Hidden in plain sight

January 12, 2018
Kevin Ehrman-Solberg

Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom

Born and raised in the Twin Cities, Kevin Ehrman-Solberg knew about all the great things associated with Minneapolis (best parks in the nation, great public education, high quality of life), but he didn’t know the whole story.

Ehrman-Solberg, a graduate student studying geographic information sciences, found his perspective drastically changed after joining “Mapping Prejudice,” a three-person research partnership between the University of Minnesota and Augsburg that is shedding light on Minneapolis’s housing practices.

He and his team uncovered racial covenants—explicit restrictions that prohibited selling one’s home to another race—written into residents’ property deeds. “These covenants are incredibly explicit,” he says. “There’s no way this can be called anything else except racism.”

Racial covenants became a part of Minneapolis housing in the early 20th century, a time when real estate developers were buying large swaths of cheap land and including covenants in new housing developments.

“To be confronted with the reality of racial covenants really undermined some of the assumptions I had,” says Ehrman-Solberg.

The Mapping Prejudice group, which crowdsourced elements of the project with more than 850 volunteers—including U of M students—has so far found over 15,000 covenants (see interactive map).

“Reading these covenants... It makes it feel more real, it’s more visceral,” he says. “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.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the areas of Minneapolis today that are the most segregated closely align with areas found to have had the most racial covenants. Ehrman-Solberg hopes that shedding light on this issue will build the political will for public officials to solve the problem.

“I’ve always believed that good history is history that is trying to do work in the world.”

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This story, written by student Austen Macalus, originally appeared in a longer format at the College of Liberal Arts.