Since 2017, St. Catherine University students and faculty have been engaged in "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?," an interdisciplinary research effort initiated by the Center for Community Work and Learning, partnering with the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project to address structural racism in home ownership. On June 15 in Rauenhorst Ballroom, members from these teams unveiled new data from Ramsey County.
"Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?"’s team of faculty and students research, map, and analyze racial covenants in Ramsey County housing deeds. Racial covenants are discriminatory clauses stipulating that a house cannot be sold to specific racial or cultural groups — specifically targeting African Americans, and often other racial groups. Covenants date to the early 1900s and were only ruled unenforceable in 1968, under the Fair Housing Act. In 2020, Mapping Prejudice released a map of racial covenants in Hennepin County, and "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?" partnered with them to expand this critical work and research to Ramsey County.
Using maps to contextualize racial inequity
After introductions by President ReBecca Koenig Roloff ’76 and sociology faculty member Daniel Williams, PhD, speakers from "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?," Mapping Prejudice, and the Just Deeds Project spoke about the compiled data and the significance of mapping racial covenants.
Kristine West, PhD, associate professor of economics and Endowed Professor in the Sciences, explained that racial covenants are linked to current-day disparities in home values and other outcomes such as upward mobility. “We know, rather conclusively, that houses that were covenanted are worth today about 3% more than similar houses that weren’t covenanted,” she said.
The teams’ data also refute a myth popular in white culture: “I had the same assumptions that many of us grew up with — I thought that segregation was at its peak the further you go back in history, and has slowly been getting better over time,” said West. “But that’s not at all what the data show.”
In 1910, about a third of enumeration districts — or census areas — were entirely white. By 1940, fully two thirds were entirely white. “Segregation was quite bad and got worse, and it was because of policies and deliberate choices that we made, including racial covenants,” West continued. “This is a story of claiming spaces for white people only.”
Displaying a government map of St. Paul from 1935, sociology faculty member Daniel Williams, PhD, underlined the direct effects that creating and maintaining separate white and Black spaces has on quality-of-life factors such as health, education, and local businesses. The map, conventionally referred to as the “St. Paul slum map,” notates the function of each area, such as “industrial area” or “central business district,” but also notes racial demographic terms: “Jewish,” “Mexican,” “African American,” pairing them with the derogatory “slums.”
“The city officials inscribed race onto the geography of the city, and because of this history, we live in racialized space,” said Williams. Black space, in particular, “has become space created by states and governments that is used for industrial sites or toxic facilities. … In contrast, racially covenanted areas have more green space, that means they have more tree canopy, they’re cooler in the summer — that’s actually been shown in quite a few studies. So if you’re living in an area that is not racially covenanted, a, presumably, Black or other POC neighborhood, then that is going to have worse health effects.”
Enriching the data with personal stories
Williams emphasized that the other crucial piece that must accompany the data is stories — personal, lived experiences and the impact of these racial covenants not only on everyday lives, but on the generations of families and communities.
Williams shared his own family’s history moving into a historically white neighborhood in Saint Paul in the late 1960s. Shortly after his family moved in, Williams’ mother called the local school regarding enrolling his siblings.
“The woman she spoke to said she was relieved to hear from her because a lot of Black families were moving into that neighborhood,” said Williams. “She didn’t know who my mother was married to, and she didn’t know who she was talking to. I share that as an invitation to all of us, to think about how we’re implicated in the story,” he continued, “how we are all implicated in the racialization of space and the history of racial covenants."
During the event, large maps marking covenanted homes were spread over the tables, and attendees marked the location of their own homes and any patterns they observed. Students and staff facilitated discussion and story sharing at each table, accompanied by notetakers who recorded interesting points of discussion for project members to ensure community interests are incorporated. Members of "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?" and Mapping Prejudice answered questions submitted both virtually and in-person by attendees.
In their next steps, "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?" intends to intensify their research. The team will work to recover deeds that are not digitally legible and expand the project’s reach, as well as various research projects through their respective backgrounds.
“The data tonight is the existence of a covenant, but the existence of a covenant is not the full story,” said West. “There’s a lot in there to unpack: who’s listed, who’s not listed, how has that changed over time? As much as it feels like tonight is the culmination of so much work, it’s just the start of the conversation to figure out what the stories are that the data is going to show.”
18 community-engaged learning courses supported this project across St. Kate’s departments of art, sociology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, history, CORE, economics, MBA, and public health in the 2021–22 academic year.
Images provided by "Welcoming the Dear Neighbor?"