To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.
Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota uncovered more housing documents that for decades excluded people of color from owning or occupying at least 2,400 homes across Ramsey County.
The findings from the Mapping Prejudice project add to more than 24,000 similar racial covenants the group found across Hennepin County in 2016.
The covenants consisted of language in a home’s property deed that barred people of color from buying the home, or stated that only white people could own it.
“The premises hereby 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,” read one typical covenant shared by the Mapping Prejudice project.
The results were released Wednesday, and are posted in an interactive map online.
The covenants were most prevalent in Minnesota and across the country in the 1910s through the 1940s. The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1948 that such racial covenants were unenforceable. Twenty years later, Congress’s passage of the Fair Housing Act made racial covenants illegal.
But researchers and advocates say the covenants historically played a large role in preventing people of color from upward mobility, and also help explain some of the larger racial wealth gaps present today in the Twin Cities and across the country.
The findings, according to St. Catherine University sociologist Daniel Williams, show how leaders in the Twin Cities made a conscious effort to segregate the cities.
“Once segregation happened, it effectively racialized space and had consequences that really were neverending,” said Williams, who helped with the Mapping Prejudice project.
Common in middle-class neighborhoods
Racial covenants were common throughout the United States in the first half of the 20th Century, said Michael Corey, the geospatial, technology, and data lead for Mapping Prejudice. He added that Mapping Prejudice is likely one of the few institutions comprehensively tracking them down. The work involved shifting through scores of digitized property documents from Ramsey County to search for covenant language that appeared in contract deeds. Researchers used technology to identify the covenant language in digital documents.
The four-year research process was aided by thousands of volunteers who worked 20,000 hours, Corey said.
Corey said a few factors could explain why the project found fewer racial covenants in Ramsey County compared to Hennepin County: Minneapolis’s inner-ring suburbs were growing rapidly during the first half of the 20th Century, while St. Paul experienced depressions. Population-wise, Ramsey County always remained less than half the size of Hennepin County.
About 1,000 covenants found are in St. Paul, with the rest in greater Ramsey County. In St. Paul, most of the racial covenants unearthed are concentrated across dozens of blocks in the Como and Highland Park neighborhoods. Smaller clusters of covenants were also found in the Macalester-Groveland and Hamline-Midway neighborhoods, and even one block in the Rondo neighborhood, St. Paul’s historic Black neighborhood.
Researchers also found scores of racial covenants in Roseville, White Bear Lake, Spring Lake Park, and Mounds View.
The findings are by no means complete, Corey said. Researchers, for example, have no idea why racial covenants were put on homes near St. Peter Claver Church in Rondo, Corey said. But they do know that the covenants on those homes most certainly came before the long-established Black church relocated to Oxford Street and St. Anthony Avenue in the 1950s.
“This is a great example of how we need the community’s help to figure out what was going on,” Corey said.
One commonality among most of the homes with covenants is that they weren’t located in the most exclusive neighborhoods. Instead, private developers and realtors commonly attached covenants to newly built bungalows and subdivisions in middle-class neighborhoods that were trying to attract homebuyers, said Kirsten Delegard, Mapping Prejudice’s project director.
Similarly, racial covenants in Hennepin County were most common in middle-class neighborhoods in south Minneapolis like Diamond Lake, Kenny, and Armitage, and along inner-ring suburbs like Richfied, Edina, St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, and Robbinsdale.
Realtors advertised the covenants as an amenity alongside perks like parks and greenspace, Delegard said.
A case-in-point is a 1913 newspaper advertisement by developer Thomas Frankson attempting to lure homebuyers to a subdivision he built between the State Fairgrounds and St. Paul’s Como Park. Frankson played a significant role in state history, donating land to the Como Golf Course, donating animals to the Como Zoo, and later becoming lieutenant governor of Minnesota.
His ad promised homebuyers “one of the most desirable and one of the most beautiful tracts ever platted and offered for sale in the Twin Cities.”
The ad listed zoning regulations, noted that commercial buildings were barred from the subdivision, and stated that no home there could be bought or sold by “a colored person.”
“Don’t forget my restrictions,” the ad read. “You have my full assurance that the above restrictions will be enforced by the fullest extent of the law.”
The ad shows that racial covenants weren’t secret, said Rachel Neiwert, a history professor at St. Catherine University.
“They were, in fact, a selling feature,” said Neiwert, who worked on the Mapping Prejudice project.
Higher-income neighborhoods that lacked racial covenants employed other tactics to exclude people of color, she added. Neiwert unearthed a newspaper article from 1909 that recounted how residents in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood mobilized to prevent two Black families from moving into homes on Lincoln Avenue.
She cited other examples of pushback from white homeowners in St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in the 1920s: violent attacks on a Black-owned barbershop in St. Paul, and neighbors raising money to bribe a Black lawyer to sell his house.
“There’s a whole variety of tools and strategies that were available to white people to claim spaces as white spaces,” Neiwert said.
Rejecting covenants today
Racial covenants have been legally obsolete for more than 70 years, per the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, some homeowners who find that their home has a covenant feel the need to take action. Jared Shepherd, an attorney at Campbell Knutson, co-founded Just Deeds to help homeowners formally discharge such covenants under a process the Minnesota Legislature approved in 2019.
The process involves filing a legal document with the county that acknowledges and denounces the prior racial covenant. More than 400 homeowners in the Twin Cities metro have done so through Just Deeds. Shepherd said some homeowners find the process meaningful even though it’s purely symbolic.
“When you realize where you are living was burdened with a document that is exclusive and oftentimes includes very disgusting and offensive language, it kind of hits to the core—that you as a resident and property owner are part of that history,” he said. “People are motivated to say, ‘No, not in my name, and we want to build a community that is the opposite of this.’ ”
Maria Cisneros is one such homeowner. Cisneros, who is white, grew up in Robbinsdale and currently lives in Golden Valley, where she serves as city attorney. When she and her husband purchased their home in 2014, Cisneros was looking through the home’s title when she unexpectedly stumbled upon a racial covenant for her home.
“Some of the things in the document are really benign,” she said. “Like you have to have a garage. You have to be 35 feet away from the curb. And then buried in those rules was a racial covenant that said that you had to be Caucasian to live in the home unless you were a domestic servant.”
She immediately thought of her husband, who is from Venezuela, and her kids, who are mixed race. If the covenant was applied today, she thought, they wouldn’t be allowed to live in the home.
“It also was kind of shocking because it wasn’t even that long ago,” Cisneros. “I mean, this happened in my grandparents’ lifetime.”
As soon as the opportunity became available in 2019, Cisneros filed with the county to discharge the covenant. The formal language of the discharge is “very boring,” she said.
“You just send an email to the examiner’s office and you say, ‘I’d like you to delete this reference on my certificate of title because it’s illegal under this law,’ ” she said.
But to her, the gesture was empowering. “It felt like there’s something I can do to reject not only this process, but all of the attitudes that underlie this practice,” she said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Mapping Prejudice is one of the few organizations tracking racial covenants in the United States. Mapping Prejudice is, in fact, one of the few organizations comprehensively tracking most racial covenants in a given city.