Film links Minneapolis’ Jim Crow past to present-day disparities

Courtesy of TPT

For the past several years, Mapping Prejudice has done the work of exhuming, documenting and informing the community about Hennepin County’s dark and buried history of color-coded housing bigotry. Beginning in Minneapolis, the team has been on a mission to unearth and map out racially restrictive property deeds, also known as racial covenants, that made it illegal for non-Whites to own and occupy property in the 20th century.

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Now a new TPT documentary, Jim Crow of the North, is set to further the discussion. Through the power of storytelling, Daniel Pierce Bergin, TPT senior producer, said he hopes the documentary not only sheds light on Minneapolis’ past housing discrimination but also connects the dots to the stark racial disparities that still exist today.

Bergin, a Minneapolis native, has produced several notable films, including the regional Emmy-winning Lowertown: The Rise of an Urban Village and North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers, to name just a few. He currently produces TPT’s Minnesota Experience, a weekly history series of which Jim Crow of the North is an offering.

Bergin spoke with the MSR in advance of the film’s sold-out screening with Mapping Prejudice on Feb. 18., and the official TPT television premiere on Feb. 25. An excerpt of that conversation appears below.

Daniel Pierce Bergin // Courtesy of TPT

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR): What sparked the idea for Jim Crow of the North?

Daniel Pierce Bergin (DPB): Well, that’s a good question because, as you know, this research project [Mapping Prejudice] has been going on for a couple of years now. But, for me as a storyteller and filmmaker, I thought bringing the unique power of cinema to this history and this research could really amplify the knowledge.

And I think the Mapping Prejudice team agreed. While they have been doing great work on the ground presenting and sharing, I think they were excited to have the power of public media literally broadcasting this story.

I also just firmly believe in the importance of history… A story like this starts to provide some answers and insights into the critical issues of the day, including, why does Minnesota have some of the worst racial disparities in the country in terms of health [and] wealth…

It’s not the only reason, but we are really seeing how those restrictive covenants and the redlining that followed and the policies and disenfranchisement, lack of investment…and all the things that followed those restrictive covenants contributed greatly to the disparities we’re struggling with today.

It is really important to know that this isn’t just about these restrictive covenants creating redlines; they were really about creating green lines.

MSR: So, you’re hoping the storytelling aspect can allow the research to reach a broader audience?

DPB: Exactly. It’s kind of told chronologically and then, in terms of a story, there are characters, and we make note of some of the folks behind the early restrictive covenants, and it’s important to know who they were.

We are also going to acknowledge those in our community and others who were resisting from the beginning and then throughout the 20th Century, people who are resisting these policies and practices and trying to push back.

So, I wanted to make sure to introduce some of these characters, like Lena Smith and some of the allies and political leaders, like Walter Mondale. And then we also meet Marvel Jackson who was an important, pioneering journalist who lived in Minneapolis.

One of the inciting incidents, as the researchers see it, is when [Jackson’s] family moved into Prospect Park and a [White] mob descended on them, and the developers and real estate folks wanted a new tactic to prevent something like that from happening again. So that’s sort of the beginning of our story.

[See a teaser for Jim Crow of the North below]

MSR: What else can people expect from the documentary?

DPB: It’s a one-hour history documentary that basically explores the arc of some of the racial targeting policies — from the beginning with restrictive covenants in the early 20th Century through the Fair Housing Act and the end of the policies. But also, with acknowledging the ongoing impact [of the policies] …

I worked on Slavery by Another Name that TPT produced for PBS a few years ago. It has that feel to it in terms of the importance. It’s not as big of scope as that project, obviously. But it’s reminding me of it in terms of revealing a really important and little-known history that could get conversations going and inform how we think and plan and make policy around equity and space…

MSR: So, where’d the title of the film come from?

DPB: That’s a really good question. [Laughs] That’s always an interesting process. Even looking back on NorthStar-Minnesota’s Black Pioneers — that was a long process of arriving at this idea that the North Star has a unique meaning for African Americans as a guide out of slavery, but also this being the North Star state.

In this case, one of the scholars, Penny Peterson, in my interview with her, she’s a really amazing scholar and also really clear and strident in her language, and so she don’t take no shorts! As we talked, she uttered the phrase, “This is Jim Crow of the North!”

This was sort of a hidden but very powerful legal policy and, in a way, it’s worse [than southern Jim Crow]. So, I thought, that’s not too strong of a statement and it would make a powerful, engaging title.

MSR: How closely did you work with the Mapping Prejudice team?

DPB: This was a really close collaboration. Kirsten Delegard [Mapping Prejudice executive director] and I talked quite a bit, making sure that this would be an appropriate adaptation, so to speak. They were really great at helping us understand the complicated story and history — because it’s not an easy one to relay.

We also talk to William Green, the preeminent historian on Black history in Minnesota and civil rights history; he’s also an author and history professor at Augsburg.

We also wanted to make sure to hear from folks from these communities. So, you’ll see some familiar faces, like Greg McMoore, a lifelong resident of South Minneapolis, who speaks to the idea that while these communities were redlined, they still created powerful, important communities.

MSR: Did you learn anything in the process of making the documentary that surprised you?

DPB: I didn’t know much of this history, I have to say, so the whole thing was a revelation to me. A lot of these things aren’t taught in schools… So, it was an intense learning experience. And it was difficult because this is a tough history. But it was encouraging to learn about the resistance and how people fought against these policies.

It was also cool to see in the archives the role the local media played, how even decades ago, the different folks in media were trying to do the right thing. You see [Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder founder] Cecil Newman in the late ’60s. There’s a brief little clip of him speaking on the policies and what needs to happen. Watching it, I realized that as much as I know about him, I’ve never heard or seen him speak in movie pictures. So that was kind of fun…

Courtesy of TPT

MSR: What do you hope people take away from this film?

DPB: Well, with our work at Twin Cities PBS, awareness is a really important goal… I don’t expect people to become experts on the complexities of this history. But I want people to be aware of the communities that were affected by restrictive covenants and ultimately redlined. This is part of what’s happened to them and part of that historic trauma and [the cause of] some of the generational struggles with wealth development…

It is really important to know that this isn’t just about these restrictive covenants creating redlines; they were really about creating green lines. We talk a lot about redlining, but that policy by the federal government had a couple of tiers of colors and one was green.

Green was where there could be investments and government support, loans…and that’s your Southwest Minneapolis and into the suburbs like Edina, Eden Prairie, as opposed to North and South-Central Minneapolis, which were redlined. And you see that in some of the communities today, the disparity of wealth.

So, I also want people in the greenlined communities to understand that part of the privilege and wealth, security and stability come from these restrictive policies, as well.

Jim Crow of the North premieres Monday, Feb. 25 at 9 pm on TPT 2, with subsequent air times on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 3 am on TPT; Thursday, Feb. 28 at 8 pm on TPT Life; and Friday, March 1 at 2 am on TPT Life. You can also watch the documentary on after its premiere date.