Mapping Prejudice in Minneapolis

Interdisciplinary project maps racially restrictive covenants in housing deeds

By Jon Jeffryes

Ryan Mattke with graduate students in the Map LibraryHow can mapping technology be used to explore historic injustices to shed light on modern racial disparities?

The answer to that question lies at the heart of a new interdisciplinary research venture from Augsburg College’s Historyapolis Project mapping racially restrictive covenants in house deeds from the early 20th century. The University of Minnesota Libraries’ Borchert Map Library and Map & Geospatial Information Librarian, Ryan Mattke, are in the middle of the action.

‘An intersectional hub’

Mapping Prejudice brings together researchers from multiple institutions, as well as the community, and aims to examine around 1.6 million house deeds with the ultimate goal of comprehensively mapping the history of discriminatory housing covenants. Project lead, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, a University of Minnesota graduate student, describes Borchert Map Library as “an intersectional hub that can bring all of these different departments and different institutions” together.

Augsburg College history professor Kirsten Delegard originally conceived of the project five years ago, but it wasn’t until meeting Mattke at a Libraries DASH event and their subsequent conversations that the project at its current scale was actualized.

“This could have never ever actually been realized in the way that it has if Ryan hadn’t stepped up and made the space in the Borchert Map Library,” Delegard remarks, “it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Ryan and it weren’t for the Libraries.”

Mattke provides project management as well as traditional librarian support. Mattke leverages his experience networking with a variety of researchers, campus departments, and community groups, “drawing on that network of contacts and then bringing the right people together across departments” to help the project succeed. He also advises on potential funding sources to keep the project moving. The research team uses the computer lab with special GIS software in the Map Library as their base of operations.

“All of these different people, all of these different methods of research, all of these different clusters of expertise work to grapple with something and try to answer this question that no one’s really been able to get at before,” says Ehrman-Solberg in describing the scope of their project. 

She describes Mattke’s project management as “completely fundamental to the success of this project.”

Delegard agrees. “He’s just really made things happen with this project in a way that no one else could do. He’s very good at breaking down tasks and figuring out what the resources are that we need to make something happen.” 

Research impacting the community

This research has already caught the attention of the Star Tribune and various community groups. Ehrman-Solberg has spoken to homelessness advocates, community organizations, and church groups about the project’s initial findings.

Most satisfying was when Ehrman-Solberg and Mattke were invited to a meeting of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission Land Use Division to discuss the preliminary findings with the city planners as they worked on their next 10-year plan for the city.

“This type of research and these outputs from the project will hopefully not just be good for academics and researchers,” Mattke says, “but will also be able to inform city planning.”

‘You can take this and go in so many different directions’

Currently the team has released an interactive time-lapse map with their preliminary findings. Mattke explains that the aim of the map is to be “able to have someone go and look at this data without having a lot of expertise in GIS.”

The research team plans to model best practices surrounding data management, curation, and reuse so other researchers can explore different facets of their huge dataset.

“You can take this and go in so many different directions — contemporary city zoning, you can go in through sociology, history of our understanding of race, how this impacts patterns of homelessness in Minneapolis today,” Ehrman-Solberg says. “And all those different threads — we can’t do all of that (now), so getting this data into a shape that’s usable and readily accessible by people who do want to answer those other questions is incredibly important.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. I think this falls into the category of “what’s the point?” My understanding is that these types of restrictive covenants were pretty much gone by the 1950’s, over 60 years ago. It seems a stretch to try to explain current conditions based on something that disappeared that long ago.

    • Although racially-restrictive deeds have been outlawed since 1968, it is important to understand how they shaped the urban landscape of American cities for most of the twentieth century. These kinds of deeds–or covenants–were the most powerful tool of segregation in the United States. Yet most Americans have no idea that they even existed. By making these historic restrictions visible, we are working to change our collective understanding of the past.

      This is important because it is impossible to address current day problems without a sophisticated and accurate understanding of the past. The influence of covenants has lingered in both the human geography of the city and our contemporary racial disparities. The racial restrictions in these property deeds set the demographic patterns that persist today. And since racial covenants barred people who were not white from owning property in much of the city, they worked to prevent African Americans from taking advantage of a critical opportunity for wealth accumulation. Today there is a striking gap in homeownership rates for African Americans and whites. While 78 percent of whites own homes in the Twin Cities, only 25 percent of African Americans can claim this same marker of financial security. Residential segregation also lays the groundwork for other disparities in employment, education and health care.

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