Jade Holman was stunned to learn that buried in the fine print of the deed to the two-story stucco house he bought nearly a year ago is a clause stating that his home cannot be “transferred or leased to a colored person.”
It’s long been rendered unenforceable by state legislation and federal law, but it’s jarring nonetheless for Holman, a construction attorney, who said he’ll try to get a court to nullify it.
“I think it’s horrible,” said Holman, who lives on the 4300 block of Washburn Avenue N. in Minneapolis. “It is terrible that we would exclude anyone based on race, gender or sexual identity, especially when it comes to something as important as housing.”
Holman is among as many as 10,000 or more Minneapolis homeowners with property deeds containing so-called “racial covenants,” and a team of researchers working out of a small office at the University of Minnesota is determined to find them all.
So far, members of the Mapping Prejudice project have discovered some 5,000 deeds with racist restrictions. The covenants appear to be concentrated in the whitest Minneapolis neighborhoods, illustrating the long historical reach that racial restrictions have had on the city’s residential housing, while helping to explain the de facto segregation housing patterns that exist today.
Once completed, the project could represent the first-ever comprehensive map of racial covenants in an American city, said Kirsten Delegard, director of the Historyapolis Project at Augsburg College. Delegard said covenants were once pervasive in many cities across the country.
“It’s a hidden system of American apartheid,” Delegard said, noting that there is some irony that “Minneapolis is heralded as a model metropolis.”
She became intrigued by a research project in Seattle that unearthed 400 restrictive covenants and decided to launch an investigation here. Delegard brought in Penny Petersen, a property records specialist, who initially found 1,500 racial covenants in Minneapolis — more than anyone had ever found.
Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a University of Minnesota graduate student, joined the team. He is a computer programmer who specializes in digital cartography. The group has set up shop in an office in the Borchert Map Library in the basement of Wilson Library at the U.
Finding the covenants is a mix of high- and low-tech research. Hennepin County’s property deeds are on microfilm and digitized. Using a computer word search program, the Mapping Prejudice team scanned some 1.4 million deeds registered between 1900 and 1960. They found more than 20,000 deeds that contain racial terms, but it’s unclear which ones are from Minneapolis and what the deeds actually say.
“This is the most tenacious form of segregation,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “This language is much harder to eradicate than an ordinance because you can repeal an ordinance, but you can’t remove a racial covenant. The current resurgence of white supremacy reinforces the importance of this work.”
Nearly 200 volunteers have signed on, and project leaders are seeking more, so that each deed with racial terminology is read three times to verify that it contains a racial covenant. The results of the group’s research are being posted in an online interactive map.
“It makes me furious,” said Asher Michels-Allen, 24, who signed up to become a researcher after hearing a Mapping Prejudice presentation at Powderhorn Park. “I want to be part of the change.”
Whole blocks affected
The first known deed containing a racial covenant was recorded in 1910, and developers continued to include them in property deeds well into the 1950s.
The wordings vary but have a common theme: They prohibit the homebuyer and subsequent owners from selling the house to a black person. Some covenants bar a black person from renting or otherwise living there unless the person is a servant. The covenants often state that if the homeowner sells the house to a black person, the sale is voided, and the homeowner forfeits the property, which reverts back to the developer.
Most of the covenants preceded construction of the house and are contained in deeds for the lot as part of a block of lots owned by a developer. All deeds in the group of lots typically carry the racist prohibition.
Augsburg College President Paul Pribbenow teaches a class in which about 10 students help with the Mapping Prejudice project by searching deeds as part of their course work.
“I have long advocated that we need to go back to understanding how neighborhoods excluded people,” he said. “I can look at this and be appalled at the history of our city, but I can also see it has a teaching tool for students to face that history.”
Pribbenow’s suspicions were recently confirmed by the Mapping Prejudice team. Augsburg’s “President’s House” where he lives — on the 2800 block of West River Road in Minneapolis — has a deed on file that contains a racial covenant. The house was built in 1940 and purchased by Augsburg in 1998, but the deed was recorded in 1926. It reads:
“Said property shall never be sold, leased, mortgaged or transferred to any person of the Negro race, or to any person married to or living with a person of the Negro race …”
While the covenant no longer carries legal weight, Pribbenow said he’s consulting Augsburg’s attorney to determine if the college can nullify the prohibition while preserving “this historical record, despite the disgrace it portrays, so that we never lose sight of the actions that have segregated and repressed many.”
Minneapolis real estate lawyer John Koneck said that while state courts lack the authority to expunge the racial language contained in a deed, a homeowner could seek an order from a district court that would state that the property is no longer covered by a racial covenant.
The state of California has passed legislation that allows a homeowner to bypass the court, which can be expensive because of the cost of hiring a lawyer. The law states that a homeowner can simply file a document that accompanies the original deed, voiding the restriction. It gives the county recorder the option of waiving the filing fee.
Mondale found it common
The outlawing of racial covenants in the United States came about by degrees.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts could not enforce racial covenants although it was not illegal for a buyer and seller to mutually agree to such language. In 1953, the Minnesota Legislature made it illegal to refuse to sell a house to someone based on race.
As the youngest lawyer in a Minneapolis law firm in the 1950s, former Vice President Walter Mondale said in an interview that he was frequently assigned to handle real estate transactions. He discovered that racial covenants were quite common. “Almost every one of them had a racial clause,” Mondale recalled. “They were designed to keep whites and blacks separated.”
Later as a U.S. senator, Mondale was a member of a bipartisan civil rights caucus and volunteered to carry legislation that would prohibit housing discrimination. It would, in effect, ban racial covenants.
The bill was considered a “hot potato” in 1968 and unlikely to pass, Mondale said, because Gov. George Romney of Michigan, who was seeking the Republican nomination for president, had spoken out in support of fair housing and saw his approval ratings drop by double digits.
Mondale said a black Navy lieutenant working at the Pentagon testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about how he was repeatedly blocked from renting an apartment in white neighborhoods. The bill passed the Senate after much debate and several compromises, but it stalled in the House. After the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., support for the legislation increased. It passed the House, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.
For many Minneapolis residents, discovering covenant language in their own deeds is likely to be a shocker.
“Holy mackerel!” Peter Lilienthal, a local entrepreneur and restaurant reviewer, said when a reporter told him a few weeks ago that the deed to his house on the 2700 block of Drew Avenue S. contained the provision that it could not be “sold, mortgaged, leased to or occupied by any person or persons other than members of the Caucasian race.”
“I think we were all aware that discrimination existed in this country for a long time,” Lilienthal said. “It rears its ugly head in a lot of ways. To me this is one more of them.”