COVINGTON, Ky. — A vacant, deteriorating house at 209 Pleasant Street in Covington sits unassumingly with its padlocked front door and boarded-up window. The peeling paint and overgrown grass in its small front yard suggest it’s an uncared-for space that might not withstand the gradual evolution of the area. The decaying condition of the property obscures its alleged historical significance as locals say it was once the home of a former slave.
"This is history right here," Eilene Morris said. "There is not another house on this street that is built like this.”
Morris, 82, is the great-great-granddaughter of a former slave named Nettie Pearson. Morris said Pearson once lived in the Pleasant Street house. The house is still in the name of Morris's grandmother and Pearson's granddaughter, Nettie Baskins, who died in 1976. Now, Morris is trying to transfer the ownership of the house into her name so she can restore its condition and bring it back to productive use.
"They are two women that I miss so much and I'm sure that they would want me to do this," Morris said.
Morris has filed a case in Kenton County's probate court. She hopes to turn the property into a museum or revitalized home and to have it recognized as a historic space. She said honoring the lives of her loved ones is propelling her in her uphill battle.
"I missed so much being gone from my grandmother and all the things that went with her,” Morris said. “And our families don't seem to come together like they used to, and that's what I want because I know that's what she did."
Beth Johnson, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, said it is common for marginalized people to struggle with keeping assets organized and within a family. She said being proactive and protecting their ownership of properties is key.
"Working through the probate court is hard. It can be lengthy,” Johnson said. “And so one of the best deterrence of that or one of the best preventions for that is to make sure that with your house now with your family ... you have all of that stuff outlined."
Morris has until November to go through probate court to gain ownership of the house. Then she will have to resume talks with the City of Covington over how to address a long list of fines and code violations on the property that have been put on pause for her probate battle.
In a statement, the city said in part:
"This was an unusual step. But it was in response to what we believe to be Ms. Morris's good-faith efforts and pending change in ownership. Our philosophy seeks compliance, rather than punishment. The City wants people to keep up their property. And we'd rather people put money into the property rather than fines."
WCPO has spoken with the Cincinnati Preservation Association and the Center For Great Neighborhoods to explore how they might be helpful to Morris's effort to acquire and redevelop the house.
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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