As a born and bred Minnesotan, I have a special affinity for Minneapolis. It’s where I spent my formative years before moving to New York City in my mid-twenties and getting a Black Studies degree at Harlem’s City College. Over the years, my fellow Minneapolitans and I have bragged that the Twin Cities is rated one of the “top ten best places to live” by US News &World Report. 1
The study examines data such as the job market, housing costs, household income, crime rates, health care, education, and overall desirability. I have often dreamed about moving back “home” with my husband and our pooch. The first time I broached the topic with Stanley, he replied with a hard no. The next time we visited Minneapolis, I booked a pup-friendly hotel downtown and reserved tables in swanky cocktail lounges and upscale restaurants with local friends. I had always taken pride in the diversity of Minneapolis, but at each establishment, Stan was the only Black patron. On the plane back to New York, he talked about the need to live in a city with a flourishing Black middle class. He told me that he wants to live among peers that look like him. Not long after that trip, Philando Castille was murdered by Minneapolis area police, and then came George Floyd.
According to 24/7 Wall St., the Twin Cities ranks number four for the top ten worst places for Black Americans to live. 2 The 2016 study examined race-based gaps in income, education, homeownership, and unemployment rates, among other factors. In the 2019 documentary film Jim Crow of the North, director Daniel Pierce Bergin takes on these issues in a very powerful way. He shines a spotlight on the origins of housing segregation in the Minneapolis region in the early twentieth century as the reason why Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation.
At only fifty-seven minutes, this jam-packed film wastes no time. It moves in chronological order, beginning in 1909 and continues through the abolishment of racial covenants during the Civil Rights Movement to today’s persisting inequalities. The film relies on local experts to progress the narrative. For example, William Green, a professor of history at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, says that at the turn of the century, Minnesota was seemingly “one of the most enlightened states with regard to race…leadership seemed amenable to doing the right thing, at least in word” (3:50). The state had outlawed discrimination in restaurants and other public establishments thanks to its first Black lawmaker, Frank Wheaton. But when Pullman porter Madison Jackson built a house in a white Minneapolis neighborhood in 1909, a white mob descended in front of their house. Thousands of white men shouted, “we do not want you” (8:53). As a direct result of this encroachment on their neighborhoods, white people sought to legally keep Black residents out.
Penny Petersen and Kirsten Delegard, co-founders of Mapping Prejudice, unearth the proceeding story of racial covenants beginning in May 1910. When dividing up farmland into city lots, real estate developers would inject racially-discriminatory language into the property deeds, such as “no African blood or descent,” “Aryans only,” or “no Negroes.” By de-integrating the city of Minneapolis, systems of inequality became cemented throughout the twentieth century. This “yawning chasm of wealth inequality that emerges as a result of covenants is still very much with us today” (50:30).
In lieu of physical violence, white citizens depended upon real estate developers to keep their neighborhoods white. The Mapping Prejudice project has sifted through more than ten million pages of real estate deeds between the years 1900 and 1960 and found that as Americans spread out to the suburbs, “so did restrictive covenants” (39:00). The film uses maps, newspaper clippings, oral histories, and real estate abstracts to show how these racial covenants “hardened racial boundaries” (22:30). Digital graphics show the spread of racial covenants with red dots. This visual tactic is shockingly effective when the camera zooms out from the first racial covenant to the widespread usage across Northern cities. “Racial covenants did the work of Jim Crow all over the North” (31:40). Doctor Brittany Lewis, research associate at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, points out that, “space has always been intentionally manufactured to shape and represent values…historically low income folks of color in particular and larger racial and ethnic groups more broadly have not been at the center of the benefits of urban planning” (17:00).
The film also examines the ways Black Minnesotans pushed against the boundaries of redlining and restrictive covenants. One of the most poignant scenes is the story of Arthur Lee, a World War I veteran. It opens with a 1931 photograph of a white mob standing outside of Lee’s South Minneapolis home. As a post office worker, Lee earned a steady paycheck and purchased the home. Over the course of many weeks, his home was vandalized, his dog was poisoned, and his family slept in the basement out of fear for their lives. They hired Lena Smith, Minnesota’s first African American female lawyer, to represent them in court. However, after two exhausting years, the family moved out (25:00). This use of historical archival evidence effectively personifies the injustice and gives the viewer a window into the real-life experience of Black Minnesotans.
In its study, the 24/7 Wall St. project cites the impact of these early twentieth century restrictive covenants on twenty-first century disparities. It found that in Minneapolis, “seventy-five percent of white families own the homes that they occupy but twenty-five percent of Black families own the homes that they occupy” (51:00). As the largest percentage division of any city in the country, “this has huge implications for the racial wealth gap” (51:08). The film shows how these covenants have prohibited Black people from homeownership and has kept them in segregated neighborhoods that were redlined by the Federal Housing Administration. This, in turn, stopped Black families from establishing generational wealth that would have led to better opportunities overall.
This film is a must-see. It is succinct, timely, and a call to action. It gives a bullhorn to the founders of Mapping Prejudice, who seek volunteers to help sift through millions of real estate documents and uncover racial covenants in cities across the nation. For those who feel personal guilt or helplessness in the face of today’s widespread injustices, this project helps participants to see that the system has been “rigged from the get-go” (54:15).
Minneapolis will always hold a special place in my heart. While I am relieved to know that its citizens are facing the past and working towards a more just future, I hope this is just the beginning of a wider reckoning. The Twin Cities can live up to its crown of desirability for Black Americans too.
About Jenny Skoog
Jenny is a Harlem-based writer who hails from a farm in Minnesota. She is a first-generation college graduate and currently studies race, gender, and American Christianity in the Biography and Memoir program at CUNY’s Graduate Center. She is a co-founder and host at Ink Slingers, a weekly podcast about life writers. Jenny received an Emmy nomination for her starring role in Pushing It, a reality television show about her life and fitness career.
Jim Crow of the North.Directed by Daniel Pierce Bergin. Documentary. Running time 57min. TPT Originals on YouTube. February 25, 2019. Minneapolis, Minnesota. https://www.tpt.org/minnesota-experience/video/jim-crow-of-the-north-stijws/.