White people restricted where minorities could live in Minneapolis for the first half of the 20th century, leading to racial segregation that has continued to today.
A pair of University of Minnesota graduate students is working to make people more aware of that history through a new exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum.
Denise Pike and Kacie Lucchini Butcher curated “Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis,” which runs through January at the museum. The exhibit shows the tools white people used to restrict where non-whites could live and the hostility that several black families faced after moving into all-white neighborhoods. The goal, Pike and Lucchini Butcher said, is to challenge the notion of Minneapolis as a “model metropolis.”
“Minneapolis is a great place,” Lucchini Butcher said. “There’s so many great things about the Twin Cities, but what doesn’t get talked about is the racial disparities. We want to highlight what undergirds some of these issues that we see.”
Pike and Lucchini Butcher are both students in the University of Minnesota’s Heritage Studies and Public History graduate program. They connected during their studies with the university’s Mapping Prejudice project, which is working to create a local map of racially restrictive covenants.
According to the project, real estate developers embedded covenants in property deeds across the country to keep people who were not white from buying or occupying land. The first racially restrictive deed in Minneapolis appeared in 1910, and developers across the city soon began using them. Banks subsequently began denying loans to people who had properties in mixed-race neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining.
“Banks were not likely to lend to you whatsoever if you lived in a red-lined area,” Lucchini Butcher said.
In 1910, when the first covenant was enacted, black families lived in neighborhoods across portions of South, downtown and North Minneapolis, according to Mapping Prejudice. But by 1940, blacks were largely concentrated in parts of south-central and Near North Minneapolis.
Black families also dealt with more obscured racism when seeking a house, according to Kirsten Delegard, director of Mapping Prejudice.
Real estate agents were not allowed to introduce people of a different race to a white neighborhood, Delegard said, and the federal government did not make certain benefits programs available to black families. Further, banks would charge higher interest rates to African-American families, who often experienced open hostility if they did manage to move into an all-white neighborhood.
“These housing policies are just a very material expression about these larger ideas that are taking over,” Delegard said of racial attitudes of the time.
Pike and Lucchini Butcher explain this history as part of the “Owning Up” exhibit, displaying a redlined map of Minneapolis in the 1930s toward the front of the display. The map defines most of South Minneapolis as “best” and “still desirable,” and most of the northern half of Minneapolis as “definitely declining” and “hazardous.”
The exhibit then explains the history of covenants and redlining, before telling the stories of three black families who experienced discrimination after moving into all-white neighborhoods. One of them, the Lee family, had a mob of thousands assemble in front of their house during the nights after they moved there in 1931.
The exhibit also talks about the Fair Housing Act, which Congress passed 50 years ago and which prevented housing discrimination based on race. It asks patrons to reflect on their own lived experiences and answer a few questions to be part of a wall outside of the exhibit room.
“We’re hoping that Minneapolis and Minneapolitans own up to a little bit of this history,” Lucchini Butcher said in explaining the exhibit name.
Lucchini Butcher said that many of the places with racial covenants in the ’50s remain mostly white today. Pike said the idea of the exhibit isn’t to prescribe solutions to such segregation but rather to get people to recognize the issue. She said she wants people to think about what privileges, or lack of privileges, they have and to look at their own neighborhoods with a fresh set of eyes.
“It’s OK to be prideful, to be happy about Minneapolis,” she said. “But we can also just recognize that there’s other sides to it. People have different experiences, and that everything just isn’t from our point of view.”
Cedar Imboden Phillips, executive director of the museum, said the exhibit helps to connect history with contemporary conversations, noting the discussion in Minneapolis about the draft comprehensive plan. She said the museum isn’t taking a stand on policy issues but wants people to understand the historic context so they can make educated decisions.
Delegard, of Mapping Prejudice, said they’re also challenging the idea that Minneapolis has had an equal playing field for people of all races. She said she firmly believes that the city’s situation today with regard to housing and racial equity is not stable.
Several students in Augsburg University’s design program worked with Pike and Lucchini Butcher to design the exhibit. Designer Indra Ramassamy, who graduated from Augsburg, said the design team was intentional about making sure visitors know they are in a room in a house (the history museum is housed in a former mansion).
The “Owning Up” exhibit is part of a series of events several organizations are putting on this year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. Cara Letofsky, a Hennepin History Museum board member and consultant to the series, said she wants people to have a broader understanding of the history of housing discrimination and how that impacts modern-day trends.
“Owning Up” was scheduled to open Aug. 23 and run through Jan. 20 at the museum, though the Aug. 23 opening was sold out. Mapping Prejudice welcomes additional volunteers to help with its mapping work, Delegard said. Visit mappingprejudice.org to learn more about opportunities.
More information on the event series can be found at bit.ly/2MEKc6d.