Minneapolis residents protest racial integration in 1962.
The most powerful instrument of segregation in the urban north during the twentieth century, racial deed restrictions—also known as racial covenants—barred people who were not white from owning property. The language of these documents is blunt. One common Minneapolis covenant reads: "the said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased , or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race."
Racially-restricted deeds were pioneered in California, where they were deployed against Asian-American immigrants in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century, covenants had been adopted across the nation by entrepreneurs and urban planners who sought to impose new order on the urban environment. They were inserted into real estate contracts in cities like Chicago and St. Louis and Minneapolis, where they limited the economic and social opportunities of African-American migrants fleeing the restrictions of the Jim Crow south.
Racial covenants came to Minneapolis in 1910, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold a property on 35th Avenue South to Nels Anderson. The deed conveyed in that transaction contained what would become a common restriction, stipulating that the "premises 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."
Henry Scott would soon become the first president of the Seven Oaks Corporation, a real estate development company that put this same language into thousands of deeds across the city. Our research has discovered 30,000 deeds with racial restrictions in Hennepin County. Our completed map will eventually reveal how much land was reserved for the exclusive use of white people by covenants in Minneapolis.
These "unjust deeds," as one scholar has dubbed them, were the brainchild of the real estate industry. But they were quickly embraced by public officials, who saw them as a way to promote neighborhood stability. In the 1930s, federal housing administrators endorsed these legal instruments, requiring them for projects that used federally-backed financing. Lenders followed suit, accepting the rationale that covenants provided essential insurance for their investments in residential property. Banks made it a routine practice to "redline" or deny loans for properties in racially-mixed neighborhoods.
The NAACP—the legendary civil rights organization—launched a sustained legal campaign against covenants in the 1940s, prompting the Supreme Court to declare covenants to be unenforceable in 1948. The Minnesota Legislature prohibited the use of racial restrictions in warranty deeds in 1953. But covenants remained commonplace in much of the nation until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act made them explicitly illegal.
Once they were outlawed, most Americans were happy to forget about covenants and the troubling questions they raise about race and opportunity in the United States. Today, few Minneapolitans know such restrictions ever existed. But the memory of these discriminatory deeds has remained vivid in the local Jewish community. Elders have long blamed covenants for fostering the hostile environment for Jews in Minneapolis, which journalist Carey McWilliams declared in 1946 to be the "capital of anti-Semitism in the United States."
This 1919 advertisement in the Minneapolis Tribune appealed to these anti-Semitic sentiments. Developer Edmund G. Walton offered "restricted" housing sites overlooking Lake of the Isles that could not "be conveyed mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, Semetic or African blood or descent."
Later this same year, the Minnesota legislature banned real estate restrictions based on religious faith or creed. This might explain why our preliminary survey of property records in Hennepin County has uncovered only two dozen covenants with anti-Semitic restrictions like the one advertised by Walton. Thanks to the 1919 state law, the city's palpable anti-Semitism was only rarely articulated in racially-restrictive deeds. This is not to say that Jews did not experience housing discrimination. They were steered to certain neighborhoods by real estate agents and rebuffed by property managers. Their housing choices were only rarely limited by the legal text of real estate contracts.
Though many covenants named a laundry list of "objectionable" people, our research reveals that racial restrictions on deeds were crafted mainly to exclude African Americans. Most of the deeds that we have found seem to reflect the prevailing opinion of the mid-twentieth century, which held that African Americans were particularly undesirable neighbors. In 1946, sixty percent of Minnesotans surveyed believed that Africans Americans should not have the freedom to live in any neighborhood. Sixty-eight percent asserted that a non-white neighbor would hurt their property values. And sixty-four percent declared that they would not sell their home to an American American, even if the person proffered more for the property than a white buyer.
This consensus on race and real estate began to crumble after World War II, which highlighted the hypocrisy of many racial policies in the United States. In 1946, the local chapter of the American Veterans Committee picketed the Minneapolis Realty Board to protest the use of racially-restricted deeds in a new housing development in Northeast Minneapolis. After a racial covenant blocked an Asian-American veteran from purchasing a home in the Oak Hill subdivision, protesters decried these discriminatory contracts as "unnecessary, undemocratic and un-American." The president of the real estate firm behind the development explained that for these kinds of projects "the federally backed savings and loan associations and banks require such a clause." He dismissed the protesters as "a bunch of trouble-making, flag-waving communists."
Two years later the United States Supreme Court dealt racially-restrictive deeds a significant blow when it declared these contracts to be unenforceable.
This legal history is relatively well-known. What is still unclear is when and where these restrictions were embedded in the urban landscape. Mapping Prejudice seeks to answer this question. And with our visualization, we hope to make history.