Greg Miller is a writer based in Portland and co-author of All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey. His work has appeared in Wired, Science, and other publications.
In the early 1900s, racial housing covenants in the Minnesota city blocked home sales to minorities, establishing patterns of inequality that persist today.
Before it was torn apart by freeway construction in the middle of the 20th century, the Near North neighborhood in Minneapolis was home to the city’s largest concentration of African American families. That wasn’t by accident: As far back as the early 1900s, racially restrictive covenants on property deeds prevented African Americans and other minorities from buying homes in many other areas throughout the city.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such racial covenants were unenforceable. But the mark they made on America’s neighborhoods lived on: By excluding minorities from certain parts of a city and concentrating them elsewhere, these racist property clauses established enduring patterns. They were reinforced by redlining, a discriminatory home lending practice promulgated by real estate agents and federal housing programs in the 1930s; later, urban planning decisions on highways and other infrastructure projects followed the lines inscribed by decades-old covenants.
The effects still reverberate today: Despite its reputation for prosperity and progressive politics, Minneapolis now has the lowest rate of homeownership among African American households of any U.S. city.
Now, a group called Mapping Prejudice is uncovering these roots of the city’s racial disparities by documenting and mapping all of the old restrictive covenants in Minneapolis. “All that civic rhetoric about [Minneapolis] being a model metropolis at the cutting edge of great urban planning obscures some darker truths about the city,” said Kirsten Delegard, a Minneapolis historian and project co-founder.
Delegard launched Mapping Prejudice in 2016, along with University of Minnesota map librarian Ryan Mattke, local property records specialist Penny Peterson, and geography scholar Kevin Ehrman-Solberg. Initially, Delegard thought she could get the project done in a couple months with the help of a few undergrads from Augsburg University, where she taught at the time. She took a few students with her to the county deed recorder’s office and started pulling deeds. But there were hundreds of thousands of deeds, each several pages long. “Three hours later the students were in tears, and it was positively clear to me this wasn’t going to be possible using traditional research methods,” she said.
Fortunately, the county had just finished digitizing its property records. Ehrman-Solberg, a Ph.D student in the University of Minnesota’s Geography, Environment, and Society program, developed data mining software to scan the deeds and flag those with language commonly used in the covenants. After scanning roughly 3 million pages of documents, the software flagged roughly 32,000 deeds that were then checked by human volunteers recruited via the crowdsourcing site Zooniverse.
More than 3,000 people, many of them students or retired people, have contributed their time to the project. “Each deed has to be verified by 5 unique volunteers,” said Ehrman-Solberg. So far, they’ve identified roughly 30,000 properties with covenants restricting sales to minorities.
The earliest covenant the team found in Minneapolis dates to 1910; it stipulated that the property “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.” African Americans were targeted by all the covenants the group has seen in Minneapolis, Delegard said. Some banned sales to Jews and other specific groups. One forbade the use or occupancy of the property by “persons of any race other than the Aryan race”—but made an exception for domestic servants.
“I want people to read these deeds because the language is so shocking,” Delegard said. “If you read the primary sources for yourself, it prompts a kind of learning and revelation you can’t get from people giving you digested information.”
When the team started mapping properties with racial covenants, a pattern quickly jumped out: the density of covenants in neighborhoods surrounding city parks, forming a “racial cordon” of white neighborhoods around these public resources.
Before covenants appeared in 1910, Delegard said, Minneapolis was more or less integrated, with a small but evenly distributed African American population. By 1940, as covenants spread, black residents had become concentrated in three small neighborhoods, including Near North.
“It’s very powerful to show these deed restrictions creeping out across the landscape of Minneapolis, like an organism or disease,” said Nathan Connolly, an urban historian at Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of Mapping Inequality, a similarly titled project that documents the effects of New Deal-era redlining on American cities.
Federal housing maps created between 1935 and 1940, ostensibly to help mortgage lenders avoid risky loans, served to deepen the segregation process that housing covenants began. They relied on local developers and realtors to identify “hazardous” neighborhoods—a determination frequently based on race. As a result, people in minority neighborhoods found it difficult, if not impossible, to get a mortgage. The federal programs codified and standardized local knowledge, Connolly said: “Covenants were the critical foundation.”
That story was not unique to Minneapolis. Restrictive covenants were commonplace in American cities of the early 20th century, including New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Detroit, and just about anywhere researchers have bothered to look.
What is exceptional about Minneapolis is its efforts to reckon with its history of discrimination. No other American city had as comprehensive a covenant research project as Mapping Prejudice, although others have tried. The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, for example, began mapping restrictive covenants in 2004; so far, it has identified about 500 covenants covering approximately 20,000 properties, according to historian and project co-founder James Gregory. Prologue DC, a historical research group that recently developed an exhibit on segregation in Washington, D.C., has identified about 15,000 racially restrictive covenants, according to historian and co-founder Mara Cherkasky. But the group has only examined a small fraction of the city’s property records.
More significantly, Minneapolis city leaders are currently undertaking a major reform to the local zoning code in order to directly address the city’s historic segregation. As of January 1, single-family zoning codes have been eliminated citywide, a move that planners hope will encourage the construction of apartments and other more affordable dwellings in areas of the city that have long been predominantly white and wealthy. This and other ambitious (and not uncontroversial) changes to local laws are meant to amend historic injustices. (They’re also part of a national wave of upzoning measures aimed at increasing housing access: Oregon will roll out a statewide ban on single-family zoning in 2021, and Seattle and other cities have toyed with the idea as a means to increase the supply of affordable housing.)
The work of Mapping Prejudice influenced planners as they hashed out the new Minneapolis code, said Heather Worthington, the city’s director of long-range planning. “There’s a direct linkage between those practices in the late 19th, early 20th century and today’s modern zoning plans,” she said. “Part of the impetus for changing how we view land use is to try to undo some of those impacts.”
As the project demonstrates, digging up the racially restrictive past of property deeds take a lot of sweat and tears. But the zoning changes in Minneapolis and other legislative reforms indicate that they can have an impact: Minnesota and Washington enacted laws earlier this year that allow homeowners to renounce restrictive covenants in their deeds. “It’s only symbolic,” said Gregory—the covenants have been unenforceable for decades. “But it’s part of a necessary recognition that the past is still with us.”