With covenants, racism was written into Minneapolis housing. The scars are still visible.

Minneapolis Star, 1923
“Premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.”

When the neighborhood was first built, the developers of Southeast Minneapolis’ Nokomis area advertised neat houses in well-kept communities amid the natural beauty of the area’s hills, trees and lakes.

Economic prosperity in the ’20s brought a housing boom to cities, and as a new middle class equipped with now widely-available automobiles looked to buy homes, Minneapolis’ footprint spread south.

Less than 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis and not far from the Ford Plant, the city’s southeast corner was attractive to new homebuyers. The stability of professional jobs kept the housing boom in the area going through the Great Depression in the 1930s and then the post-World War II area.

Less outwardly visible, but also attractive to some such prospective homebuyers were restrictions written into deeds in some neighborhoods in this area that kept out anybody who wasn’t white. Their language said plainly things like: “Premises shall not be sold, mortgaged, or leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Racial discrimination in deeds has been legally unenforceable for more than 70 years in the United States. But language like this is still buried deep in the property records of many Minneapolis neighborhoods developed in the first half of the 20th century.

A bill now under consideration at the state Legislature would allow homeowners in Minnesota to add language to their deeds to renounce any restrictions by faith, creed, national origin, race or color contained in them. But whether they’re removed or not, the work of these discriminatory deeds is done: the lines they helped to draw in the early 20th century have left scars of racial and economic segregation in cities across the U.S. — including Minneapolis — that are visible to this day.

A preemptory move

The first racial restrictions on deeds, often called racial covenants, appeared in Minneapolis shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

That developers would go to the trouble to put restrictive language in deeds was not a response to growth in Minneapolis’ black population, said Kirsten Delegard, a historian who co-founded Mapping Prejudice, a project working to uncover racial covenants one deed at a time that is the basis of an upcoming Twin Cities PBS documentary, “Jim Crow of the North.”

Whereas cities like Chicago and New York began to see African Americans move north from the South in the Great Migration, which began around 1916, Minneapolis’ black population remained small until the second half of the 20th century. In 1910, Minneapolis’ African American population numbered about 2,700 — less than 1 percent of the city’s population, Delegard said.

Rather, the appearance of racial covenants was preemptory, and coincided with new attitudes about urban life and a rising tide of white supremacy.

As cities grew, city planners, leaders and residents adopted ideas, prevalent at the time, that creating strong, moral citizens required a healthy environment.

“So one of the ideas that comes out of this whole constellation of city planning efforts is this idea that for a neighborhood to be stable and healthy it had to be racially homogenous: that racial mixing in and of itself created an unstable and unhealthy environment,” Delegard said.

An ethics handbook published in 1924 by the National Association of Real Estate Boards, even codified a realtor’s responsibility to keep white neighborhoods white.

National Association of Real Estate Boards ethics handbook, 1924
Alongside these new ideas about cities, white supremacy was intensifying across the U.S.

D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a silent movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan, premiered in 1915 to a United States awash in racism and xenophobia, as the country’s population expanded with immigration. The film is often credited with reviving the Klan, whose membership peaked in the 1920s.

And there began to be incidents. An African American couple, Madison Jackson, a Pullman porter, and his wife, Amy Jackson, bought a house in Prospect Park. When they sought to help their friend, William H. Simpson, who was also African American, build a house nearby in 1909, a crowd numbering more than a hundred showed up to protest their new neighbors on the basis of skin color, according to newspaper accounts.

Minneapolis Tribune
“You think about the imposition of Jim Crow laws,” Delegard said, referring to laws and customs in the post-Civil War South that separated black people from white. “It’s not just in the South, it’s everywhere.”

Covenants in Minneapolis

So far, Mapping Prejudice has found nearly 20,000 deeds that contain racial or ethnic restrictions in Hennepin County, and expects to find 10,000 to 15,000 more in the coming months as researchers and volunteers finish sifting through property records.

Most of the covenants can be found in neighborhoods developed in the first half of the twentieth century.

Racial covenants aren’t just found in Minneapolis. They’re found across Hennepin County, in St. Paul and in other communities around Minnesota.

But zooming in on Minneapolis, they’re found in pockets in Longfellow and Northeast, and nearly blanket swaths covering  Nokomis and Southwest Minneapolis.

Why don’t covenants cover some of the city’s most coveted neighborhoods, like Kenwood and some areas near Lake of the Isles?

Neighborhoods that were already well-established as wealthy, white enclaves when covenants came about didn’t need them to achieve the same ends, Delegard said.

