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Knowledge & Action:
The Movement on Covenants

Long after they were prohibited, racially restrictive covenants in property deeds still shape housing markets and segregate Minneapolis. There has been significant progress in countering the covenants, however, and learning and taking action are both crucial in this progress.

One reason for the heightened focus on covenants in recent years has to do with new ways of creating a better future for Black, Indigenous and other people of color in Minnesota and elsewhere in the North. The tragic murder of George Floyd by MPD officers in May of 2020 resulted in an uprising, intense media attention, and many calls for racial justice and truth telling about our history and present. Amid the pain, grief and anger of this period came an interest in exploring fuller accounts of white supremacy in Minnesota, and commitments to transform many kinds of institutions and places. Placenames, policies, as well as the state flag and other symbols of power, are being contested today. This may be a watershed moment for justice and equality.

Here is how our work toward Reclaiming Edmund Boulevard fits into a broader local context.

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Mapping Prejudice

Another reason why covenants are getting renewed attention in public conversations on racism is the research of Mapping Prejudice. This is a public scholarship project based at the University of Minnesota. The team and its thousands of volunteers find covenants in individual property deeds in order to document the spread of the covenants over time and space.

 

Their study of covenants in Hennepin County was the first systematic study of covenants of any county in the US. The work on Hennepin was completed in 2020 and yielded over 8,000 covenants in Minneapolis alone. Maps and data from Mapping Prejudice can be downloaded by anyone for free. Their maps now appear in several publications, and they are the source for our work and a lot of other advocacy and reporting on covenants in Minnesota.

 

ACTION STEPS

  • You can volunteer with Mapping Prejudice here.

  • You can download maps and data here.

Legislative Action

The legislature developed new tools to respond to covenants issue recently. Representative Jim Davnie (District 63A) authored a bill to revise Minnesota statute for a process for homeowners to discharge covenants on their properties. After passage by the Legislature, the bill was signed into law in 2019. Davnie credited Mapping Prejudice as his inspiration. (Samantha Sencer-Mura became Representative for District 63A in 2022. The district includes the South Minneapolis neighborhoods of Seward, Longfellow, Cooper, and Howe.)

 

Policy-makers in the Minnesota legislature first engaged on this issue in 1953 by barring discriminatory language in any new covenants.

ACTION STEP

  • Read the bill from 2019 here.

 

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Just Deeds

While Davnie's bill provided a legal basis for discharging covenants, the Just Deeds project arose to further simplify and promote the process. This team of pro bono lawyers gives technical assistance to homeowners in discharging racially restrictive covenants. The whole process is free. As of January 2024, Just Deeds is partnering with 26 cities in Minnesota and they have helped to discharge more than 700 covenants to date.

ACTION STEPS

Free the Deeds

To promote individual accountability and neighborhood visibility on covenants, the Free the Deeds project was begun. In its first phase, a group of artists and storytellers led this effort to bring deeper consciousness and to promote community-building actions around covenants. They created art, held public events, wrote local histories, and distributed lawn signs for properties with discharged covenants. Free The Deeds also promoted reparations as a response to the ongoing harms of racially restrictive covenants, and land trusts, which enable more inclusive and equitable models of homeownership.

 

In its second phase, since 2023, Free the Deeds has been run by the Longfellow Community Council. As part of its service to the Greater Longfellow area, the LCC conducted an advocacy campaign on covenants – flyers in the summer, door-knocking in fall – that targeted roughly 900 properties in the area that still have covenants. The LCC plans another stage of this work in Spring and Summer of 2024.
 

ACTION STEPS

  • If you have discharged a covenant on your home, donate for a lawn sign.

  • Support the African American Community Land Trust initiative here.

  • Check out the Free The Deeds workbook here.

  • Respond to the CURA/Free The Deeds survey on reparations.

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Action backed by knowledge

We are making Edmund Walton's legacy our target because we believe that racial justice requires us to challenge both the symbolism and the material impacts of white supremacy. Reclaiming Edmund Boulevard is a small, but meaningful, step in righting the wrongs done by racially restrictive covenants and in recognizing unearned privileges that white property owners enjoy in society. We will succeed in time.

 

More and more homeowners are aware of the role that covenants have played, whether in their own home's history, their family's history, or in the broader community. As of January 2024, the volunteers of Mapping Prejudice have uncovered over 30,000 racially restrictive covenants in property deeds across Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, and Anoka Counties. That historic achievement is part of a growing national research movement: there are now 13 research programs in the National Covenants Research Coalition undertaking such work. As of January 2024, another such project has just been announced in the Milwaukee area. There is also federal legislation pending on this issue. In 2021, Senator Tina Smith (MN) introduced a bill in the US Senate, the Mapping Housing Discrimination Act, which would establish a federal grant system for the advancement of research on covenants and housing discrimination.

Ultimately, this work relates to homeowners, renters, and unhoused people and causes us to ask how we can build a common future in a
more just society.

NOTE: Collage elements on this page are aerial photos, photo studies, planning documents and other official materials from the 1920s to 1960s that were taken in the Cooper/Howe/Longfellow area. They are publicly available through the digital archives of the Hennepin County Library.

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