Edina’s history of racial discrimination is the focus of an “edit war” on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that’s become the world’s go-to research site.
Eight times last summer and autumn, a university student added information to Edina’s Wikipedia page about the city’s history of racial exclusion. And each time, the same anonymous Wikipedia editor removed the information.
“Sometimes my edits were removed within hours of being put up,” said Amarin Young, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Illinois. “It’s still difficult to document the history of racial exclusion, even in online spaces that are celebrated as inherently liberatory.”
Some of the contested information Young added to the page was true, but it’s possible that at least one of her key additions was inaccurate.
Young made the Wikipedia edits as an assignment in an African-American studies class she was taking from James Loewen, a sociologist and author of “Sundown Towns,” a book detailing how thousands of American communities excluded blacks and other minorities in the first half of the 20th century. Her task was to add information on racial exclusion to the Wikipedia page of one of the cities mentioned in Loewen’s book. She chose Edina.
Edina’s Country Club neighborhood, built between 1924 and 1944, is often cited by historians for its racially restrictive deed covenants. Home buyers in Country Club had to agree they would never sell their property to anyone “other than one of the white or Caucasian race.” Nonwhites were also barred from living in Country Club unless they were domestic servants and residing in the household they served.
But other Edina neighborhoods also enforced restrictive deed covenants, said Marci Matson, executive director of the Edina Historical Society.
“The Fairfax neighborhood had one; so did Highlands,” Matson said. “It was standard practice. It was a wrong thing to do, but it wasn’t unique in its time.”
And Edina wasn’t alone. Other communities in the Twin Cities also used restrictive covenants, she said.
“It definitely was a dark time in Twin Cities history,” Matson said. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while individuals could voluntarily abide by restrictive covenants, courts could no longer enforce them.
The editing history of Edina’s Wikipedia page demonstrates the potential problems of a crowdsourced research site that relies on more than 77,000 volunteer contributors. While some of the information Young added to the page was accurate, some was potentially questionable.
One of her deleted entries mentions a supposed Edina city ordinance that banned all “colored” people from city streets between sundown and sunrise. The source of that information was an e-mail to Loewen, her professor, from a former Edina resident who recalled seeing the ordinance while doing research for a civics class. Matson said she has never seen any evidence of such an ordinance in the city’s past.
The editor who repeatedly removed the Edina information goes by the screen name “Juno.” A message left for Juno on a Wikipedia forum got no response.
Wikipedia’s editing guidelines discourage edit wars. Instead, the site urges users to collaborate on a solution acceptable to all.
“Edit warring is unconstructive and creates animosity between editors, making it harder to reach a consensus,” the guidelines say. Wikipedia’s volunteer contributors have “full control and responsibility” for the site’s contents, said a spokeswoman for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit parent of the site.
Wikipedia offers a mediation process for resolving editorial disputes, but Young said she didn’t attempt to use it. When her class ended in the early fall, she stopped trying to make changes to the Edina page. The page currently makes no reference to the city’s racial history.
‘Part of our history’
The city of Edina does not edit its Wikipedia page, either for good or for bad, said Jennifer Bennerotte, Edina’s communications director.
“That forum just isn’t an official communication vehicle, and we’re too busy for that,” she said. Racial discrimination “is a part of our history, and it’s a part of history in other towns, too,” she added.
Edina “has really owned up to” its racist past, Matson said. Edina mentions the restrictive Country Club housing covenants on its official city website. The covenants, as well as past discrimination against Jews, are discussed on the website of the city’s Human Rights and Relations Commission. The city’s racial history is also included in “Edina: Chapters in the City History,” a 1998 book commissioned by the city and written by Minnesota author Deborah Morse-Kahn.
As Jews, Morse-Kahn’s own parents were barred from buying a house in Edina in 1950, she said. They settled in Minneapolis instead, where her father, Howard Kahn, became a prominent figure in DFL political circles.
“It was a national trend,” Morse-Kahn said. “It singled out blacks explicitly, and implicitly Jews and Catholics.” Edina was a left-leaning farm community before the Country Club development brought an influx of wealthy, educated white residents, she said.
“It created a new life in which the lower-class ethnic communities, particularly the blacks, had no place,” she said. Morse-Kahn, who is being treated for cancer, said the Edina edit war “is not a fight I can join right now. But I would love to join this fight.”