The ugly history of racism is buried in the restrictive deed covenants of homeowners across Minneapolis.

From the neighborhoods near Lake Nokomis to properties along Minnehaha Creek to subdivisions in Northeast's Waite Park, real estate documents spell out requirements meant to keep people "other than anyone of the Caucasian race" out.

Now, a team of local researchers aims to make Minneapolis the first city in the nation to map every residential lot's history of racially restrictive deed covenants. Their painstaking research is accelerating, thanks to digital technology that will let them scan records that once resided in huge dusty tomes or on microfilm in the Hennepin County recorder office.

"If we succeed, we'll be the first city in the country," said Kirsten Delegard, director of the joint effort between Augsburg College, where she runs the Historyapolis Project, and the University of Minnesota's Borchert Map Library.

In Seattle, where researchers did more limited mapping of similar deeds, the work led to enriched school lessons, changes in the law and deeper understanding of the role of such restrictions in racial economic and housing disparities.

"We feel like this is the first step in starting a conversation," Delegard said. "This is the skeleton of racism in Minneapolis."

The Mapping Prejudice project will also seek outside partners to enrich its database with personal interviews and community conversations about the legacy of such restrictions.

Many property owners are likely unaware of the restrictive deed covenants connected to their homes, written by developers shortly after original plats were filed. They were declared unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948 and outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

But along with other discriminatory housing practices, they helped produce a black homeownership rate of 20 percent in Minneapolis today, about one-third the rate of white households. The deed covenants often correspond to areas the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) deemed eligible for federally backed mortgages.

Thousands of records

Penny Petersen, a retired historic preservation researcher, has been one of the project's leaders, diving into the arcane world of property additions, lots and blocks and deeds to follow her hunches to find deed restrictions in the historical record.

"Penny has already done more than anyone in this country," Delegard said.

A pioneering Seattle effort located 416 deeds that restricted to whom a home could be sold. Petersen so far has checked deeds for 16,122 lots, finding racially restrictive covenants on one-quarter of them. Although scanning speeds their work, researchers estimate it will take two years since they'll need to manually check handwritten and certain other deeds.

"I'm very impressed with the scope of this project," said James Gregory, a University of Washington history professor who led the Seattle effort.

The nearly 4,000 restricted deeds documented so far in Minneapolis illustrate much about the American obsession with race and how it has evolved, the researchers say. Racial covenants originated on the West Coast in the 1880s as a means to bar Chinese immigrants from moving into neighborhoods, and then spread to southern and border states.

Neighborhood restrictions

The earliest restrictive deeds Petersen has found in Minneapolis date to 1910. The restrictions were promoted by local real estate sellers as a means of creating racially homogenous neighborhoods, which were viewed as more stable.

Although real estate covenants commonly required certain building setbacks or set minimum values for house construction, they evolved to bar people considered objectionable. The earliest Minneapolis deed prohibits selling or even renting to people of "Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent." Later deeds often barred anyone "other than anyone of the Caucasian race." Sometimes live-in servants of color were allowed.

"It's important to understand how our cities came to look the way that they are," said Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, which helped with funding. "We relegate them to natural market outcomes without reference to the very engineering and intrusive interventions that these things are."

Until 1948, someone who defied deed restrictions risked losing their property.

Researchers have found them thickest in areas developed before World War II around Lake Nokomis and along Minnehaha Creek. But they were used as late as 1946 in a subdivision marketed to veterans in the Waite Park neighborhood, prompting calls at City Hall to bar their further use.

Petersen said she hasn't found exclusions on deeds for such tonier areas as Kenwood or Tangletown, evidently because it was considered unthinkable that excluded groups could afford to live there.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

Twitter: @brandtmpls