“There were other ways to keep people who were considered undesirable out,” she said. She cited an example she read about where a white family selling a homes hired a detective to make sure prospective buyers were up to the neighborhood’s standards.

But those options weren’t available to the homebuyers moving in to Minneapolis’ Diamond Lake neighborhood, which was developed from the ’20s through the ’50s.

Set between Diamond Lake and Lake Nokomis — but not far south of the Old Southside, a middle class African American community centered around 38th Street and 4th Avenue — the Diamond Lake neighborhood was a nice place with many amenities, but it wasn’t all that expensive.

“I think it was a very aspirational neighborhood,” Delegard said.

Not as exclusive as Isles or Kenwood, and not as cohesive as the largely Eastern European Northeast Minneapolis, white residents of Diamond Lake were likely worried that families of color with decent-paying jobs could eventually save enough money to move out of the Southside and other neighborhoods like it and into their own, Delegard said.

So they banned them, almost entirely from the shores of Diamond Lake to Edgewater Boulevard near Nokomis, and from East 55th Street down to the Richfield border.

The language of these bans varied. Some said the lot “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.” Others simply banned non-Caucasians.

The covenant in a Diamond Lake deed.
Hennepin County property records, courtesy of Mapping Prejudice
The covenant in a Diamond Lake deed.
But the intent was clear and the covenants were successful in keeping Minneapolis neighborhoods like Diamond Lake white — whiter than other neighborhoods in the city to this day.

The end of enforcement

Covenants were just one part of a housing sector that systematically discriminated against people of color.

“Restrictive covenants were really the private actor part of a much greater system,” said Valerie Schneider, a professor at the Howard University School of Law who supervises its fair housing clinic. “There were so many greater government-sponsored forces really pushing segregation, like how and where affordable housing was built.”

The New Deal era federal government supported the system of covenants, giving neighborhoods with racial restrictions the best credit ratings, and diverse neighborhoods or those or home largely to people of color worse ones, a practice called redlining (you can look up your Minneapolis neighborhood’s designation on Mapping Inequality).

Lake Nokomis area deed restrictions
Home Owners' Loan Corporation, via Mapping Inequality
Nokomis area federal loan rating
covenant legendIn 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer struck down racial covenants. The case began when a St. Louis man sued a black family who bought a lot with a restrictive deed on it.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled the covenant was enforceable because it was an agreement between two private people. The case was consolidated with a similar case out of Detroit, and heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court struck the lower ruling down, reasoning that since it would fall to the courts, government institutions, to enforce a potentially discriminatory agreement between two people, covenants violated the U.S. Constitution.

Shelley v. Kraemer made covenants unenforceable, but they didn’t make them illegal. Some developers continued to put restrictive language in deeds. Minnesota made it illegal to put covenants on houses in 1953.

But racial tensions and segregation persisted, by some accounts getting worse after the ruling. And Minneapolis is still living with the legacy of racial covenants today. On average, Minneapolis neighborhoods with racial covenants are 79 percent white, compared to 53 percent in the city overall, according to Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a co-founder of Mapping Prejudice. The median assessed value of homes in covenanted areas is $235,000, $10,000 more than the city as a whole.

A tale of two neighborhoods

Neighborhoods like Diamond Lake, which was almost entirely covenanted, stand in stark contrast to places that weren’t, like Near North, Minneapolis.

Situated northwest of downtown Minneapolis, Near North spent its early history serving as Minneapolis’ Ellis Island, Delegard said. It was the place that welcomed new arrivals to the city. It had a large Jewish population, many new Americans and, as Minneapolis’ African American population grew, many moved to Near North.

Near North had bustling commercial districts and tight-knit communities and was not restricted by racial covenants. As such, it was one place where people of color were permitted to live in Minneapolis. In 1925, as covenants were gaining traction in parts of  Minneapolis, North Minneapolis was 73 percent U.S.-born white, 26 percent foreign-born white and less than 2 percent African and Asian American, according to a book by the Women’s Co-operative Alliance.

Hennepin County property records
The Home Owners' Loan Corporation gave parts of Near North the lowest rating.
Home Owners' Loan Corporation, via Mapping Inequality
Near North Minneapolis federal loan rating
covenant legendThe book characterized the conditions in the neighborhood as deplorable, and listed the mixing of races as one of the characteristics holding it back from being successful.

