How racist was your neighborhood?

New event series can help you answer that question

racial covenants
A slide showing a racial covenant found from property on West River Parkway in Minneapolis. Paige Elliott/MSR News

Many know about redlining, a discriminatory practice by the government and financial institutions that denied loans, mortgages and investments for neighborhoods deemed “high risk” or “hazardous.” But less is known about racial deed restrictions, also known as racial covenants that made it illegal for non-Whites to even own or occupy property in the 20th century.

The Mapping Prejudice Project (MPP), a cross-section of geographers, historians, and property research specialists, is on a mission to make these racially restrictive contracts common knowledge.

Working with the understanding that residential segregation underpins disparities in other areas like education and health care, Mapping Prejudice began its work in Hennepin County, home to some of the highest racial disparities in the nation, according to a recent Met Council report.

The group’s findings took center stage on June 21 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. It was the first in a multi-event series collaboration of community organizations called Racism, Rent and Real Estate: Fair Housing Reframed.”

At the series launch, a gym full of community members at Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis were asked, with help of facilitators, to share with tablemates memories of their neighborhoods. Then, using MPP maps placed at each table, participants were asked to ponder how they were impacted by racial covenants.

“We give a lot of presentations, and our favorite part is always hearing people’s stories,” Mapping Prejudice Project Director Kirsten Delegard told the MSR. “That’s what gives it meaning: hearing about how people experience these practices, both in benefiting and also experiencing discrimination and hardship.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get people talking about those stories in a way that feels comfortable to them,” said Delegard, “and, hopefully, we can use those stories to help advance the conversation.”

racial covenants
 Attendees shared stories and mapped out their neighborhoods at the launch of "Racism, Rent and Real Estate: Fair Housing Reframed." Paige Elliott/MSR News

Attendee Brittany Clark, who grew up in the Twin Cities, appreciated the effort. “I think this was actually a great way to do it — to go from history and sorta build upon that. That was great.”

Clark, like many of the participants who spoke with the MSR, had no idea what a racial covenant was prior to the event. “First of all, that is horrifying,” Clark said of the practice. “I knew a little bit about the redlining, but I did not know the history of the covenants. That definitely surprised me and it wasn’t that long ago. Honestly, I kinda want to do my own research and build on the info they gave me today.”

Using slides of maps and samples of racial covenants, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, Mapping Prejudice project manager, gave an overview of the group’s findings at the event. “[The language found in some covenants] is very simple,” he said. “They say this property can only be occupied by full-blooded members of the Caucasian race. We found a few that limit ownership to members of the Aryan branch of the Caucasian race… But the one thing in common: every single covenant that we found targets African Americans. Occasionally other groups are targeted, but Black folks [are] the primary targets of these policies and practices.”

The earliest covenant the group found was from 1910. By the 1930s, the majority of new homes contained these racial restrictions, said Ehrman-Solberg.

Ehrman-Solberg also said what surprised him the most was how racial covenants worked as a legal tool. He explained that if the property with a racial covenant was ever sold to a non-White, the person who sold it would have breached the covenant and could lose the property and the equity accumulated. The property would then revert back to the party who placed the racial restriction.

“The only way to remove a racial covenant from a piece of property is to track down the person who first put it in or that person’s heirs… and get them to file an addendum with the County to remove it,” confirmed Ehrman-Solberg. “Once these racial restrictions are put into the property record, they are there forever, which is actually how we’re able to find them,” he said.

Due to the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Supreme Court rulings, racial covenants are now illegal. So why take a deep dive into Hennepin County’s dark, discriminatory history now?

For one, say its organizers, part of Mapping Prejudice’s goal is to help contextualize the present. Reporting by the Met Council shows that White families in Twin Cities are three times as likely to own a home than African Americans families.

Delegard contends that these racial disparities in homeownership rates didn’t happen in a vacuum. “The whole point of the Mapping Prejudice Project is to get people to connect the past to the present. It really matters how we got here,” she said.

“A lot of people have ideas about Minneapolis, that Minneapolis was never segregated, that there has never been structural racism, and that people just choose to live in certain neighborhoods. People just choose to rent. They choose not to own their own home,” continued Delegard.

“That’s a really different scenario than if you realize that there were a hundred years of racist practices that created the situation — deliberately — that we have today. That becomes a different conversation, and that’s the conversation we’re trying to have.”

Attendees at the launch of "Racism, Rent and Real Estate: Fair Housing Reframed." Paige Elliott/MSR News

For attendee Jacquelyn Thomas, the conversation was an eye-opener. “It was important for me to show up because there is, and has been for years, racism embedded in homeownership and to us renting,” said Thomas.

“African Americans have just had a hard time with that, being pushed out of neighborhoods,” she said. “And today, to find out it’s about racial covenants — I want to understand and know more about that now.”

Calling racial covenants the “ground zero in a layer cake of structural racism,” Ehrman-Solberg stressed that until racial covenants went into place, Minneapolis was not a particularly segregated city. Blacks were not clustered into one area.

There were emerging Black communities in places like Lake Harriet, Lake Nokomis, along West River Parkway and Northeast Minneapolis. But in 30 years, those budding Black communities were obliterated. “By 1940, there is no neighborhood east of the Mississippi containing multiple Black families,” Ehrman-Solberg told attendees.

“So covenants, when combined with redlining, create this really, really nasty one-two punch. Covenants are ensuring that for large sections of the city, it’s illegal for you to live there if you’re Black. Redlining is ensuring that in other large sections of the city, it is impossible for you to get a mortgage if you want to purchase a home there.”

racial covenants
Paige Elliott/MSR News

Mapping Prejudice has unearthed and mapped out over 10,000 covenants throughout Hennepin County, with 15,000 more yet to be mapped. According to Ehrman-Solberg, the group hopes to build the “first comprehensive map of racial covenants for any city in the country.”

But what can be done about Mapping Prejudice’s findings? Delegard said that answer rests with the community.

“We always feel like this is an exercise and we’re in a relay race. So we’re doing the first leg here. But people need to take the baton from us and run with it. I’m trying to get people to the point where they agree that we need some restitution as a community,” said Delegard.

“What’s that look like? That’s for the community to decide. What I’m trying to do with this project is show that this was deliberate. This was not just individual homeowners who were racist,” she continued.

“This was organized, government-required. OK, we have a precedent for that restitution – the Japanese American internment that was also government sanctioned. African Americans lost millions and millions of dollars’ worth of property here in the community of Minneapolis that I live in.”

 

The next event in the series, “Housing Discrimination Revealed: History of Race and Real Estate in Minneapolis Bus Tour” is already filled to capacity. But the remaining events are open, with the last event being held back at Sabathani Center on October 25. For more info, visit mhponline.org.

CANDO is also hosting an affordable rent community forum on July 18 from 6-8 pm at 3715 Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis. For more info, go to https://thecentralneighborhood.com.

For more info about the work of the Mapping Prejudice Project, go to www.mappingprejudice.org.

Arrow through for more photos from the event.

About Paige Elliott

Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at pelliott@spokesman-recorder.com.

View all posts by Paige Elliott →