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Racist Deed Restrictions

Screenshot of WBUR website, Jan 23, 2022

On Sunday, WBUR (Boston’s NPR radio station) posted a story about race or ethnic-based restrictive covenants in Massachusetts land records. The story also ran in Sunday’s Lowell Sun and was on the air and online from WBUR on Monday.

Today I’ll supplement that story with additional information about the documents mentioned and how the story came about from my perspective.

Last summer I received an email from WBUR’s Todd Wallack asking if I had ever come across a deed with a restrictive covenant that barred the sale of the property to another based on race or ethnicity. I said I knew of a couple of them and sent him examples.

One was from a deed from 1881 for property in Fairmount Street in Lowell. Here’s the relevant line:

The said premises being deeded under the express agreement and condition that the land shall never be deeded or conveyed to any person born in Ireland.

WBUR’s Simon Rios took over from Wallack and thoroughly reported the story that appeared this week.

Here’s some background:

When I became register of deeds in 1995, I found a list of a dozen documents that had “interesting” content. I’m not sure who compiled the list, but it described the verbiage and book and page citation of each document. There were several with race or ethnic based restrictions that caught my attention. I found them in our record books, made copies of them, did some preliminary research then set them aside.

I knew that deed restrictions of this type have typically disappeared from subsequent deeds in the chain of ownership and that such restrictions are no longer enforceable. Nevertheless, real estate law is complicated and once a restriction is created it can legally linger even if it is otherwise unenforceable.

WBUR’s interest caused me to dig deeper into the story of these documents, especially the one cited above. As is often the case with Lowell, many threads of the city’s history came together in this one parcel of land.

From 1879 Lowell Atlas. East is to right.

The above section of the 1879 Lowell Atlas shows the parcel that had the restriction placed on it. It’s a vacant lot on the east side of Fairmount Street labeled “G. Butters.” Immediately across Fairmount Street is the home of George Butters. The unmarked road next to the Butters home that connects Fairmount to Nesmith Street is today’s Meryl Drive.

George Butters was born in Vermont in the 1820s. After marrying Susan Felch in Vermont in 1851, the couple moved to Lowell. George operated a successful livery stable near the train station that is now the Middlesex Community College Performing Arts Center at Central and Green Streets (a building many of us know as the Rialto). Mr. and Mrs. Butters also owned a home on the west side of Fairmount Street. They had three children: George Jr., Charles, and Eleanor.

George Sr. died in 1880 and the following year his widow Susan and their children, George Jr. and Eleanor, sold the vacant lot across the street from the home still occupied by Mrs. Butters. This is the deed that contained the “No Irish” restriction.

The buyer of the property was Abel Atherton, a machinist and inventor who held several patents on textile-making machinery. Atherton held onto this vacant parcel until 1887 when he sold it to Arthur Bonney.

Arthur Bonney was a lawyer, the Lowell City Solicitor, and a Superior Court judge. He compiled adjacent lots on Fairmount Street, including the one from Butters with the deed restriction, and merged them into a single parcel with a magnificent house that became known as The Bonney Estate.

Bonney Monument at Lowell Cemetery

Those of you who have been on my Lowell Cemetery tour may recognize the name Bonney from the monument shown above. Judge Bonney and his wife, Emma, had one child, a daughter named Clara who was born in 1855. In 1891, Clara married Charles Sumner Lilley, a judicial colleague of her father. Clara and Charles had one child; a daughter named Clara B. Lilley. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, Clara developed tuberculosis and died in 1894 at age 39. Her death devastated her husband and father (her mother had died two years earlier) so they retained a nationally known sculptor, Frank Elwell, to create a unique monument for Clara. Besides being a beautiful work of art, that monument (shown above) has gained notoriety for other reasons which I’ll leave for another day.