Diamond Lake is 72 percent white, and 78 percent of its homes are owner-occupied. The median household income is $86,000, according to Census data compiled by Minnesota Compass. More than 4o percent of its households make more than $100,000 per year, and 53 percent of adults over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Near North is a much more diverse population, at 55 percent black or African American, 17 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 9 percent Hispanic or Latino and 14 percent white. Its median household income is $28,000, and nearly 60 percent of households make less than $35,000 per year. Less than a quarter of residents over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Share of households by annual income (2017 dollars)
Diamond Lake
Near North
Source: American Community Survey, compiled by Minnesota Compass

Of course, it’s not just racial covenants that have produced these disparities.

There was also the introduction of roads, Olson Memorial Highway and Interstate 94, which bulldozed a commercial district and put a physical separation between North Minneapolis and other parts of the city. And there’s structural racism that produces some of the worst racial disparities anywhere in the U.S. in Minneapolis.

But covenants are a part of systematic segregation that made some neighborhoods wealthier than others: In the U.S., one of the best ways to ensure financial stability is to buy a house. Families that could buy houses in nice neighborhoods saw their value appreciate, and passed wealth onto subsequent generations. Families that couldn’t buy homes did not have the opportunity to access an important tool for the intergenerational transfer of wealth.

“A place like Diamond Lake was a concentrated pocket of whiteness where property values climbed over time, over a period of time where African Americans were shut out legally from living there,” Delegard said. “By the time they were allowed to buy there, it was out of reach because so many people had not had the opportunity to amass the kind of capital they needed.”

And while you can’t point to any one thing and say they caused the disparities we see today, Delegard said, “I think (racial covenants) are important to look at because they created an uneven playing field to start with.”

Jim Crow of the North, a Twin Cities Public Television documentary on housing segregation in the Twin Cities, premieres on TPT 2 at 9 p.m. CT Monday, Feb. 25.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Ed Felien on 02/22/2019 - 12:00 pm.

    great piece

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/22/2019 - 02:03 pm.

    First, Nokomis is not in Southeast Minneapolis; it is in South Minneapolis.

    Prospect Park is in Southeast Minneapolis (Southeast is a formal, legal designation for the South part of the East Side of Minneapolis–the East, or Left Bank of the Mississippi River). Also in Souitheast Minneapolis is the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota and the neighborhoods of Marcy-Holmes and Como, aka Southeast Como.

    Further, Near North Minneapolis is not northeast of Minneapollis. It is north of downtown Minneapolis. Near North does not extend all the way into what we call North Minneapolis today; it is the part of North that is nearest downtown. Sigh.

    One hopes that the TPT documentary about housing discrimination against people of color in Minneapolis is not only more precise on local urban geography than this article is, but that it more precisely deals with issues of socio-economic class as well as race. Racial-exclusive covenants preceded the presence of a significant black population in Minneapolis, as the article admits but does not ermphasize, reflecting a national trend in real estate rather than any local issue of discrimination. The article also rather grudgingly admits that most Minneapolis neighborhoods had formed around a certain economic class way before the 1920s and did not have those covenants in deeds, although most of them, as the entire city, were predominantly white.

    In other words, economic class and the racial composition of the population had more to do with where there were white concentrations for much of Minneapolis’s history; the “whiteness” of Linden Hills and Kenwood has not been a function of exclusionary covenants, and that’s the situation for most of the city. An anecdote here and there does not a pattern make.

    A suggestion: be specific about which neighborhoods had covenants on deeds, and which have not. The phenomenon definitely does not characterize the whole city of Minneapolis.

    Likewise, be precise about the chicken-versus-egg question with regard to insurers’ “red-lining.” That practice was based on economics–housing values and the private wealth a family needed to buy into it. It’s not the same thing as exclusionary covenants, which where they occurred were race-based.

    “Jim Crow” housing discrimination existed with much more virulence in other northern cities where the population was more racially mixed than Minneapolis’s population was until a decade or two or three after World War II. We have here a kind of weak copy-catting of a media trend, which imposes on Minneapolis a blanket and astonishingly unhistorical story of housing discrimination that existed in other places long before it, or its remnants, appeared here.

    • Submitted by Greta Kaul on 02/22/2019 - 02:27 pm.

      Correct on the point of Near North’s location. I mistakenly typed northeast instead of northwest as I made the location more specific this morning. That has been updated.

      • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/23/2019 - 02:28 pm.

        Sadly, Greta doesn’t get the corrections I made to her article’s inaccurate geography of our city: Near North is neither northeast nor northwest of Minneapolis. It is fully within Minneapolis. It’s simply the part of North Minneapolis that is nearest the downtown loop.

