For the past month, I’ve spent about an hour most days exploring the seamy past of Minneapolis.
The work involves examining deeds that transferred property as the Mill City developed. Starting just over a century ago and continuing until not long before I was born in the early ’50s, many deeds excluded certain types of people from living in certain areas.
It’s repetitive work, poring through thousands of digitized deeds flagged by scanning technology for potential racial exclusions. More than 270 volunteers like me, who are cooperating with the Mapping Prejudice Project, give the flagged deeds an eyeball test. Sometimes the term “white” in a deed turns out to merely be the name of a buyer, seller or the name of the subdivision involved in the transaction.
More often, it’s an explicit racial bar excluding people from living there. So far, I’ve found 22 variations on these racially exclusive deed covenants. A more experienced researcher told me she’s logged more than 30.
The wording can be as direct as this: “The premise shall never be owned or occupied by a colored person.”
At other times, it’s more elaborate: “Premises hereby conveyed 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.”
Sometimes there are nuances that convey what a developer considers the proper role for people of color: “No persons other that of the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building on said lot, except that this provision shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with owner or tenant.”
Some days I race through the deeds, cataloging more than 20 in an hour for the type of exclusion, the location of the lot involved, the date the deed was executed and filed, its document number and the names of the seller and buyer.
Other days I take more time. I wonder if Ida C. Nelson, Ulric A. Lefebvre, Louisa K. Vinz or Josephine Opsahl considered at all the exclusionary language in the deed they were receiving or the segregated city they were creating through their acquiescence. Most likely, given racial attitudes of the time, they considered the racial covenant to be just another way of protecting property values.
I wonder at the amorality of the developers who subdivided their new blocks of land into lots with these restrictions. Were the people behind Seven Oaks Corporation, at Estates Improvement Corporation or Gerard and Kimball, Inc. true believers in racial segregation, or was racial purity in a subdivision merely a marketing ploy?
The context for the racial exclusions suggests that non-whites were considered a drag on the value of one’s property. Racial exclusions often follow — and are less detailed than — other restrictions in the same deeds. Some restrictions govern the front yard setback. Others specify the minimum value of the house to be built if the property is bare land. Some require that a house be completed in six months or specify the allowable type of exterior materials. Others ban commercial use of the lot. Tarpaper shacks are typically prohibited.
But the restriction that spells out perhaps most directly the mindset of the age is this one I found attached to a Golden Valley development: “That said premises shall never be occupied by a colored person or for any immoral purposes.”
Although these past misdeeds horrify us in the 21st century, that’s what historians would discount as “presentism” — the judging of past actions by the values of the present. Castigating our forbearers lets us off the hook without forcing us to consider what our own actions might have been in such a benighted time. Would we have had the moral fiber to stand against the prevailing current of thought?
Perhaps the better test for such smugness of hindsight is to consider what unpopular stance we know today to be morally right but hesitate to defend for fear of derision or retribution.
Which is not to let the developers of an earlier city off the hook. With developers excluding people of color from certain areas of the city and lenders refusing to lend in redlined geographic areas, the possibility of home ownership and the areas where that choice could be exercised were sharply circumscribed. By consigning people of color to certain areas, ones with aging housing more likely to be slum-like, developers limited the available supply of housing for those people and also consigned those buyers to housing less likely to appreciate with the overall market. Given that a house is often a household’s biggest asset, that imposed an intergenerational penalty that’s a major factor in the racial wealth gap of today.
If you’d like to join in this people-powered project of cataloging deeds, there’s more information and a tutorial at mappingprejudice.org. The project began as an effort to catalogue solely Minneapolis deeds, but the digitizing of the entire Hennepin County database of deeds for the period of study allows researchers to scrutinize beyond the city limits. The project began under the auspices of the Historyapolis Project at Augsburg College and now is being supported by the University of Minnesota as well.
There’s already a dynamic map posted for Minneapolis that portrays visually how the use of racially exclusive deed covenants spread over time. So far they’re more prevalent in south Minneapolis than the rest of the city but more concentrated east of Interstate 35W than in Southwest Minneapolis. But not exclusively so. That’s largely a legacy of when different sections of the city filled in.
You can zoom in to your block to see if racially restrictive covenants have been discovered there so far, although the work is far from complete. Or you can volunteer to help complete the work of making Minneapolis and Hennepin County the first jurisdictions to completely map their restrictive deeds.