Rochester’s whites-only racial covenants covered the living and the dead

12 May 2024

ROCHESTER — Two years ago, a Rochester group began digging into the city’s past as part of a historical reckoning into the use of racial covenants that once barred Blacks and other minorities from living in parts of the city.

The search was slow-going and incremental: Volunteer researchers searched a database for decades-old Olmsted Country property records and keywords to establish the contours of Rochester’s past segregated housing market.

The document search was a form of “root canal,” one researcher said. It involved a time-consuming lot-by-lot, block-by-block search of records and deeds numbering more than a million.

But now new technology is not only making the search swifter and more efficient. It is also uncovering records that are challenging assumptions about how these racial covenants were used, that they were strictly residential in nature, and for the purpose of segregating whites and Blacks who were alive.

They were wrong: the covenants also covered dead people in Rochester.

During a recent search, Phil Wheeler came across a 1950s document designating a plot at one of the city’s cemeteries, Grandview Memorial Gardens, as a whites-only burial ground. The deed outlining the sale of the cemetery lot specified that the sepulchre — burial spot — could be used by white persons only.

“We never thought to look,” said Wheeler, who is heading up the racial mapping effort by the Rochester branch of the NAACP.

Jim Crow hasn’t entirely been laid to rest when it comes to U.S. cemeteries. Just three years ago, a Louisana graveyard told the widow of a 55-year-old Black man that it could not fulfill his dying request to be buried near where he served as sheriff, because it was a whites-only burial ground. The cemetery later lifted its race-based restrictions.

Such restrictions on gravesites were effectively outlawed in a 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, according to Atlas Obscura. The ruling is best known for clearing the way for Black families to move into white neighborhoods by ruling that racially restrictive covenants violated the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law. The ruling stripped away legal protection for cemetery contracts, too, but it did not eliminate the practice entirely.

Rochester isn’t the only city in southern Minnesota to have found a once whites-only resting spot. A group of Mankato searchers, in a similar effort of historical reckoning, found one in their city, too.

The discovery that Rochester once had a segregated burial ground was made possible through technology that has both made the search for such covenants easier and expanded the universe of such searches, including cemeteries.

Optical character recognition software scours vast troves of records for keywords. In the current case, documents containing the words “covenant,” “Negro,” “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Mongolian” and “African blood or descent” are being identified and unearthed with far greater speed.

“So instead of having to go through 100 deeds and finding one, OCR software gets an 80% to 85% hit rate, which is a much better use of volunteer time,” Wheeler said.

The technology is breathing new life into the effort of mapping the city’s segregated past. Still, the search remains a massive one. There are 65,000 parcels in Olmsted County. Assuming that each parcel generates 20 records due to zoning changes, transactions and other actions, that comes 1.3 million documents. Wheeler has enlisted volunteers from the First Unitarian Universalist Church, of which he is a member, and Rotary, to aid in the work. But he is also looking for more.

Racial covenants were first used in Massachusetts in 1843 and in Minneapolis in 1910. It’s less clear when they were first used in Rochester but it’s believed to be the 1915 timeframe.

In 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants were enforceable. After years of litigation by the NAACP, it reversed course and ruled them unenforceable. They were made illegal in Minnesota in 1953.

The use of racial convenants in Rochester in the first half of the 20th century came at a time when the city was almost entirely white, with the Black population nowhere near reaching a critical mass that whites would have deemed threatening.

The work of coming to terms with this chapter of Rochester’s racist past began in 2021, when the Rochester City Council decided to join Just Deeds, a project that helps homeowners and cities find racial covenants and then legally disavow them through a discharge process.

The harsh, dry language of exclusion contained in such covenants can be jarring to 21st century ears. Rochester homeowners are often surprised if not shocked that the starkly worded exclusionary provisions, though no longer carrying the force of law, is on their property title.

Cynthia Daube, one-time owner of Daube’s Bakery, lives in Pill Hill, an upscale neighborhood in southwest Rochester where such covenants were used extensively. Last year, she had an attorney at her house and wondered if the language was on her deed. The attorney suggested that they take a look. Sure enough, the language was there. She wants to discharge the covenant — essentially adding a statement to the property title that rejects the racist covenant.

“It was very explicit and horrid,” Daube said. “It was bad enough that I should do something about it.”

Before the group began using OCR technology, it had identified 1,024 properties with racial covenants.

With the aid of enhanced search technology, the group has made discoveries that have upended other long-held assumptions.

Wheeler, for example, assumed that most covenants were clustered in a way that covered entire neighborhoods so as to maintain property and resale values. It made economic and financial sense even if it meant excluding and dehumanizing a whole race of people. Instead, volunteers are finding isolated homes and blocks covered by the covenants where the prospect of financial benefit wasn’t apparent.

“When you’re really not covering a whole neighborhood and you’re simply covering one or more handful of blocks, it’s a different logic,” Wheeler said. “It’s not a developer’s logic. It’s a I-hate-Black-people logic.”

Their research has uncovered several instances of such logic and prejudice. Why was it that the second home of Harry Harwick, Mayo Clinic’s first administrator, on Lake Shady had a racial covenant, though no properties along Lake Zumbro had them, though they were platted in a similar time frame.

Once the properties with racial covenants are identified and sorted out, the records will be collected in a master file that the Rochester City Attorney’s office can access. The office is coordinating the discharge effort, Wheeler said.

Once the mapping is completed, note cards will also go out to homeowners whose properties have these dormant covenants, making them aware of their ability to discharge them. A codicil added to the deed will say that the property owner “renounces the racial covenant.” Once the discharge takes effect, the homeowner will be able to post a sign that advertises it.


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