How GIS can reveal racist covenants in property deeds
Researchers are using GIS and public records to map how racist covenants shaped cities in the 20th Century
June 3, 2020: The protests sweeping the nation right now are not just about the death of George Floyd; they are the culmination of centuries of systemic racism that continue to devastate the black community today. And perhaps no where is this more apparent than in Minneapolis, the epicenter of this latest round of protests over the death of yet another unarmed black person by police.
Minneapolis has a long history of economic disparities that have marginalized black residents for decades, writes the Associated Press. And as we covered back in 2017, this institutional racism even extended into property ownership deeds within the community, allowing real estate developers to legally keep black families out of more desireable — and of course white — neighborhoods. While this practice no longer holds up in court, there is still much work to be done policywise to correct the damage done.
Kirsten Delegard, a scholar-in-residence at Augsburg University and creator of the award-winning Historyapolis Project, is inspired by contradiction. Some cities may believe they were never segregated like cities in the South, but 20th-Century urban growth was more-often-than-not manicured by racist covenants tied to deeds.
This appears to be the case with cities like Minneapolis, as the offshoot project Mapping Prejudice is revealing, according to NextCity. A group of historians is also using Washington’s D.C.'s GIS data to map racial covenants in the nation’s capital.
Digital Property Records Reveal Racist Covenants
The GIS specialist and project manager, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, credited local government for making the project possible with digitized property records. He’s using optical character recognition software, a script he wrote that combs the trove of deeds for keywords and hundreds of volunteers to confirm racist covenants — illegal deed restrictions that prevent the sale or rent of property to defined racial targets.
According to the University of Washington, the Supreme Court validated use of racial covenants in 1926. One deed Ehrman-Solberg has found indicated the particular property:
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.”
Addressing Racist Covenants
Mapping Prejudice’s goal is to find every property with a racially-motivated restriction and plot it on a map of Minneapolis. Some preliminary results show clusters of racist covenants created in the 20th Century in the city’s “whitest” neighborhoods.
They’ve uncovered some 5,000 deeds with racist covenants, according to a recent report in the Minneapolis Star. Each record returned in the search is read three times to verify it’s racist covenant. Often the racist covenants were tied to Minneapolis property lots owned by a developer. Whole blocks and neighborhoods are affected.
Similar results were found by a previous racist covenant research project in Seattle that helped to motivate a 2006 Washington state law authorizing the courts to expunge racial covenants from property deeds. Minneapolis homeowners can seek an order stating their property is no longer covered by a racist covenant from a district court. A California law allows homeowners to simply file a document with the county to nullify a racist covenant, which reduces costs to the homeowners.
Though the Fair Housing Act, or Housing Rights Act, passed in 1968 outlawed such restrictions, for more than 40 years it was perfectly legal to discriminate with property. The restrictions sought to also prevent future property owners from selling or renting to blacks, or other targeted groups.
But while the mapping projects reveal deep roots of racially-based housing patterns that no longer carry legal weight, they don’t address current public policies — like land-use restrictions — that may keep them segregated, argue critics.
In Minneapolis, the public’s rejection of racist roots in the public domain is leading to public asset name changes. In May, the city’s park board recommended changing the name of Lake Calhoun, as it was named for John C. Calhoun, a former vice president that supported slavery. In June, the city’s school board voted to change the name of a school named for a former Minnesota governor that advocated to exterminate the Sioux tribe. Changing names of public assets may be an early step modern cities can take to confront past racism.