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Hidden in Plain Sight

December 15, 2017

Headshot of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Headshot of Kevin Ehrman-Solberg
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg knew about all the great things associated with Minneapolis: the best parks in the nation, a great public education system, and a high quality of life for residents. He also bought into the city’s conventional narrative, that of a “model municipal system.”

But Ehrman-Solberg, a graduate student studying geographic information sciences (GIS) at the University of Minnesota, discovered he didn’t know the whole story.

His understanding drastically changed after joining “Mapping Prejudice,” a three-person research project shedding light on Minneapolis’ dark history of racist housing.

Kirsten Delegard, scholar-in-residence at Augsburg University and the director of “Mapping Prejudice,” met Ehrman-Solberg during his undergraduate studies at Augsburg. The two worked together on “Historyapolis,” an exploration of the lesser known history of Minneapolis. Throughout their work, racist policies kept reappearing.

“The more we dug into the past of Minneapolis, there seemed to be kind of this foundational tension,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

The project gave Delegarde the idea for “Mapping Prejudice.” She enlisted property researcher Penny Petersen and Ehrman-Solberg, now a University of Minnesota graduate student and employee of the U’s Borchert Map Library.

The Foundation of Minneapolis

The team uncovers racial covenants, explicit restrictions that prohibited selling one’s home to another race, written into residents’ property deeds. Covenants effectively barred people who were not white from owning property.

“These covenants formed the skeleton of structural racism that the city was built on,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

“The common narrative you’re taught, especially if you grew up in the city, is that Jim Crow segregation was a Southern thing. We fought for the union during the Civil War. We didn’t have segregated drinking fountains; there weren't white only signs on parks,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “To be confronted with the reality of racial covenants, it really undermined some of the assumptions I had of this city I grew up in."

Racial covenants became a part of Minneapolis housing in the early 20th century — the earliest the team has found is from 1910. At the time, many sections of Minneapolis were still primarily farmland. Real estate developers bought large swaths of cheap land and included covenants into their new housing developments.

“These covenants are incredibly explicit. There’s no way this can be called anything else except explicit racism,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

These restrictions pre-date other practices of segregation in the north, including federal redlining and discriminatory city zoning. They were eventually ruled unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948 and outlawed entirely by the Fair Housing Act in 1968. However, they had a great impact on the future of Minneapolis.

The group has already mapped over 6,000 covenants, and they found over 15,000 covenants in total. 

‘GIS can change how we view the world’

As an undergraduate, Ehrman-Solberg studied history and English. His graduate studies, focused on geography and GIS mapping, supplement his academic background.

“My transition into the geography, environment & society program was really one of necessity,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “GIS opens up all these exciting new opportunities for scholarly research. It allows and enables you to do more than you could do with a more traditional humanities methodology.”

According to Ehrman-Solberg, new methodologies became necessary for the project: “As we were working to uncover these facets of Minneapolis it became clear that neither of us [Delegarde nor Ehrman-Solberg] had the digital expertise or tools necessary to deal with such an unconventional project.”

GIS mapping serves as the perfect tool for this kind of research. To start, it allows researchers to handle more information.

The “Mapping Prejudice” team reviews millions of property records. Traditionally, a research team would have gone to the archives and read through primary sources—a nearly impossible feat due to the constraints of time.

“GIS and the digital humanities in general allow us to go at things differently,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “We’re able to interact and grapple with this massive corpus of historical records that’s far too unwieldy for any single person to read through manually.”

Additionally, Ehrman-Solberg uses GIS to present findings with more impact than traditional methods. He created an interactive online map that allows users to clearly see the pattern of covenants.

“GIS can visually display massive amounts of information that can be comprehend and digested in a manner of seconds,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “The impact these visualizations have is powerful and exciting.”

“GIS can change how we view the world,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

Getting the Community Involved

Digital tools allowed Ehrman-Solberg to crowdsource elements of the project; the team invited community members to join their efforts digging through property deeds. They have partnered with a number of community organizations, academic classes, and residents across the Twin Cities. Currently, the project has over 850 volunteers.

According to Ehrman-Solberg, sharing the workload not only helped manage the amount of documents, but also allowed volunteers to learn about their city.

“Reading these convents... It makes it feel more real, it’s more visceral. It’s one thing to know that structural racism exited at a conceptual level. It’s another thing to read a property record that connects with a house in your neighborhood,’” Ehrman-Solberg said. “Encountering that in a legally binding document is a powerful experience.”

By involving community members, Ehrman-Solberg hopes conversation about racial covenants reaches far past academic circles.  

“I’ve always believed that good history is history that is trying to do work in the world,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

The crowdsourcing elements distinguishes Ehrman-Solberg’s project from similar efforts uncovering covenants in Seattle and Washington D.C. Already, other cities have reached out to Ehrman-Solberg’s team to discuss collaboration.

“I certainly think our model can be applied more broadly,” Ehrman-Solberg said, “Moving forward I think you will see similar work happening in other places.”

Rectifying the Past

For Ehrman-Solberg, uncovering racial covenants provides a more accurate history of Minneapolis.  

“The fact that we are able to compile these covenants and show them visually really makes a powerful argument about how structural racism undergirds the city of Minneapolis,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “This is a pretty rare case where we are actually able to quantify and display the precise ways racism is deployed as a spatial practice.”

But he doesn’t believe that racial covenants are only a terrible relic of history. His research provides insight into the city’s current landscape of racial inequality.  

“The disparity in homeownership rates for white folks and African Americans is the largest in the country. Gaps of that magnitude don’t happen by accident,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “If we want to fix that we need to figure out how these inequalities emerged.”

The areas of Minneapolis today that are the most segregated closely align with areas found to have the most racial covenants. According to Ehrman-Solberg, shedding light on this issue creates knowledge about housing inequality and builds the political will for public officials to solve the problem.

Ehrman-Solberg sees “Mapping Prejudice” as a way to redefine the narrative of housing segregation and the city’s role in it. “The narratives that need to be emphasized or discovered or rediscovered are the ones that change the way we view ourselves, our world, and our place in it,” Ehrman-Solberg said.

“We are the city of Hubert Humphrey, of Walter Mondale, one of the authors of the Fair Housing Act. But, this city also had tens of thousands of racially restrictive covenants,” Ehrman-Solberg said. “How do we rectify those two things?”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.