Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis
On display at the Hennepin History Museum, Owning Up: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis explores the history of racial housing discrimination in Minneapolis through the stories of three black families.
Created by heritage studies and public history graduate students Denise Pike and Kacie Lucchini Butcher, with help from Augsburg University graphic design students, Owning Up demonstrates the lasting effects of structural discrimination.
Who did you work with to create this exhibit?
We used research from the Mapping Prejudice project, started by Professor Kirsten Delegard (Geography). We also worked closely with our advisory board: Delegard, Associate Professor Greg Donofrio (Architecture), and Professor Kevin Murphy (History). The design of the exhibit was done in collaboration with Design and Agency from Augsburg University. The designers are David Baboila, Keeyonna Fox, and Indra Ramassamy. We were thrilled to collaborate with our design team because they are passionate about design projects centered around social justice.
What drew you both to the topic of housing discrimination within Minneapolis?
Kacie: I’ve always been interested in the way cities are designed and how we continue to be shaped and moved by these design decisions. Housing is an integral part of this design and something that city planners are constantly grappling with, even today. Where you live affects everything — what kind of education you will get, what kind of access you have to grocery stores, green spaces, arts and culture institutions, what kind of pollutants you will be exposed to. Minneapolis has the largest homeownership gap between black and white households in the United States, something that Denise and I believe (and supported by research from Mapping Prejudice) is directly correlated to decades of racist housing policy that restricted where people of color could live.
Denise: My father is Nigerian and my mother is white. I became very aware from a young age how race affected where you live, where you feel welcome, and what resources you have access to. Growing up in the Twin Cities my family experienced struggles around housing. We lived in the suburbs and also a homeless shelter downtown. I learned early on the impacts that housing had on individuals and did my undergrad in Urban Studies at the U. During my undergraduate career, I was drawn to learning the history behind housing discrimination and how it affects our cities today. Now I am pursuing a master’s degree in heritage studies and public history and I am passionate about using public history to address these histories and to try to make a positive impact on our future.
What are some of the ways that housing access was restricted across Minneapolis?
There were many policy tools that restricted where people could live in Minneapolis. The most powerful were racial covenants and redlining. Racial covenants or racially restrictive deeds barred people of color from owning or occupying a property. These racial covenants began in 1910 and spread throughout Minneapolis. Mapping Prejudice is in the process of mapping every single covenant in Hennepin County. You can visit their website to see a time lapse video of covenants spreading across the city. People can also volunteer to read covenants and help them identify ones with racial language.
Redlining began in the 1930s but the real estate industry had been using the practice for years. The Federal Housing Administration supported racial segregation by implementing discriminatory lending in government-backed mortgages. The government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created color-coded maps for 239 cities. Appraisers were hired to canvas neighborhoods and report on conditions. The Federal Housing Administration Underwriting Manual from 1936 made evaluation criteria clear:
“If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.”
The most desirable score, green or best, required racially-restrictive covenants to be in place. The presence of people of color resulted in a hazardous score. If an area was redlined or deemed hazardous, the government would not back mortgages there. As a result, only white people could get federally-insured mortgages. This practice drained capital from the few neighborhoods where people of color could live.
Many of the mechanisms used to restrict housing based on race were structural, however, there was also a lot of white violence towards people of color moving into their neighborhoods. Even after many of these tools like redlining and racial covenants were made illegal or unenforceable, racial housing discrimination persisted through more subtle and hidden methods.
How did you select the three families whose stories you tell in the exhibit?
The research on the families came from Kirsten Delegard. We chose to highlight these three families for a couple of reasons. One, their experiences, though different, are all related. They were black families who were simply trying to find a home and in that process were met with great hostility, and even violence, from their white neighbors. Two, we had historical documents to show how their struggle to find housing unfolded. These documents helped us to tell a deeper story that gave the family perspective but also the perspective of the broader Minneapolis community. Three, we felt that the families added the human element necessary to make this story real. These racist housing policies were not just abstract laws. They affected people, human beings, and we wanted people to know their names and to know their struggle.
We would also add that people often think of history as a specific place in the past but we are constantly being shaped and molded by history. Racist housing policy didn’t just end when the laws became illegal. It continues to shape the way our city looks.
What do you want attendees to take away from this exhibit?
We hope that visitors will leave the exhibit and begin to think differently about the city of Minneapolis. Minneapolis is often lauded as a “liberal paradise” and a “model metropolis” but in reality, we have the largest homeownership gap between black and white households in the United States. This city is not a paradise for all of our residents. I also hope that residents will begin to think differently about their neighborhoods. Who lives in your neighborhood and why? Who isn’t represented in your neighborhood and why? Is your neighborhood primarily renters or owners? These kinds of questions, though they don’t seem historical, are always linked to the history of how Minneapolis was organized, designed, and continually codified. I hope that if we as a city begin to ask these questions, we may be able to change our city and our neighborhoods to truly live up to our aspirations of being the model metropolis.