What is a Racial Covenant?

Racial Covenants

During the twentieth century, racially-restrictive deeds were a ubiquitous part of real estate transactions. Covenants were embedded in property deeds all over the country to keep people who were not white from buying or even occupying land; their popularity has been well documented in St. LouisSeattleChicagoHartford, ConnecticutKansas City and Washington D.C.

Though covenants were everywhere, they did mutate over space and time. Those authored in the first years of the twentieth century have a different flavor than those recorded after World War II. The racial preoccupations of developers in Washington state were different from those of North Carolina. But all of these documents were blunt. For example, one common Minneapolis covenant reads: “the said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased, or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race.”

In Minneapolis, the first racially-restrictive deed appeared in 1910, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold a property on 35th Avenue South to Nels Anderson. The deed conveyed in that transaction contained what would become a common restriction, stipulating that the “premises 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.”



Example of a racial covenant used in Hennepin County.



Henry Scott would soon become the first president of the Seven Oaks Corporation, a real estate development company that put this same language into thousands of deeds across the city.

When this first racially-restrictive deed was written, Minneapolis was not particularly segregated. But covenants changed the landscape of the city. As racially-restrictive deeds spread, African Americans were pushed into a few small areas of the city. And even as the number of black residents continued to climb, ever-larger swaths of the city became entirely white. This laid the groundwork for our contemporary patterns of residential segregation.

These unjust deeds,” as one scholar has dubbed them, were the brainchild of the real estate industry. But they were quickly embraced by public officials, who saw them as a way to promote neighborhood stability. In the 1930s, federal housing administrators endorsed these legal instruments, requiring them for projects that used federally-backed financing. Lenders followed suit, accepting the rationale that covenants provided essential insurance for their investments in residential property. Banks made it a routine practice to “redline” or deny loans for properties in racially-mixed neighborhoods.


How Covenants Changed Minneapolis

These maps illuminate how the racial landscape of Minneapolis shifted in the wake of covenants. They use raw census data compiled by the Minnesota Population Center to explore how racially-restrictive deeds came to determine where people lived. As covenants multiplied, African Americans were concentrated into a handful of small neighborhoods.

And even as the number of black residents continued to climb, ever-larger swaths of the city became entirely white. Nascent black communities in Northeast Minneapolis and around Lake Harriet were completely eradicated by 1940. Black residents were pushed out of all of the neighborhoods on the east side of the Mississippi River.




The NAACP recognized covenants as a fundamental threat to racial equality. The legendary civil rights organization launched a sustained legal campaign against covenants in the 1940s, prompting the Supreme Court to rule in the landmark 1948 Shelley v. Kramer case that covenants were unenforceable. The Minnesota Legislature prohibited the use of racial restrictions in warranty deeds in 1953. But covenants remained commonplace in much of the nation until 1968, when the Fair Housing Act made them explicitly illegal.

Once they were outlawed, most white Americans were happy to forget about covenants and the troubling questions they raise about race and opportunity in the United States. But the memories of these discriminatory deeds remained vivid in the communities hurt by these practices. Here in Minneapolis, Jewish elders believed covenants contributed to a hostile environment in the city, which journalist Carey McWilliams declared in 1946 to be the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.”


Racial covenants advertisement

Advertisement placed by Edmund G. Walton in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, January 12, 1919. The anti-Semitic restriction is located in the final paragraph.

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, covenants were certainly one of the tools used to keep Jews from fully integrating into community life. This 1919 advertisement in the Minneapolis Tribune appealed to anti-Semitic sentiments. Developer Edmund G. Walton offered “restricted” housing sites overlooking Lake of the Isles that could not “be conveyed mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, Semitic or African blood or descent.”


But later that same year, the Minnesota legislature banned real estate restrictions based on religious faith or creed. This might explain why less than one percent of the covenants we have identified contain anti-Semitic restrictions like the one advertised by Walton. Thanks to the 1919 state law, the city’s palpable anti-Semitism was only rarely articulated in racially-restrictive deeds. This is not to say that Jews did not experience housing discrimination. They were steered to certain neighborhoods by real estate agents and rebuffed by property managers. Their housing choices were only rarely limited by the legal text of real estate contracts.

