House by house, block by block, Minnesotans are digging into the history of their homes and reckoning with what they find.
Starting in 1910, housing discrimination spread throughout the Twin Cities and beyond, enforced by racial covenants in property records.
Developers often used covenants to bar anyone who wasn't white from owning or residing in the homes and neighborhoods they built. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court found these covenants, which also often discriminated against non-Christians, unenforceable. In 1962, they became illegal in Minnesota.
Still, the practice impacted generations of Minnesotans by carving out "Caucasians only" enclaves, shaping a segregated metro area and leading to persistent racial disparities in homeownership.
An effort by the University of Minnesota's Mapping Prejudice project and legal support from the Just Deeds coalition, started by Golden Valley city officials, allows residents in eight cities to discover if their home has a racial covenant in its deed and officially renounce it.
More than 1,000 homeowners have applied with Just Deeds in Minneapolis and Golden Valley alone, and more than 100 covenants have been discharged.
"Folks are determined to have a reckoning with structural racism, and this practice is something that people can do to start enacting change," said Kirsten Santelices, Golden Valley's deputy city manager. "The language in the racially restrictive covenants is clear. There is no room for an argument that these practices were not inherently racist. This gives people motivation to take action."
Everyone not welcome
Watching the TPT documentary "Jim Crow of the North," about racial covenants in the Twin Cities, made Melissa Paulson Omo realize how little she knew about her home.
"It made me feel like there was a lot more that I should be seeking out to learn," said Omo. "It's pretty incredible to see how the city was built to be racially biased."
The Welcome Park neighborhood in Crystal, where she and her husband recently bought a two-story home, is one of several areas where discriminatory covenants are widespread. According to city records, approximately 5% of the northwestern inner-ring suburb's 7,600 houses have racist restrictions in their deeds.
When Crystal joined the Just Deeds project, Omo and her husband quickly filed the online form to see if their home had a racial covenant. They learned that even though the original home on the site was torn down before their home was built in 2006, the phrase "subject to racial and building restrictions as of record" had been a part of the deed since 1925.
After a lawyer volunteering with Just Deeds filed the necessary paperwork, the title now shows that the covenant was discharged.
"I think, for us, it was a very small way to say 'This isn't OK,' " said Omo.
Exposing racist history
A tight-knit bunch in Minneapolis' Armatage neighborhood socialize regularly and share an e-mail group, calling themselves Morton, an amalgam of the streets they live on, Morgan and Newton.
Last summer, Veronica Soria Miller got a message from the group that startled her: "We all have racial covenants on our homes," one of her neighbors wrote. "Did you guys know about this?"
"After figuring out what it was, I mean, it was really disturbing," Soria Miller said.
According to the Mapping Prejudice website, the 1946 development that created their blocks included the following language: "No person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or a tenant."
The words were in the historical deed of the single-story home where Soria Miller and her family moved three years ago.
"I'm a Mexican American woman, and my husband's Jewish. The covenants also discriminated against people who are just non-Christian in general, anyone who didn't fit a very specific description of what was OK to be," said Soria Miller. "The words, even to this day, are very harmful."
The Morton neighbors formed Armatage Reparations & Equity Action and sought help from Just Deeds founder Maria Cisneros to renounce the covenants.
But they didn't stop there. They made lawn signs that say, "This home renounced its racial covenant," to share the message in the neighborhood and spark conversations about its past. They also are planning to support initiatives to close the homeownership gap, back reparations legislation and make micro-reparation payments directly to Black Minnesotans.
"Renouncing the covenants is really the first step," said neighbor Eric Magnuson, "and we really hope that we can continue to inspire more neighbors to keep pushing toward reparations for all the injustices and discrimination that Black people have faced over the decades and centuries."
For these neighbors, renouncing the racist deeds isn't about erasing history, Soria Miller said, but making it more visible. "We need to acknowledge that this happened and acknowledge the effects, and that way people can move forward toward productive steps."
At a virtual presentation about Just Deeds in Golden Valley, Linden Weiswerda noticed that a map showing the location of racial covenants included his Lakeview Heights neighborhood.
"There's a huge cluster, six or eight square blocks right around where our house is located," he said.
He signed up with the Just Deeds program that same night. A pro bono lawyer was able to find what Weiswerda had been unable to uncover by going through his house's records. Because a racial covenant had been a part of his subdivision's original development, it was part of his property record, even though his young family's ranch home was built in the 1980s.
"Everybody's trying to be aware of what systematic racism actually looks like, and this is a real-life example," he said. "This is our first house we've ever bought. It's going to have a sentimental place in our heart for a long time. But there are people whose entire generations of family have never been able to own a home, and this is part of that reason."
While Weiswerda knew that some Minneapolis neighborhoods had racial covenants, he didn't realize how widespread the practice was.
"Even knowing they're not legally enforceable, when you read some of them, it turns your stomach," he said. "It's not random, they're not scattered around. You can draw walls around them, basically, and that's what they were. They were paperwork walls."