By training I am a historian and an artist. One keeps me grounded. The other makes me curious, and prompts me to seek out beauty, understanding, and hope in an otherwise chaotic world. I am also a Black woman, a pacifist, a contemplator, a person who likes to keep things simple.
I was recently invited to be a part of “Free the Deeds,” a public art project seeking to shine a light on racial covenants and the role they have played in the lives of specific families and communities. I don’t do complicated, and the history of racism in Minnesota is very complicated. However, I decided to do this because it felt important. How will we ever move forward if I, and others, will not confront this history?
When I try to understand something complex, I ask people to tell me their stories. I reached out to two Black families: husband and wife Louis and Elizabeth Moore of South Minneapolis, and daughter and mother Paris and Margie Ford of North Minneapolis. I invited them to share their homeownership stories with me. The Moores have lived in their Central Minneapolis home since 1965. Paris Ford purchased her home in 2003. Their stories are very different, but both speak to navigating race in beautiful and complicated ways.
Racial covenants appeared on legal deeds to land across America to prevent Blacks and other people of color from living in all-white communities. They were also added to the charters of many suburban communities to ensure they would remain exclusively white. Struck down in Minneapolis in 1953 and nationally in 1968, many of the racial covenants still remain on deeds as an unenforceable but bitter reminder of a legally encoded racist past.
Today, Minnesota’s homeownership gap is the fourth largest in the U.S. According to census data, the city of Minneapolis is 64 percent white. In neighborhoods that had racial covenants, as much as 90 percent of the homeowners are white. The white homeownership rate in Minnesota increased from 55 percent in 1940 to 77 percent in 2019. The homeownership rate for households of color and Indigenous households decreased from 46 percent in 1940 to 44 percent in 2019, trending in the opposite direction of the national average. Racial covenants contributed largely to this disparity.
In 1965, Louis and Elizabeth Moore bought their home in an area that was covered in racial covenants because the two sisters who lived there wanted to sell it to them. “The sisters fell in love with our young daughter and us, and wanted to sell the home to us. They told their real estate agent that he would either make the sale happen or they would find someone who would. After that, he got the paperwork to us,” says Louis Moore.
The Moores were the only Black family on their block and remember only one neighbor greeting them in the early days. Even now there is only one other Black family on their central Minneapolis block.
Paris Ford purchased her North Minneapolis home in 2003. Paris grew up on the Northside and has family all around the community. Paris’s mother, Margie, moved with her own mother, grandmother, and other family members to Minnesota from Alabama as a child in the 1940s while Margie’s father was away fighting in World War II. Margie remembered how her family members purchased homes in Minneapolis from Jewish families who were moving to the suburbs. There was safety in having family nearby.
“At one point I had family up and down Sheridan Avenue. I could walk six blocks and have at least one relative in every block,” Paris recalls. The homes the mother and daughter owned did not have racial covenants, but the family felt the sting of racism. Paris and her mother remember being told to stay out of Northeast Minneapolis. “Never go there after dark. That’s what we were always told, so we never did.”
The Free the Deeds project will share stories on the legacy of racial covenants on the City of Lakes Community Land Trust website. Another intent is to partner with Just Deeds, which provides free legal and title services, and the City of Minneapolis to invite homeowners to search their deed and remove racial covenants if they are present on the property. If homeowners discover that their home has had a racial covenant, they can sign up to receive an artist-made lawn sign to highlight that fact and illuminate the history of the community.
Homeowners will be encouraged to donate to the first African American Community Land Trust. These donations will go directly towards down payment assistance to help Black families purchase their first homes.
Land ownership is such an important component of intergenerational wealth, a path that Black families have been locked out of for far too long. Maybe art can make a difference.
After meeting these families, I am now more open to exploring complicated things. This project allows homeowners to build a foundation of unity and hope — not an old mindset meant to keep us in fear of each other. This alone is not enough to erase the painful legacy of racism, but it is something — and as my great-grandmother used to say, “Something is a whole lot better than nothing.”
Hawona Sullivan Janzen (she/her) is a Saint Paul–based artist and historian who believes that art is the only thing that can save us from ourselves.
Visit clclt.org starting June 27 to find ways to get involved with Free the Deeds.