions in early Los Altos

Courtesy of Robin Chapman
The Chapman family home is under construction in Los Altos, in 1948. The late Ashley Chapman’s ghostly shadow can be seen in the photo, lower left.

In a pile of old family paperwork, I found the deed to the lot my parents bought in Los Altos in the 1940s. This deed uncovered a great deal more than family history.

Because there was very little civilian housing built in the United States during World War II, it was difficult for my parents to find a home when my father took a job at Ames in 1947. He and my mother rented a room in Palo Alto and had to share a bathroom and kitchen with other boarders. They decided to build a house in Los Altos.

They purchased a piece of property that had been part of an old apricot orchard, and their deed included three pages of restrictions. They could not live in a trailer. They could not raise farm animals. It was the fifth one that stunned me: The property could not be used or occupied, “by any persons of African, Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian or Malay descent.”

I knew these ugly “restrictive covenants” were common in other parts of the country. I had no idea they had ever been imposed in California. Los Altos wasn’t incorporated until 1952, so this was not a city issue. The restrictions came from either the developer or the underwriter. I was aghast that my parents had signed such a thing. Imagine how those impacted must have felt.

I discovered these covenants were all too common in the Santa Clara Valley and across the country then. Although they were nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), the restrictions have remained in title paperwork ever since, and are now being rediscovered by a new generation. Shortly before I stumbled on my parents’ deed, reporter Marisa Kendall wrote about restrictive covenants in The Mercury News.

“It is really shocking to see the extent they permeated the region,” she told me. “And it wasn’t that long ago they were enforceable.”

Some people did stand up. Writer Wallace Stegner resigned from the board of a Palo Alto housing cooperative in the 1940s when restrictions were proposed. At about the same time, the United Autoworkers Union and the American Friends Service Committee fought for unrestricted housing in Milpitas and Mountain View, though both were initially unsuccessful. Following the Supreme Court decision, other methods were used to segregate Bay Area cities. In the 1950s, builder Joseph Eichler insisted his developments be open to all and, with changes in federal law, the barriers began to come down.

Which leads me back to my own discovery. In the course of my research, I called a friend who is the author of several books about the African-American experience in the Bay Area. I told her of my family’s deed and my distress. First, she gave me several sources for my story. Then she told me to have compassion for my parents, who lived in a different time and faced pressures unknown to me.

“You don’t know what was in their hearts,” she said.

From family papers, I learned history. From a friend, I gained a lesson in tolerance.

Robin Chapman is a journalist, historian and author of “Historic Bay Area Visionaries” (The History Press, 2018).

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