The Segregated South Hill

William H. Cowles, Jr.'s push for an all-white neighborhood

How one prominent Spokanite used racial discrimination to promote his real estate empire.

One of the most prominent families in Spokane’s history is that of the Cowles. William H. Cowles, Sr. came to Spokane in 1891 with a vision of starting his own news company. By 1894 he was the majority owner of the Spokesman-Review, which is still in print and owned by the fourth generation of Cowles. Over the last 130 years the family has taken on many other business ventures. They include investments in the timber industry, KHQ Inc., and several real estate companies.

Born on July 23, 1902, William Hutchinson Cowles, Jr. was raised to understand the empire his father started. At the age of 16, the young man began working for the newspaper. The circulation, the advertising, and the reporting were all very fascinating to him. After graduating from Yale in 1924, he would return home and help grow the family business. One of his first jobs after college would be director of the Inland Empire Paper Company. After his father died in 1946, he took over the reins and further expanded the various business ventures, including becoming more involved in real estate.

A piece of land on the South Hill near where 29th Avenue meets High Drive was owned by the Cowles family. Cowles, Jr. decided in 1953 to divide up the land and sell it off. There were a total of almost 200 homes built across his five subdivisions and they all have one thing in common. Of the 150 or so homes that remain, all of them contain a multiple page document titled “Declaration of Protective Covenants,” which contained a section that restricted homes from being sold to people of color. The third clause of the document states that “No race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.” William H. Cowles, Jr. intentions were to create an all-white subdivision on the South Hill.

In many communities across America, restrictive covenants were often written into property deeds in order to keep people who were not white from living in certain areas. For many years, these covenants were enforceable and those who violated them could lose their property. A case named Shelley v. Kraemer went before the United States Supreme Court in 1948 stating that these racial restrictive housing covenants could no longer be legally enforced.

Why was Mr. Cowles writing racially restrictive covenants several years after the Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable? Even though they were now invalid, private parties were still able to add the language into the deeds. They were meant to tell the potential buyer what type of neighborhood they were moving into. It was not until 1968 that language like this was outlawed completely from all deeds due to the passing of the Fair Housing Act. However, the majority of the original racial covenants still remain in the property records today.

The Comstock Addition and the racial covenants within the property records have been in the spotlight in recent years. In 2016, several homeowners became aware of the covenants and began the process of removing them. However, many other parties have pushed back from having these records erased. They claim that the covenants should be left alone because they are a valuable teaching tool from our past and can be used moving forward. Homeowners who have a home with a racial covenant are now able to file a request through the county auditor to legally get rid of the offensive language from these records. William H. Cowles Jr. passed away in 1970 and the next generation of Cowles took over. Since his passing the family put out a statement disassociating with the covenants. They stated that “such racial segregation is offensive and in no way represents our company or family values.”