WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's diversity committee Monday officially recognized the work of a group of residents who worked this summer to acknowledge and right a historic injustice.
The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee used its first meeting of the new year to pass a resolution commending the residents of the area formerly known as Colonial Village not only for renouncing the racist covenant that restricted home sales in the neighborhood at its birth but for trying to make it easier for other residents of the commonwealth to do the same.
Before passing the resolution, the DIRE Committee acknowledged the harm done by the covenant -- both as a tool for maintaining "white purity" in the neighborhood and as an insult to Black people for nearly a century.
The covenant, written into home deeds in the 1930s, forbade home ownership in the neighborhood to people of color. Although the racist language was subsequently nullified by Supreme Court precedent and legislation at the state and federal level, they continued to persist on the deed documents as homes changed hands through the decades.
Last year, residents of the neighborhood, which includes Berkshire Drive, Colonial Avenue and Orchard Lane, filed a with the Registry of Deeds documents that condemned and revoked the covenant and replaced it with the following statement: "This subdivision is rededicated as welcoming in word and deed to all people without regard to their race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sex characteristics, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression."
The residents went a step further by asking state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, to file legislation in Boston that would enable other Massachusetts residents to more easily strike the vestigial language from their own deeds. H.4944 ended up with 50 co-sponsors and ended the recently completed legislative session in committee.
In Massachusetts, Section 23B of Chapter 184 of Massachusetts General Law voids any deed language that "purports to forbid or restrict the conveyance, encumbrance, occupancy, or lease thereof to individuals of a specified race, color, religion, national origin or sex."
Barrett's amendment to Section 23B would allow "a person holding an interest in real property or a party in interest affected by a void provision in this section [ ... to] request the land court to expunge a provision made void by this section."
Although the covenant has not had force of law for decades, DIRE Committee member Bilal Ansari emphasized that the deed language has had a lasting impact.
"That it was allowed to sit in the deed, it did have an effect," Ansari said. "It had an effect on every person of color who came across that. That was the initial intent and aim and purpose. Therefore, it was effective in doing that.
"For the people who had to live through that, there was an affective harm. So it was effective."
The DIRE Committee used its second resolution of 2021 to put pressure on the Select Board to "hire an independent investigator to determine the facts … and issue a timely public report" on allegations raised in a recently withdrawn federal lawsuit against the town, its former police chief and its town manager.
As it did for the Select Board later that night, Monday's meeting marked the DIRE Committee's first gathering since the Dec. 14 announcement by Sgt. Scott McGowan that he was dropping the lawsuit.
The committee's members were consistent in their calls for a vetting of the allegations of racism and sexual misconduct raised in the suit since it became public in August, and they did not back off that stance this week.
One member, Andrew Art, did suggest that since the town is no longer party to a lawsuit, the Select Board could conduct the probe "in house" without needing a third-party investigation. But the majority of the committee, including Select Board Chair Jane Patton, favored the approach of bringing in a neutral party.
"I think it's an important step to rebuilding some kind of trust," Aruna D'Souza said of the investigation. "There were many actors in this whole situation, and the Select Board was one of those actors. The Police Department was one of the actors. The town manager was one of the actors. I think it would be difficult from an optics point of view for one of the actors to be the investigator."
D'Souza later said the probe should happen either before or concurrently with a search for a new police chief.
"If we're thinking we need to change the culture that led to the problems, we need to identify what that culture is and what has led to the existing culture," she said. "I think that's part of the larger process of hiring a new police chief.
"I'd rather be prompt in this, as long as we're making clear that ‘independent' means actually independent, however we want to word that so that can happen in a way that engenders public confidence."
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