Screenshot of Fairmount Street from Google Streetview showing Bonney Estate to the right

After Clara’s death, Judges Bonney and Lilley continued to live in the Fairmount Street home until Arthur’s death in 1896. Young Clara inherited the property from her grandfather although her father (who lived until 1921) acted as legal guardian of her property until she was old enough to own it herself. Soon after that, Clara married Philip Dunbar of Newton, Massachusetts. Upon the marriage she not only took the last name Dunbar but also began using her middle name – Bonney – as her first name.

After the death of her father in 1921, Bonney Dunbar (formerly known as Clara Bonney Dunbar) put the Fairmount Street property up for sale and in 1925 conveyed it to Charles Brooks Stevens and Edith Ames Stevens.

Commonly known as C. Brooks Stevens, the new co-owner was a member of the textile mill-owning Stevens family. Mrs. Stevens’s father was Adelbert Ames who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Civil War and served as the military governor of Mississippi during reconstruction. Her mother was Blanche Butler, the daughter of Benjamin F. Butler, a Civil War general, member of Congress, and governor of Massachusetts.

When the Stevens sold the property in 1944, they first subdivided it into two lots; one with the grand Bonney home, the other a vacant lot upon which another house was constructed. In 1957, the subsequent owner conveyed the Bonney house to The Battles Home Corporation which converted it into an upscale residence for single gentlemen. The Battles Home sold the property in 2005 when it was further subdivided which is where it stands now.

As for the restrictive covenant, it only appeared in that one deed and was never repeated by subsequent owners. However, once a covenant is created, it “runs with the land” which means the property is encumbered by it whether it is specifically mentioned in subsequent deeds. But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that any covenant like this is void so even if it continues to “run with the land” it has no legal effect.

Even though it has no legal consequences, should that line be redacted from the records? I say no for at least two reasons: First, our entire system of land ownership is based on the completeness and the reliability of the records at the registry of deeds. If we begin removing portions of those records, we will inject doubt into a system that is widely respected and followed. In our contemporary era where many people consider the truth to be whatever seems convenient for you to believe at that moment, casting doubt about who owns what property is a path we should avoid taking.

My second reason for leaving the records intact is that it is a reflection of our history. This is not like some Civil War statue to a traitorous general that was erected long after the war as an affirmation of white supremacy. These records were created contemporaneously with the events they depict and as such are a primary source of what people thought and said at the time.

We should not erase our history; we should learn from it.

Learn About Jack Kerouac Online from Alaska

Learn About Kerouac on Zoom from Anchorage, Alaska

Jack Kerouac, U.S. Navy, 1943 (colorized by metacolor on reddit)


Alaskans and people around the country who are over the age of fifty will have an opportunity to learn about author Jack Kerouac in four seventy-five-minute Zoom sessions beginning February 10. The class, entitled “Off the Road,” is designed for Alaskan senior citizens who know little or nothing about Kerouac’s work beyond On the Road. Emphasis will be placed on Kerouac’s five Lowell-based novels, as well as writings published in Atop an Underwood and The Unknown Kerouac. The third session will explore Kerouac’s time in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest from 1955 through 1956 using John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks and writings by Gary Snyder and Kerouac.

 Mike McCormick, a longtime Alaska resident who grew up in Haverhill, Mass., will lead the sessions. “Off the Road” is sponsored by Ole, a non-profit organization dedicated to lifelong learning affiliated with the University of Alaska/Anchorage.

Sign up for an introductory membership to Ole for $50 (regular price is $200) to take classes. Typically, classes are on UAA campus. The course is Zooming because of pandemic.


Kerouac Centennial Schedule

Here’s a schedule of events from the Jack Kerouac Estate and the Kerouac @ 100 Committee for the upcoming centennial birthday celebration of Lowell’s most famous writer.

To mark the centennial birthday anniversary of world-renowned “Beat Generation” pioneer, novelist, writer, poet and artist JACK KEROUAC, THE JACK KEROUAC ESTATE and the Kerouac @ 100 Committee have planned an array of events and happenings to take place in his Lowell, MA hometown starting in his birth month of March. See a full list of happenings and details below.

