What started as a sweetheart’s pledge has become a labor of love for Kirsten Delegard.
“I married a New Yorker,” Kirsten says. “I dragged him to various parts of the world” while earning a PhD in history, researching and writing. “We came back to Minneapolis to raise our children.” Her husband had two requests: “If I’m going to be a Minnesotan, you have to take me dogsledding, and I need the history of Minneapolis so I feel like a resident.”
That got Kirsten, a third generation Minneapolitan, thinking. “I went looking for books on the history of Minneapolis.” She says she didn’t find much. What she did find projected a positivity that she describes as “Mary Tyler Moore” in outlook and almost “gravity defying.” “Most narratives put forth the story that ’The rest of the country is in urban crisis, and we are great,’” Kirsten says, adding, “You know, ‘Minneapolis is awesome, [it is] this progressive place.’”
That matched the perception of her own Minneapolis upbringing - as white and educated, the daughter of a social worker mother and a business owner father. But it didn’t jibe with what communities of color have known all along: structural barriers in Minneapolis – intentional and legal - disallowed many people from experiencing stability and upward mobility. Kirsten notes:
In Minneapolis, these restrictions served as powerful obstacles for people of color seeking safe and affordable housing. They also limited access to community resources like parks and schools. Racial covenants dovetailed with redlining and predatory lending practices to depress homeownership rates for people of color, especially African Americans.
The historic truth is that, for much of the early part of the 20th century, cities like Minneapolis – northern, mostly white – hosted laws and practices that discriminated based on definition of race. And while they were not commonly known, they were prevalent. A racial covenant was a restriction embedded within a property document that barred non-whites from purchasing a parcel of land or home. It was a line item easily added by developers or landowners to new or existing deeds. Redlining demarked blocks or neighborhoods (by drawing a line around it and shading it red) where lenders could refuse to approve loans to people of color for the purpose of purchasing a home.
While The Minnesota Legislature outlawed these practices in 1953, and the US Congress banned racial restrictions under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Kirsten observes: “Contemporary white residents of Minneapolis like to think their city never had formal segregation. But racial covenants did the work of Jim Crow in northern cities like Minneapolis.”
Kirsten says these darker truths don’t “square with notions about my hometown.” Even so, the historical realities still impact Minneapolis. Homeownership is a primary path to wealth accumulation, and limiting it limits upward mobility, often for generations. “We are not the most segregated town, but we DO have the highest racial disparities,” she says. “From a historian’s point of view, I want to change our collective understanding of accounts and the way we think ‘Northern cities didn’t experience segregation.’”
“I had a lot of crazy ideas” at first, Kirsten admits, to amend the majority story and get people to think about this place in terms of both opportunity and inequity. “I thought, ‘Tell everyone to go to the county records and look at their own deed and post a picture!’” That collective action seemed unlikely, and the response she got from county clerks: “Oh! Please don’t do that! We’ll just give you the records.”
With that, Kirsten - the scholar of comparative American History - enlisted the help of 3 colleagues: a geospatial information librarian, a digital data specialist, and a historic property records expert. In 2016, the foursome combined their research and technical skills and founded Mapping Minneapolis. Their goal: “to shine a light on our city’s racial past.”
Initially, Mapping Minneapolis struggled with how to daylight the individual racial covenants, given that Hennepin County had 12 million newly digitized records. Where to start? Computer algorithms using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) could only go so far in determining if a racial covenant was actually present in a document. One problem with OCR: the last name “White” reads to a computer the same as the term “white” as a racial designation, and could lead to false positives. Kirsten wanted accuracy. She also wanted homeowners and a wide range of Minneapolitans to participate in the process, to become invested so they could re-frame and see our collective history in a new way.
Kirsten then saw a presentation on Clay Shirky’s book, Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. She recognized that Mapping Prejudice could leverage individual citizens using their own laptops to examine the property records and document the findings. By pulling up the deeds on line, people can log in, zoom in and identify racial covenants in specific deeds. “We can build community through crowd sourcing, by tapping into people’s good will!” Kirsten says, acknowledging, “We are in a new era. There is no expectation that we are going to be given knowledge. It is more interesting, relevant and meaningful to figure things out with others.”
Her prediction seems to be coming true. To date, through the on-line platform Zooniverse, Mapping Prejudice has engaged 1565 volunteers who have read 75,000 deeds. If each document requires about 5 minutes of work, that equals 160 weeks of full time labor. “A truly volunteer effort!” Kirsten exclaims. “People from all over the world have participated.”
To incite participation, the team and their partners host community conversations and walking tours to introduce their preliminary findings and ask for help. They share the map they have created, layered over time, to show where the racial covenants and redlining existed in Minneapolis. As more parcels become identified, the map expands and fills in. Many people are shocked at what they see: those colorful visualizations denote neighborhoods that were intentionally designated, and have mostly remained, white. In short order, the story line is changing. “The map is this fact-based launching point for discussion,” Kirsten offers, and adds: “The map demands an answer.”
Racial Covenants identified in Minneapolis
Kirsten’s intent all along has been for “everybody to be able to read these documents.” Just as she married her historical training with a personal pledge to discover the real Minneapolis, she says the Mapping Prejudice project has married “new digital capabilities and new knowledge with a faith in public engagement and public co-creation.” Already, insights from the project are compelling new policies aimed at increasing more types and affordable housing in Minneapolis neighborhoods that, for so long, have been out of reach to people of color.
Kirsten Delegard, the Minneapolitan, loves the citizen participation Mapping Prejudice has initiated. “Our project started as just 4 people, and now we have thousands who are claiming this work as their own,” she says, “moving it forward.” Likewise, she embraces serendipity as a willing and lovely partner: “I couldn’t have predicted any of this would happen. It gives me faith that I can walk into the unknown and do more. There is such power in being in community. There is power.”
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Photo credits: Tracy Nordstrom, Mapping Prejudice, MSR News