        She’s deliberately ignoring her major error in where Nokomis is. It is not, repeat: NOT, in Southeast Minneapolis. Even someone ignorant of our city’s history and using a simplistic quadrant-style designating system knows enough to not use a capital “S” on southeast with regard to Nokomis.

        Small thing, I guess, given that the whole topic she discusses is a gross overstatement of Minneapolis’s racial composition over the past 170 years and the degree to which either restrictive covenants or ‘red-lining” were problematic for many people.

        But for those of us who despair of newbies who refuse to recognize the city’s history while pretending to know and explain to us their newbie version of that history, this article is an example of inaccurate reporting.

        • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 02/24/2019 - 11:05 am.

          Actually, Connie, Near North is one neighborhood who with Willard-Hay, wrote and implemented a Neighborhood Revitalization Program plan with the rest of us. I have to admit it was not on my radar as one of those odiously predudiced Prospect Park folks. I was just aware of Harrison, Hawthorne and Bryn Marr where I knew a few more folks, or more correctly, knew I knew folks to get into that horrible Rumsfeld semantics conundrum.

          Without seeing how MN Compass prepared the data from US Census info, I have no sure handle on any of the particulars, but I too bother folks about knowing the real sectors of our city as defined relative to the Mississippi River and on our street signs (N, NE, SE, S, & SW, clockwise).

          It’s a nice article and I look forward to seeing the MN Experience program.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/23/2019 - 08:10 am.

      Institutional racism permeates and informs economics and economic policy. You can no more claim that there was no racial component to red-lining than you can claim that loitering laws were just about keeping the peace. Since racism and bigotry preceded capitalism economies and their financial institutions by hundreds of years, I think we can dispense with the chicken/egg problem. It’s not just a funny coinkidink that credit availability and banking services and wealth in general fell on one side of a line on a map that separated blacks from whites. Lines, be they red ones or rail road tracks, or whatever, were/are familiar features of segregated communities.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/22/2019 - 04:03 pm.

    Although far more subtle, Minneapolis’s restrictive zoning laws also reinforced housing segregation. The 2040 plan recently passed is another big step in Minneapolis overcoming its racist past.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/23/2019 - 08:25 am.

      I have to agree with Ms. Pattock regarding 2040. It looks more like white urbanist density theory than any kind of “equity” project. It’s kind of like the guy who designed an built Riverside Plaza thinking it would end up being populated by a diverse “mix” of residents with a range of incomes… only a white guy could have imagined or predicted that scenario.

  4. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 02/23/2019 - 01:36 pm.

    Great piece. But gentrification has been around forever, and will no doubt continue to stay around forever.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/23/2019 - 07:39 pm.

    The names of people who implemented and gained financially from this are on the books. It is curious that they do not make it into the piece. Otherwise this is a rather academic discussion. The nebulous “no one” “everyone” is then held accountable. I am not suggesting there was not whole scale racism involved. But someone played those chords to their advantage just as they are being played today on both the national and local level. I certainly hope the documentary which I am looking forward to does that.

  6. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 02/24/2019 - 07:46 am.

    I think I got more out of reading the comments than the piece itself. I think most people want to live in a neighborhood where they feel comfortable. When neighborhoods are primarily one race or one creed ( Somalians for example ) they can make others feel unwelcome. So it goes ways, not just whites discriminating against blacks. The Twin Cities was one of the whitest large cities in the US back in the day. I suspect the Scandavian heritage had something to do with that. But remember, the Scandinavians also brought with them excellent social services, which the Twin Cities in still known for today.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/24/2019 - 11:07 am.

    I doubt that I have an real insight to add to the discussion, having been here less than a decade, but I have formed some impressions.

    I’ve lived in three metro areas, in chronological order: St. Louis, Denver and now Minneapolis-St. Paul. All three exhibit very similar patterns of race and class segregation, with the latter, in my view, no more respectable than the former, since – at least in this country – they’re generally closely related. In fact, all three metro areas exhibit similar patterns of geographic segregation, as well, an oddity that seems a rare coincidence, indeed.

    In all three cases, African-Americans hahve been confined – whether through formal, written covenants imposed by banking and real estate interests, with the support, it should be noted, of the federal government, or less formal, but typically still written, covenants, enforced by the local real estate industry, or by neighborhood associations under various titles, to designated areas of the city in question. North St. Louis, north Denver, and north Minneapolis all look pretty much the same in terms of their population and income profiles, something I grew up with in St. Louis, but noticed within a few months of moving to Denver, and once again in Minneapolis.

