Racial Covenants and Housing Segregation in 20th Century Minneapolis
Recently featured in the Star Tribune, the Mapping Prejudice Project is an ongoing and collaborative attempt to map racial restrictions attached to Minneapolis property records during the 20th century. While the practice was common throughout the country, no city has tracked the full extent of these restrictions. We hope to be the first. As our work progresses, this page will be updated to reflect our findings.
Minneapolis likes to imagine itself as a model metropolis. Residents brag about its world-class parks, volunteerism, tolerance for sexual diversity and clean, progressive government. In recent years, however, this vision has been hard to reconcile with some difficult truths. The city today leads the nation in racial disparities; there are great gaps between whites and people of color in terms of income, homeownership, and education levels.
The city’s faith in its exceptionalism obscures a complicated past that can help us understand how these disparities have emerged and hardened over time. Many Minneapolitans look back on the twentieth century and assume that their city was free from the kind of Jim Crow segregation that defined the urban geography of other American cities. Our research tells a different story.
Over the past year, a team of researchers associated with the Historyapolis Project has sought to create the first-ever comprehensive map of racial covenants in an American city. We have a tremendous amount of work yet to do. But our initial research has illuminated the contours of legally-enforced residential segregation in Minneapolis during the first half of the twentieth century. We have begun to uncover the city’s skeleton of structural racism.
This dynamic map—which was constructed by Historyapolis researcher and digital cartographer Kevin Ehrman-Solberg—shows the spread of racial covenants in Minneapolis from 1911 through 1952.
So far, we have sampled close to 20% of the residential properties in the city.2 We have found approximately 4,500 covenants and expect to find thousands more. This visualization will track our continued work, as we excavate and plot these racially restrictive deeds. A visual representation of all the property lots sampled up to this point can be found here.
Racial covenants came to Minneapolis in 1910. They were legal instruments inserted into property deeds that prohibited people who were deemed “not Caucasian” from purchasing or inhabiting homes. The list of excluded groups was long and variable, reflecting the racial assumptions of developers, real estate professionals, and homeowners. A common Minneapolis covenant read, “[this 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.”
The penalties for ignoring these agreements were severe. Homeowners who tried to sell their covenanted properties to anyone in the prohibited groups risked losing their homes and any equity they had accumulated.
Racial covenants were designed to ensure that new housing developments were exclusively white. They were also deployed to make sure that existing white neighborhoods stayed that way. According to early twentieth century urban theorists, this was the best way to guarantee neighborhood stability and to protect property values. The Federal Housing Administration, municipal governments, real estate boards, and homeowner associations all pursued policies premised on the notion that that racially-mixed neighborhoods were fundamentally unstable. Combined with other segregationist mechanisms such as red-lining and municipal zoning, these covenants proved a formidable barrier for racial integration. Angry mobs often greeted those who dared to challenge these restrictions and purchase homes in white neighborhoods.
This practice of residential segregation in Minneapolis came under fire during the 1940s, when the United States went to war to defend democracy. In 1948, the Supreme Court declared them to be unenforceable. Yet racial covenants were still used until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act explicitly outlawed them.
Today we are living with the legacies of these racist housing policies. The residential patterns established by racial covenants have remained in place in Minneapolis. And the restrictions on property holding for people perceived to be “non-Caucasian” set the stage for our current disparities in homeownership. While 78 percent of whites own homes in the Twin Cities, only 25 percent of African Americans can claim this same marker of financial security.
As we move forward, our mission is to work with community members to understand how these restrictions operated in Minneapolis and how they shaped the city we live in today.
This project is a collaborative effort of the Historyapolis Project (located in the history department at Augsburg College), the Borchert Map Library, and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs. Additional support has been provided by the office of the Hennepin County Registrar/Register of Titles. This work would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Penny Petersen, who has spent hundreds of hours combing through Minneapolis property records. The projected has also been powered by the labor of student interns from both Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota: Nicholas Stewart-Bloch, Caitlin Crowley, John La Velle, and Sam Schwartz.
2The initial data set for this project was compiled manually by Penny Petersen, a local historian. Neighborhoods on the city’s periphery that underwent significant development in the first half of the 20th century make up the bulk of this data. We are now working with a digitized corpus of all county property records from 1856-2016 and are leveraging optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract the deeds with racial language. Property lots that do not register with the OCR program are then investigated manually. By the end of the project, every lot in the city will be accounted for. However, due to the scattered nature of the initial data–as well as the variation in which records can be searched via ORC–our “in-progress” visualization should not be viewed as representative of city-wide patterns.