“No part of the above described property shall be sold, conveyed, mortgaged, leased or rented to any person of negro [sic], Chinese, Japanese, or Hebrew descent,” the restrictive clauses, or covenants, said.
These are just a handful of the 2,400 Ramsey County covenants identified in newly unveiled research from Mapping Prejudice, a University of Minnesota collaborative that previously mapped Hennepin County covenants, and Welcoming The Dear Neighbor, a St. Catherine University initiative to analyze housing discrimination.
A total of 26,000 covenants have now been identified across both Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
The expanded geographic focus of this research has been a long time coming, said Kirsten Delegard, the project director for Mapping Prejudice.
“Almost immediately, when we started the work with identifying covenants in Hennepin County…[scholars at St. Catherine] started saying, ‘What about Ramsey County?’” she said.
Covenants were used to create long-lasting segregation in cities in the northern U.S., and drive Black Americans, and other minority groups, into poverty.
They were central to the federal housing policy of redlining, where non-white or mixed-race neighborhoods (without covenants) would be written off as having little property value, and residents were unable to get a loan or a mortgage.
Many of the extreme racial disparities found in Minnesota can be traced back to the legacy of covenants. For example, a quarter of Black families in Minneapolis today own their home, compared to over three-quarters of white families being homeowners — one of the largest racial homeownership gaps in the country.
Identifying the covenants in Ramsey is only the start to uncovering the history of housing discrimination on the east side of the Mississippi, Delegard said.
“We want to be really clear that this is the beginning and not the end of this work,” she said. “Part of what we’re hoping to do…is to hand the baton to people in the community” to help find and tell stories of how covenants shaped Ramsey County.
If you have a story to tell about covenants in Ramsey County, let us know by emailing us at [email protected]!
A complex Jewish story
In Minneapolis, known for much of the 20th century for rampant antisemitism, the Jewish community was often discriminated against with covenants. But over time, Jews were also able to buy covenanted houses — most notably in St. Louis Park, where some Jewish developers also put covenants into property deeds.
St. Paul shows a similarly layered story. Fifty-two of the 2,400 covenants identified in Ramsey explicitly mention Jews (the language varies from discriminating against people of the “Semitic race” to those of “Hebrew descent”).
Many other Ramsey covenants simply state that “no person or persons except those of the white race of pure blood” can own or rent the house. That kind of flexible language was also often aimed against Jews.
But covenants are also found in Highland Park, where the St. Paul Jewish community has made its home. Temple of Aaron synagogue, the Talmud Torah of St. Paul, and the St. Paul campus of the Minnesota JCC are all located near clusters of covenants.
“Looking at this data, it really prompts us to rethink: what are some of our basic assumptions about change over time?” Delegard said. “How a space was made welcoming, or not welcoming, to different groups.”
Most of the identified covenants near TOA are aimed against “colored person or persons.” But just two minutes drive (12 minutes walk) from Temple of Aaron sits one house where the covenant states that the property “will not be sold to any persons of the Jewish or Negro race.”
Mapping Prejudice has also uncovered a story of Jews in Highland Park who, having bought covenanted homes in the 1940s, then organized their neighborhood to try and get rid of the covenants — an effort that was unheard of in that time period.
“We did just some very quick and dirty archival work on it,” Delegard said. “On the one hand, they were able to buy a house that had a covenant on it. On the other hand, they obviously perceived it to be enough of a fence that they organized and went to court.”
Covenants are only part of the history of antisemitism and racism in St. Paul that merits rethinking. While Minneapolis won the moniker of being “the capital of antisemitism in the United States” in 1946, St. Paul has long been considered a more tolerant city, where Jews faced less discrimination.
But “one of the things that we have been finding in the archival work…is that the [Ku Klux] Klan was extremely powerful in St. Paul,” Delegard said.
“In fact, what we’re finding is that it was more powerful in St. Paul than in Minneapolis. And this really cuts against a sort of a common-sense historical story that you hear again and again, that, ‘Oh, St. Paul was much more welcoming to Jews and to people who are not white than Minneapolis.’ I would not say that.”
An incomplete picture
The Ramsey covenant findings are a major addition to understanding housing discrimination in the Twin Cities. But at the same time, Mapping Prejudice researchers emphasize that the Ramsey data is largely incomplete.
Mapping Prejudice identified Ramsey covenants by scanning microfilm photos of housing deeds. A computer program marked potentially racist language found in the deeds, which were then verified by a team of volunteers.
Over 20,000 volunteer hours were spent on identifying and processing Ramsey covenants.
Many of the microfilm deed photos, however, are of terrible quality and are practically unreadable. “Our computer software would not be able to interpret whether or not [the deeds] have a covenant,” said Michael Corey, the technical and data lead for Mapping Prejudice.
As a result, far fewer covenants were identified in Ramsey County than Hennepin, and unlike Hennepin, where maps show that entire neighborhoods were blanketed in covenants, maps for Ramsey show a patchwork of covenants.
But as Mapping Prejudice revisits Ramsey deeds in the coming months, researchers expect Ramsey to show the same pattern as Hennepin.
“I want to be really clear about this: we don’t think that this patchwork represents the full extent of covenants,” Corey said. “We actually think that, in reality, most of those [Ramsey] houses in between those covenants are also covenanted.”
Part of the missing picture is also a matter of geography. Hennepin County includes Minneapolis and a wide extent of suburbs, including the first-ring suburbs where covenants are most prominent. Ramsey County is much smaller, and mostly includes St. Paul and a few adjacent suburbs.
St. Paul’s equivalent of Minneapolis’ first-ring suburbs are instead located in the surrounding Anoka, Washington, and Dakota counties. Mapping Prejudice is already in the process of identifying covenants in those areas, where they anticipate seeing Hennepin’s trend of blanketed covenants carrying over to the St. Paul metro.
What is clear from the Ramsey data is how deeply covenants are ingrained in the fabric of St. Paul and the state’s political structure. One of the most prominent area of covenants is around Como Park, which was partly developed by Thomas Frankson.
Frankson served as Minnesota’s lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 1917 until 1921, and also donated the land for the Como Park golf course. And he advertised, in both English and Swedish-language newspapers, that the neighborhoods he built in Como were blanketed by covenants.
“This says a lot about who covenants were aimed at, and who was deemed to be part of the the acceptable white residents of a property,” Corey said. The Swedish ads included covenant language that was “exactly the same as we see in the English-language ones.”
Covenants were used in the Twin Cities from 1910 until as late as the 1950s, though a Supreme Court ruling in 1948 deemed covenants legally unenforceable. Many covenants were still added to properties after the ruling.
In 1953, the Minnesota legislature banned new covenants, but it took until Congress passing the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to make covenants illegal across the country by banning housing discrimination.
Covenants were just one tool of enforcing housing discrimination — in the Twin Cities, like elsewhere, whites also used violence against Black Americans and other minorities to force them out of majority-white areas.