    Missouri was a slave state that remained in the Union (barely) during the Civil War, and St. Louis has been racially segregated almost from its inception in the mid-1700s. Colorado was a brand-new Union state during the Civil War, but saw plenty of KKK activity in the decades afterward. Few people outside the state generally associate Minnesota with segregation, given its generally progressive reputation and the justifiably famous sacrifice of Minnesota’s Union soldiers at Gettysburg during the Civil War. Far less noted, at least outside of the immediate area, is the Sioux uprising in Minnesota during the Civil War, and the largest mass execution in American history of some of the Indian participants in that uprising once the fighting had stopped. In short, the racial history of all three metro areas, and by extension their states, is hardly one of sunshine and roses.

    Greta’s geographic errors aside, Ms. Sullivan, with whom I often agree, is missing the forest for the trees in this case. It’s quite obvious, even to a relative newbie, that housing patterns in the City of Minneapolis (I can’t speak for St. Paul) are not the likely result of random happenstance.

    One ironic local result of what seems to be a reflexive fear of “strangers” on the part of whites, and especially white homeowners (I am one now, and have been in each of the three metro areas where I lived.) is the City of Brooklyn Center, which was apparently founded by whites fleeing north Minneapolis because of an influx of immigrants (echoing the current age) who neither looked nor spoke like those residents. The resulting community now has what I’ve read is the most racially diverse population in the metro area. It also has relatively low real estate values for housing stock that’s quite similar in appearance to housing stock across the boundary in north Minneapolis. Offhand, I’d say Minnesotans have little basis for feeling smug about racial discrimination being a “southern” problem specifically, or “someone else’s” problem in general.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/25/2019 - 08:58 am.

      I would just say that people often associate with others who are like them. It’s human nature. I think that accounts for much of the “segregation” in America. Also, property owners tend to want to keep the value of their property up. Thus If someone lives in an affluent area, they really don’t want poorer people moving in regardless of skin color. That is also human nature. As a property owner myself, I don’t want someone moving in next door who will leave junk cars in the driveway/lawn nor someone who has loud parties at night or gang members showing up etc etc.

      It’s not right to have put racial limits on deeds but that was 1920, not today.

    • Submitted by Carrie Anderson on 02/27/2019 - 07:59 am.

      Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful observations, Ray. You managed it with sensitivity and nuance. On the other hand, I, like another reader, am getting a feel from the comments (but not about the article; it’s difficult to discern who actually read it). My sense is how difficult it continues to be for white people to deal with this country’s systemic and ingrained racism.

  8. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 02/24/2019 - 01:56 pm.

    Isn’t this more about having money vs having little money? Many non-white professionals live in affluent “more white” areas, and many low income white people live in the north “more raciially diverse” part of town. I think it’s more socio-economic nowadays than the blatant discrimination of the past century.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/25/2019 - 08:24 am.

      Ms. Larey, this is an historical analysis. Historically whites are wealthier than blacks for a variety of reasons emerging from various kinds of racism. However, even today, housing in different areas and neighborhoods are still largely segregated. You don’t find “many” blacks living in the Kenwood area or even Uptown for instance, even if they have the money to buy there. We do NOT live in a post racist or post segregated country or era. In fact the Twin Cities has emerged as one of the most segregated urban cores in the country.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/25/2019 - 09:02 am.

        Blaming people being poor on racism is a fallacy. People have all kinds of opportunity to get ahead today that they didn’t have even a few decades ago.

        Betsy is right, people who are more well of want to keep the value of their property up which is why poorer people of any color aren’t really wanted in those affluent areas.

        Would you want a meth dealer moving in next door? Or a “redneck” leaving junk vehicles parked everywhere?

      • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/25/2019 - 10:48 am.

        Paul, Betsy wants to talk about socioeconomic class, the Third Rail of American thought. It’s easier to talk about race. But race is insufficient to explain our housing patterns, which are modulated by money and cultural habits.

        Middle-class and upper-class blacks and Latinos in Minneapolis live where they’re comfortable, and that is frequently in mostly-white affluent neighborhoods whose life is like theirs, whose patterns are like theirs. They are not, however, a majority of Minneapolis’s non-white population, which is not only more recently-arrived in our city, but starkly less financially stable.

        That’s the question . Not simply race. And it’s harder to discuss because it’s nuanced.

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