“March 12th, 2022 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lowell, Massachusetts’ favorite native son, Jack Kerouac, and folks the world over are weighing in on the enduring legacy of his work,” states Jim Sampas, Literary Executor of the Estate of Jack Kerouac. “The celebration of his centennial this March in his hometown will include important artifacts, such as an exhibit of the original ‘On the Road’ scroll manuscript, and for the first time ever in one place, all the photographs of Kerouac taken by one of his dearest friends, Allen Ginsberg. There will be readings, film screenings, and musical performances, all paying tribute to one of the most important authors of our time, and the versatility and openness of Kerouac’s work.”

Kerouac has been praised and cited as an influence for several of the most well-known public figures in music, entertainment, literature, fashion, and politics ranging from President Barack Obama to David Bowie to Francis Ford Coppola to Hunter S. Thompson and many more.  Kerouac was recently the inspiration for DIOR HOMME creative director Kim Jones’ 2022 fall show with a collection that nodded to the Beat Generation style and featured an 80-meter-long facsimile of Kerouac’s generation-defining literary classic ‘On The Road.’ See photos from the show in London via Vogue HERE.

The upcoming festivities will feature the return of a portion of the original 120-foot-long ‘On The Road’ scroll–which Time Magazine included as one of the best novels of the last 100 years—on loan from The Jim Irsay Collection as part of the exhibit ‘Visions of Kerouac’ which will be free to the public on Friday, March 18 at the Lowell National Historical Park’s Boott Cotton Mills Gallery. Further details are included below.

“The ‘On the Road’ scroll manuscript is one of the most important and fascinating manuscripts in American literary history,” proclaims Michael Millner (Director, UMass Lowell Kerouac Center). “American literature and American culture more broadly were never the same after ‘On the Road,’ and this is rare opportunity to experience the manuscript–and it is certainly an experience.”


MARCH 4 – MAY 1: “Reflections from the Road” Art Exhibit
Arts League of Lowell Gallery – 307 Market St. (Lowell) All Ages

An art exhibit featuring regional artists who create works of art inspired by specific passages of Kerouac’s writing. Held in Greenwald Gallery, paintings by Judith Bessette, photography by Paul Bessette.

FRIDAY, MARCH 11: Kerouac Night of 100 Poems: Blues & Haikus”
Pollard Memorial Library – Ground Floor Meeting Room Lowell
6:00-9:00 PM All Ages

Join us on the eve of Kerouac’s 100th birthday as we read aloud 100 of his musical blues choruses and American haiku poems. Light refreshments and musical accompaniment. For further info and reader signup, please visit


“Kerouac Sites of Lowell Tour”: Guided bus tour of the Jack Kerouac sites of Lowell. 1:00-3:00 PM

“Kerouac Biographers Panel”: Featuring Dennis McNally and Holly George Warren, moderated by Todd Tietchen. Academic Arts Center – 240 Central St. (Lowell) -4:00 PM, All Ages

“Poetry Reading”: An evening of poetry with Anne Waldman, Scarlett Sabet and Paul Marion. Academic Arts Center – 240 Central St. (Lowell) – 7:00pm, All Ages

“Musical Event”: A night of music with Frank Morey and Willie Loco Alexander. Warp And Weft – 197 Market St (Lowell)- 9:00 PM (directly following Poetry Reading), 21+ event

“Music was important to Jack Kerouac as Jack was to countless music makers,” says Chris Porter, President of the Jack Kerouac Foundation Board of Directors. “Both Willie Loco Alexander (who released his well-known song ‘Kerouac’ in the 1970’s) and Frank Morey have been significantly touched by Jack’s writings and their respective performances will be perfect finales to a special day of talk, poetry, and song celebrating Kerouac’s 100th birthday.”


Kerouac Sites of Nashua Tour”: Guided bus tour of the Jack Kerouac sites of Nashua, NH. 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM, starts & ends in Lowell

“Jack Kerouac’s Road – A Franco-American Odyssey” film screening
Luna Theater at Mill No. 5 – 520 Jackson St., Lowell
2:00 PM

Part documentary, part drama, this 1987 Canadian Film Board production weaves reenactments, archival film and photographs, and interviews with French-Canadian and American writers and artists of the 80’s (including Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti) to paint a portrait of Lowell’s thoroughly Franco-American novelist and poet.

