When the subject of housing discrimination comes up, you often hear the story about William and Nellie Francis whose move to Sargent Avenue in the early 1920s was met with resistance from their Macalester-Groveland neighbors. However, there are other stories of African-Americans who confronted prejudice in trying to move into the mostly white neighborhoods of Saint Paul.

racial covenants
Using U.S. Census data, Saint Catherine University students created the bar graph above to show how the percentage of all-white neighborhoods increased between 1910 and 1940, a trend attributed to housing discrimination related to prejudice, racial covenants and redlining.

Saint Catherine University (SCU) faculty and student volunteers uncovered the story of Black tenants who were bullied out of a duplex in Summit Hill. Their story is one of many at the heart of “Racial Covenants in Ramsey County: The Results So Far.” The program will be presented on Wednesday, June 15, by researchers from SCU and the Mapping Prejudice project at the University of Minnesota. It will run from 6-8 p.m. in Rauenhorst Ballroom of the Coeur de Catherine at SCU.

The June 15 program will also mark the release of a new map detailing the racial covenants found in deeds for properties throughout Ramsey County. Those in attendance will be encouraged to ask questions and contribute to the discussion, according to Rachel Neiwert, an assistant professor of history at SCU who has been involved with SCU’s Welcoming the Dear Neighbor? project since it began more than two years ago.

“The event will include small-group conversations,” said SCU associate professor of sociology Daniel Williams. “We want to learn from participants about racial segregation in their neighborhoods, to engage them in memory mapping, drawing on their experiences of where racial boundaries were in their neighborhoods. We’re also interested in whether they know about any racial covenants in their neighborhood or on their property.”


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Participants “will hear from people from all different disciplines encountering the stories and the data,” said Kristine Lamm West, SCU associate professor of economics and director of the Minnesota Center for Diversity in Economics. This, West said, should help them answer a question that she is often asked: What does all this mean for us today? The answer, she said, is that “there’s a correlation between where racial covenants were and what communities are like today.”

“The June 15 program will illustrate that racial covenants were just one piece of the puzzle of how these neighborhoods came to be so white. The event will be all the more interesting because the area around SCU is definitely one of the centers of this story.”

“If you would’ve asked me at the outset of the project, I would’ve thought segregation had improved, gotten a little better, as we worked on this big intractable social problem,” West said. “I was surprised to find that the research showed segregation became worse between 1900 and 1940. It was entrenched in policy decisions and covenants. There is glaring evidence that deliberate choices were made that moved people into certain parts of the city and that those numbers grew with each decade. There were more and more areas in Saint Paul claimed as white-only places.”

“We’re adding to our list of racial covenants every day and we’re far from done,” said Mapping Prejudice associate director Michael Corey. “We’ve found racial covenants in many parts of Ramsey County. The June 15 program will illustrate that covenants were just one piece of the puzzle of how these neighborhoods came to be so white. The event will be all the more interesting because the area around SCU is definitely one of the centers of this story.”

Racial covenants linked to racial wealth gap.

According to West and Williams, the research shows that the presence of racial covenants can have a direct link to a neighborhood’s racial makeup, homeownership, overall well-being and sense of belonging.

“Most obviously, we live in highly segregated neighborhoods today that overlap with the use of racial covenants,” West said. “Racial covenants and redlining increased property values and thus became an asset for the descendants of homeowners on properties where they were placed. These assets have been transformative for later generations, allowing them to purchase homes on advantaged terms.

“For those who didn’t have access to such properties—African Americans and other people of color—there was a deficit in terms of wealth,” West continued. “The significance of this is, even if we eliminated other forms of discrimination or racism, African Americans have had few of the assets whites have had in the homebuying market. Because these effects are intergenerational, they’re harder to see and overcome. Wealth is a cumulative advantage.”

A story of racial discrimination in Summit Hill.

Neiwert and her Welcome the Dear Neighbor? team were hampered in the early days of the project by the pandemic and the closing of the University of Minnesota archives. So they searched newspapers online. In the early part of the 20th century, they found Black newspapers much more helpful than other publications.

“These newspapers painted a picture of a vibrant African American community in Saint Paul, reporting events at churches and schools and celebrations,” Neiwert said. “What we couldn’t find were a lot of stories about housing.”

Then, through the Minnesota Historical Society, Neiwert found a reference to a New York newspaper story about housing segregation and inequality in Summit Hill in 1909. It involved a duplex owned by a Black dentist, Dr. Bell. He did not live in the duplex, but rented the lower and upper units to Black families.

“As far as we could tell, these were the first Black families to move into Summit Hill,” Neiwert said. “The white neighbors were not pleased and started what they called ‘indignation meetings’ to talk about their unhappiness.”

One of the Black families moved out fairly quickly when they were met with their neighbors’ displeasure, according to Neiwert. The other family, a Black woman whose husband may have worked out of town, eventually moved away “when the neighbors implemented a plan of harassment and intimidation,” she said. “They rang her doorbell at all hours. They threw rocks at her windows.

“I expected I would find stories about the Summit Hill duplex in the Black newspapers,” Neiwert said, “but I didn’t. In history, though, what you don’t find can say almost as much as what you do find. It strikes me that perhaps (racial discrimination) wasn’t news to the Black community in Saint Paul.”

Admission to the June 15 program is free.  To register to attend in person or virtually, visit tinyurl.com/yv8knhs7.

— Anne Murphy


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