Making the Invisible Visible
A project at the U maps Minneapolis's history with racial housing covenants.
Fourteen years ago, when my realtor asked me to wait at the Nokomis Library while he met with the white home owners of a 1920s cottage bungalow my husband and I wished to buy in the Keewaydin neighborhood near Lake Nokomis, I didn’t give it much thought.
We’d been looking at homes in south Minneapolis for months, and every homeowner south of 46th Street and east of Portland Avenue had failed to accept our bids. I patiently waited at the library—like most prospective buyers, fantasizing about the house’s best features, its wood-framed piano windows, high ceilings, and white-and-aquahoneycombed bathroom tile—never doubting that our realtor, who knew our tastes and budget, had our best interests at heart.
At the time, our first daughter was 17 months old, and the cottage bungalow was just the right size. We liked the location too, the modest, quiet neighborhood that offered access to the lake, biking and walking trails, and a decent school. And, it was affordable on my new teacher’s salary.
After about 15 minutes, our realtor, all smiles, returned to the library with a signed purchase agreement from the homeowners, who had never met me or my husband. After moving in, I realized two things. One, my neighbors were the kindest people anyone would ever have the pleasure of meeting. And two, we were the only black family on our block.
What did my realtor know that he didn’t have the heart to tell me or that I didn’t have the heart to see for myself?
The answer lies in a project at the John R. Borchert Map Library at the University of Minnesota. Mapping Prejudice, a joint effort between the U and Augsburg University, aims to map restrictive deed covenants—or agreements made during home purchases— that enforced racial segregation in Minneapolis, mainly during the first half of the 20th century. The project, which hopes to “transform our collective understanding of race and real estate,” is the first in the U.S. to comprehensively map these covenants on such a large scale.
In December, I met at Borchert, in the basement of Wilson Library on the West Bank, with the Mapping Prejudice team: director Kirsten Delegard, who also runs the Historyapolis Project at Augsburg; Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a master’s student in the U’s Geographic Information Science program; Penny Petersen, a property records specialist; and Ryan Mattke, a U map and geospatial information librarian. I wanted to know how the project worked, what it hoped to accomplish, and whether it could tell me anything about my own neighborhood.
We sat around a wooden table in a room filled with all types of paper and tactile maps. However, the covenant maps of Minneapolis are not something you can hold. The team explained that rather, they are dynamically generated and produced in digital form. The project involves inputting scanned information from historic Minneapolis property deeds into a database, explained Ehrman- Solberg. The database flags racially restrictive language like, “the within described premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.” After that, volunteers read the flagged deeds with human eyes, to verify the information.
These restrictions were common in Minneapolis and often inserted into real estate contracts or imposed by developers as a condition of buying a house. As in many northern U.S. cities, racialized covenants legally prevented nonwhite people, primarily blacks, from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods. The NAACP fought against them and the U.S. Supreme Court deemed them unenforceable in 1948. Finally, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed them.
They were especially prevalent in areas developed before World War II, including along Minnehaha Creek and near Lake Nokomis, the part of the city where I live.
Mattke said the database can serve as a launch point from which people can ask their own questions about their homes, blocks, or neighborhoods. The mapped answers can be placed in the hands of activists, lawmakers, and community members who can push for policies that might bring about greater equity. You can get involved here: mappingprejudice.org/get-involved/
In Minneapolis, the effects of racial covenants linger into the present day. Data from the Metropolitan Council shows that racial disparities in home ownership in the Twin Cities are some of the worst in the nation, with 25 percent of blacks owning homes compared to 76 percent of whites. That’s a serious issue when you consider that owning a home is one of life’s key building blocks and a way to accumulate wealth and build equity and solid credit ratings. A home is not just a place where we live with our families, but rather a place where we achieve and grow into the American dream.
Mattke pointed out that maps of racial covenants in Minneapolis tend to correlate to contemporary maps showing areas where racial disparities in health care, education, wealth, and incarceration rates are greatest. Segregation impacts black people, white people, and other identities—the way we see ourselves, our worlds, and each other—effectively predetermining our choices and actions. Blacks experience generationally entrenched racial inequity, while whites develop implicit biases, rooted in being immersed in homogenized neighborhoods. Identities have been constructed and hardened to the detriment of everyone.
After we closed on our house all those years ago, our white neighbors warmly welcomed us to the neighborhood. They are kind people who believe we bought the house simply because we could afford it. I don’t tell them what I now realize: We bought our home to increase the likelihood that my daughters and son will earn high school diplomas, graduate from college debt free, and avoid violence and incarceration—and so my husband and I will exceed the life expectancy for blacks.
I asked the Mapping Prejudice team to look up my block in the Keewaydin part of Nokomis. They pointed out that my neighborhood had many covenants back in the day, but no racial covenants were created by the developer that sold my home, so my house was not subject to one. Nonetheless, after 14 years, to my knowledge, we remain the only black family on our block.
Taiyon J. Coleman (M.F.A. '03, Ph.D. '13) is a writer, an assistant professor of English at St. Catherine University, and a frequent commentator on MPR News.