Earlier this month, I started volunteering about an hour a day for the Mapping Prejudice Project. I found out about the opportunity through the Saint Paul Area Association of Realtors (SPAAR) and signed up for the training session. SPAAR has been actively involved in the project for a couple of years.
Volunteering to help with the project is a good fit for me. It involves reading about history and property deeds, which I can do from home, where I’m still forced to spend much of my time. The experience has also helped bring history to life.
Mapping Prejudice is a team of geographers, historians, digital humanists and community activists seeking to expose structural racism by leading the community in unearthing thousands of racial covenants that reserved land for the exclusive use by white people.
The data being collected will be put on a map to show the areas that could only be owned or used by white people. Minneapolis has already been mapped, and there’s an interactive map that shows how the use of the covenants spread from 1910 to 1954.
The deeds for my county were not digital and had to be scanned. Optical character recognition (OCR) software was used to flag the deeds, which may contain racially based restrictive covenants.
There are thousands of deeds that need to be read by human volunteers. If a racially based covenant is found, the lot number, block number and the date of the deed are recorded along with the exact wording of the restriction. There are thousands of volunteers working on this massive project.
Some of the racial-based restrictive covenants exclude more than one group from owning or occupying the property, but where there are multiple restrictions, at least one of them restricts people of color, sometimes archaically called “Negros” on the deeds.
The phrase “Caucasian race” is commonly used to exclude all others. Here are some examples of the restrictive covenants I found:
“In consideration of the premises, the said parties of the second part, for themselves, their successors and the assigns, agree to the restriction that no person belonging to any race except the Caucasian shall purchase or occupy the aforesaid premises, or any part thereof.”
“The grantee cannot sell, lease or rent said real estate to any one of the black, brown, yellow or Semitic races.”
“Said property shall not be sold or rented to or used by any person except a person or persons of the White Caucasian Race, but persons or other races may occupy the premises when employed as servants by the owners.”
As I read through the deeds, I sometimes recognize the names of families that I went to high school with. I’m familiar with the subdivisions or additions referenced in the deeds and have been writing them down so that I can make my own mental map.
The deed restrictions are no longer enforced, but they’ve already done a lot of damage. They have segregated the metro area and contributed to vast economic disparities and one of the largest homeownership gaps in the country.
The restrictive covenants were put in place before I was even born. Even though I had nothing to do with them, I’ve benefited from them. The real estate I own is on land that once belonged to native peoples, was later sold by the French and became part of the Louisiana purchase.
My grandparents owned a home a couple of miles from where I live today. My grandfather bought the house and lived there with my great grandmother. He married my grandmother, and they had one child — my mother. She attended a public high school in the neighborhood and went on to college. She grew up to be a teacher.
My parents inherited that house my grandfather bought and sold it to a car dealership that was looking to expand its operation. They used the proceeds of the sale to buy the house that I grew up in. It was in what we used to call a “working class” neighborhood, which was mostly white.
I can’t help but wonder how different our lives for the past three generations would have been without homeownership and without the freedom to buy a home in the neighborhood of our choice.
Each deed that I read is a part of a family’s story. Newlyweds bought houses shortly after World War II in all-white subdivisions, where their children grew up, went to school and later became homeowners themselves. It’s worth mentioning that owning a home is a way to build wealth and that wealth can help future generations buy real estate.
The neighborhood where people of color lived was mostly wiped out between 1956 and 1968 to build the freeway. In the 1970s, plans to build a freeway through my mostly white neighborhood were blocked by local activists. We still lost some housing when a scaled-down, tree-lined roadway was built with a 45 mph speed limit.
I wonder if the people who were excluded from owning homes in certain areas knew about the deed restrictions at the time. Did they know they were living in a system that was rigged against them? Did they know they would be negatively affected for generations?
Generations of real people have been harmed by racially based restrictive covenants, and the experience of reading the deeds has made systemic racism and its effects come to life for me in slow motion.