Though many covenants named a laundry list of “objectionable” people, our research reveals that racial restrictions on deeds were crafted mainly to exclude African Americans. Most of the deeds that we have found seem to reflect prevailing white opinion, which held that African Americans were particularly undesirable neighbors. In 1946, sixty percent of Minnesotans surveyed believed that Africans Americans should not have the freedom to live in any neighborhood. Sixty-eight percent asserted that a non-white neighbor would hurt their property values. And sixty-four percent declared that they would not sell their home to African Americans, even if they offered more than white buyers.

This consensus on race and real estate began to crumble after World War II, which highlighted the hypocrisy of many racial policies in the United States. In 1946, the local chapter of the American Veterans Committee picketed the Minneapolis Realty Board to protest the use of racially-restricted deeds in a new housing development in Northeast Minneapolis. After a racial covenant blocked an Asian-American veteran from purchasing a home in the Oak Hill subdivision, protesters decried these discriminatory contracts as “unnecessary, undemocratic and un-American.” The president of the real estate firm behind the development explained that for these kinds of projects “the federally backed savings and loan associations and banks require such a clause.” He dismissed the protesters as “a bunch of trouble-making, flag-waving communists.”

Two years later the United States Supreme Court dealt racially-restrictive deeds a significant blow when it declared these contracts to be unenforceable. This legal history has been told, with great skill, by scholars. Mapping Prejudice seeks to understand how these discriminatory deeds shaped life in Minneapolis during the twentieth century, especially for people of color. And we hope to work with citizens, activists and policymakers to understand how our contemporary inequities are rooted in these historic injustices.


Why Covenants Matter

The Supreme Court made covenants unenforceable in 1948. The Minnesota Legislature prohibited their use in 1953. And Congress banned these racial restrictions as part of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. So why do we care about covenants today?

By the time that covenants were abolished, the damage was done. And it wasn’t enough simply to ban this kind of discrimination. We needed, as a nation, to address the harm that it did. We needed to acknowledge how racism was embedded in structures and institutions. But we didn’t. So we are still living with the legacies of these discriminatory deeds today in the United States.

Covenants divided Minneapolis–and many other northern cities–by race. These residential segregation patterns persist today. And this physical segregation undergirds our contemporary racial disparities, which are particularly acute in Hennepin County.

Separate is not equal. In the United States, racial segregation channels the flow of resources. Where you live determines access to community assets. Majority white neighborhoods have more parks and more generous tree cover. Communities of color have more environmental hazards like landfills and highways. They have less access to medical care, which translates into higher rates of infant mortality and premature births. Schools in these neighborhoods usually have fewer experienced teachers and less challenging curriculum. Some institutions beat the odds. But most struggle to maintain the resources necessary to meet the needs of their communities.

But covenants did more than steer people to certain neighborhoods. They also determined who could buy property. “Prospective Negro purchasers are sometimes told of restrictive covenants, or that the owner will not sell to Negroes, or that the neighbors would object,” J.T. Wardlaw explained to the readers of the Minneapolis Star in a letter published on December 23, 1944. The head of the Minneapolis Urban League expounded further, asserting that these practices pushed people of color into areas that were redlined, which made it almost impossible to acquire affordable financing to buy property. And once they identified a home, “the already inflated price is made higher for Negro prospects,” Wardlaw wrote. These “are the tools used to depress homeownership among Negroes,” he explained. “These are the practices which during the past decade have come to be regarded as expedient and profitable. These are also the practices which if endured for another decade will reap for Minneapolis a sorry harvest.”

Wardlaw’s declaration was prophetic.

Today Minneapolis has the lowest African-American homeownership rate in the country. And since most families amass wealth through property ownership, this homeownership gap continues to feed our contemporary racial wealth gap. Wealth is built through generations, with one generation passing resources to another. Thanks in part to the racial biases that have been baked into the real estate market over the last century, the average white household in the United States has ten times as much wealth as the average black household.

The racial wealth gap makes it hard to erode residential segregation. And it contributes in every way to the racial disparities in education, health outcomes and employment facing our community today.


The Mapping Prejudice Curriculum Copyright © by Marguerite Mills. All Rights Reserved.

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