TUESDAY, MARCH 15: “Tribute to Jack Kerouac: 100 Years, Still Alive”
Virtual Panel, 6:00 PM (ET)

A virtual bilingual panel on Jack Kerouac moderated by cultural journalist Tanya Beaumont (Radio-Canada) with panelists Herménégilde Chiasson (director of the film ‘Le grand Jack,’ based in New Brunswick), Susan Pinette (Director of Franco-American Studies at Canadian-American Center & Professor of Modern Languages at University of Maine, based in USA), Jean-Christophe Cloutier (Author La Vie est d’hommage and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of Pennsylvania, based in USA)

FRIDAY, MARCH 18 – Week of APRIL 25: “Visions of Kerouac” Special Exhibit
Lowell National Historical Park – Boott Cotton Mills Gallery – 115 John Street, Lowell, MA 01852
12:00 – 5:00 PM daily

This unique special exhibit will include the return of a portion of the original “On The Road” scroll. The scroll in its entirety stretches to 120 feet and is one of the most extraordinary and highly valued manuscripts in American literary history. It will be on loan from The Jim Irsay Collection. Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has a renowned collection which includes historic and iconic artifacts from rock music, American history and pop culture. The 24-foot portion will be available for viewing along with archival books, writings, personal objects, and photographs including never-before-seen images of Jack Kerouac taken by fellow Beat Generation pioneer Allen Ginsberg. There will also be a collection of photographs by John Suiter. More details on the exhibit location can be found here:

SATURDAY, MARCH 19: “An Evening with David Amram”
Luna Theater at Mill No. 5 – 520 Jackson St, Lowell (Time TBA)

Acclaimed composer and jazzman David Amram–now in his 92nd year–will reflect on his days with Kerouac as he recounts them in his book ‘Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac.’ He will also show the film ‘Pull My Daisy,’ in which David appears and Jack Kerouac narrates.

APRIL 8 & 9: “The Town And The City” Festival”

This two-day music and arts festival produced by Chris Porter will take place in various event spaces, bars, cafes and galleries throughout downtown Lowell, MA. The festival is named after Jack Kerouac’s earliest novel which was primarily set in this historic mill city. More info at

 OCTOBER 6-10: “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival”
Location & times TBD.

The October Festival features tours of Kerouac’s Lowell places–including many sites described in his Lowell-based novels-panel discussions, reading, jazz and folk music, films, open mike events, as high poetry competition, book signings, and more. Kerouac fans and scholars from across the United States and around the world travel to Lowell for the festival. More info at

 Some additional events transpiring around the centennial celebration will include:

– Famous quotes from Kerouac’s works being made as banners and hung on light poles in downtown Lowell, MA

– The Jack Kerouac Foundation has been created to establish a Jack Kerouac museum and performance venue in Lowell, MA. Their first initiative will be funding to pursue the establishment for the museum and performance center in the magnificent St. Jean Baptiste Church where Kerouac was an altar boy and the site of his funeral in 1969.

Adventure Lab is a new app and platform in development from the team at Geocaching HQ that allows you to play and share unique outdoor scavenger hunts, experiences, and games. The free Adventure Lab® app guides players through the process of finding clues, solving puzzles, and completing adventures one location at a time. Jack Kerouac‘s Adventure Lab has between 5-8 points located in Lowell which will allow visitors to discover places important to Jack Kerouac‘s story while having fun!

– DIY Lowell will work with Kerouac @ 100 Committee on various historical markers, a “little library” and chalk walk.

– Unreleased works of Kerouac, as well as authors who were inspired by Kerouac, will be published via Sal Paradise Press—the content development arm of The Jack Kerouac Estate formed by Sampas and music industry veteran Sylvia Cunha (Director of Marketing and Development for The Jack Kerouac Estate).

