Man on crusade to expose Colorado's racist property records: 'This is so appalling!'

Posted at 4:00 PM, Oct 13, 2017

ESTES PARK, Colo. -- Battles over racism continue to rile the country. The latest is hitting Colorado where a longtime resident in a popular tourist town discovered several neighborhoods that only welcomed white people.

Now, there's an effort underway seeking homeowners to take a stand against their historically racist property records -- not only in Estes Park, but in dozens of other communities across Colorado.

"This is kind of like our Confederate statues in Estes Park, except these are statutes," John Meissner said. "These are subdivisions or neighborhoods where they have race-restrictive covenants in place."

Meissner said he's one of a handful of Estes Park residents who study the town's history. He stumbled on the race-restrictive covenants while researching Georgia Graves, an opera singer who once lived in a subdivision there.

"Just reading through, and it's six pages, and I was not really paying attention because it's always just words, words, words," Meissner said. "And then I said, 'Oh my gosh! This is so appalling! This is saying that, you know, only white people can buy property here."

The covenants founded what is now Stanley Heights. They placed restrictions on a property's appearance, size -- and race.

"None of said building sites or any part thereof shall at any time be used or occupied by, or sold, leased or given to any person or persons of any race except the white race. But this restriction shall not prohibit any of the occupants from having employees who are not of the white race," the covenants, dated from the early 1940s, read.

The neighborhood is aptly named for F.O. Sanley, who parceled out land in Estes Park in the 1940s.
Stanley is a community figure of pride. His statue sits in front of the Stanley Hotel, made famous in the 1980 horror film The Shining.

Meissner agreed that his work is essentially labeling Stanley a racist.

"Yeah, yeah," he said.

Meissner admitted he's stirring emotions in a way that's not settling well with other people in Estes Park.

"I came up here saying I don't care if i'm chased out of town. I really don't. Estes Park's history is going to be better when I leave than when I came," he said.

He's also calling for action. Even though old, race-restrictive covenants were deemed unconstitutional in a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Meissner wants individual homeowners to take a stand against them since they still appear in property records.

With the help of an attorney, Meissner generated a document that homeowners can sign and file with the Larimer County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

"It's called an extinguishment of encumbrance," he said. "And so, this is like a little time capsule, for future historians to come across, and this will be connected to those restrictive deeds. So, they'll see those and then they'll see this, which says, OK, that was that generation, and now people are going on-record this generation and saying, 'I don't adhere to this, I abhor this, I don't at all agree with this.'"

Estes Park mayor Todd Jirsa agreed Meissner's efforts are worth it.

"We can't change that past, all we can do is help to rewrite the—our chapter of history in the future," he said. "That's all that we can do. And we should do that, and we should take a stand. People need to know where we stood on this issue."

Denver7 spoke with several people in Estes Park, including longtime homeowner Jim Mount, who believe race-restrictive covenants no longer have a place in their community.

"I know of nobody in this neighborhood, and I mean I know pretty much all the neighbors, I know of nobody who would support that today," Mount said.

Denver7 Investigates discovered race-restrictive covenants were fairly common across Colorado at a time when they were prevalent in other eastern states, too.

The process of locating every protective covenant across the state can be cumbersome. It differs from county to county. But in Jefferson County alone, Denver7 found race-restrictive covenants in 82 neighborhoods -- most dating back to the 1940s.

In Denver, the Polo Club neighborhood only welcomed white people.

Nonetheless, in Estes Park at least, Meissner hopes the community will take a stand alongside him.

"It sends a message outside of Estes Park [that] this is not who we are," he said. "We are inclusive, we are not exclusive."

Many of the covenants across Colorado remain on the books because many of the subdivisions were small -- as few as four homes in some cases. Chances are no one's reviewed them in decades.

On Monday, Denver7 Investigates identifies the Denver metro neighborhoods that have taken a stand against protective covenants over the years and how they did it.