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.
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.
“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.
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).
In 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.
The 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.
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.