– Launch of the Kerouac And Me podcast/audio project which will see stars of music, film/tv, literature, politics, sports and business share stories of how their work was inspired by Kerouac and was created by Sampas and Cunha for Sal Paradise Media and New York Times bestselling authors Dave Wedge and Casey Sherman for Fort Point Media.



About the KEROUAC @ 100 Committee:

The Kerouac @ 100 Committee consists of The Kerouac Center at UMass Lowell, Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Office of Cultural Affairs, the Pollard Memorial Library, Lowell’s Franco-American Day Committee, and Québec Delégation of Boston.

Lowell Real Estate in 2021

Here’s my review of local real estate activity and trends in 2021. This originally appeared in the January 2022 edition of the Merrimack Valley Housing Review.

The real estate boom that began along with the pandemic continued through much of 2021 according to recording statistics from the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds. The overall number of documents recorded in 2021 was up 9 percent from the number recorded in 2020 (75,922 vs. 69,468), the number of deeds recorded was up 17 percent (8,451 vs. 7,250), and the median price stated on all deeds was up 11 percent ($465,000 vs. $420,000).

There were also signs that the real estate market was cooling off. The number of mortgages recorded was up but only by 4 percent (18,035 vs. 17,347). Also, the number of mortgages recorded on a monthly basis dropped considerably at the end of the year. For instance, the number of mortgages recorded in July 2021 was down 17 percent from the number recorded in July 2020 with August down 4 percent, September down 16 percent, October down 20 percent, November down 18 percent, and December down 34 percent. Consequently, a very strong first half yielded relatively high end-of-the-year numbers but the monthly totals showed an ongoing decline in the second half of the year.

With the Federal Reserve expected to raise interest rates to combat rising inflation, the number of mortgages being recorded should continue to decline through the coming year. Rising interest rates will also cool the housing market which has been booming. As mentioned above, the number of deeds recorded for 2022 was up and the month-to-month numbers did not show the precipitous decline seen in mortgages. However, as interest rates rise, potential buyers will have their ability to borrow curtailed which should in turn nudge home prices downward.

Still, home prices in the region are at historic highs when measured by the median consideration stated on recorded deeds. In Lowell, the median deed price of $380,000 was 15 percent higher than in the prior year. Most area towns saw similar increases. To place these numbers in context, the median deed price in Lowell in 2005 at the peak of the last housing boom was $254,900. (It fell to a low of $170,000 in 2011).

Revenue generated by the deeds excise tax corroborates the rise in property prices. The deeds excise is a tax assessed on the sale of real estate at a rate of $1.56 per $500 of consideration paid. As the value of property being sold goes up, so does the amount of deeds excise tax collected by the registry of deeds. The $16.9 million collected at Middlesex North in 2021 was an increase of 26 percent over the $13.4 million collected in 2020. However, there were fewer deeds recorded in 2020 so to make an accurate comparison it is necessary to calculate a tax per deed average. Doing that results in an average excise per deed of $1,994 in 2021 and of $1,843 in 2020 which is an increase of 8 percent.

While there was foreclosure activity in 2021, it was limited due to several factors including lingering moratoriums on foreclosures. But beyond any pandemic restrictions, the rate of foreclosures is always low in a time of rising real estate prices. If a homeowner falls behind in monthly mortgage payments and faces foreclosure, in a rising market the homeowner can sell the house and realize enough money to pay off the balance of the loan and thereby avoid foreclosure. In a declining market, the outstanding balance of the loan might exceed the fair value of the house (which is called “being underwater”) which would prevent the homeowner from selling unless the lender was willing to release the mortgage for less than the amount due (a “short sale”). For the record, there were 21 foreclosure deeds recorded in 2021. In 2019, before Covid and in a decent economy, there were 91. When the real estate bubble burst in 2008, there were 602. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in the next few years in which foreclosures would rise to bubble-bursting levels, however, the continuation of the pandemic, the end of moratoriums, rising interest rates and occasional shocks to the economy make it likely that foreclosure rates will rise in 2022.

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