Minneapolis effort aims to counter racist housing deeds one lawn sign at a time

Three people stand with various lawn signs.
Co-founders of Free the Deeds, Diver Van Avery, Miré Regulus and Lacey Prpić Hedtke, with artist-designed lawn signs created to raise awareness of the history and impact of racially restrictive covenants in Minneapolis.
Bruce Silcox | Courtesy of Free the Deeds

Minneapolis homeowners are being offered the chance to learn uncomfortable history about where they live — and then do something about it. For decades some Minnesotans added language to their property deeds barring future sales to people of color.

Two new initiatives hope to raise awareness of these racially restrictive covenants and their impact, get them removed and also raise money to increase Black homeownership in the city. And it starts one lawn sign at a time.

The organizers of Free the Deed were inspired by the University of Minnesota's Mapping Prejudice project, which showed which Hennepin County properties had racially restrictive covenants.

The lawn signs commissioned by founders Diver Van Avery, Miré Regulus and Lacey Prpić Hedtke travel to farmers markets, where organizers talk with people about the history that could be lurking in deeds. Then they offer a free sign to people who learn that their properties had restrictive covenants.

From a distance, the sign’s bright primary colors catch the eye. Get up close and you read the words, "This house had a racial covenant.”

Prpić Hedtke said they hope the signs spur conversations with neighbors.

"Why their neighborhood is the way it is,” she said. “Why their neighbors maybe look a certain way. Why they have access to certain things in their neighborhood. Why Minneapolis is the way it is. Why the country is the way it is."

Minneapolis resident Cara Letofsky, who lives in the Longfellow neighborhood, said the U’s map shows “whole swaths of our neighborhood that have racially restrictive covenants."

Letofsky has a sign in her front yard to recognize that the greater Longfellow community had “the first covenant in the city of Minneapolis.”

Thousands of racial covenants in Minneapolis

The first racially restrictive covenants appeared in Hennepin County around 1910. In the ensuing decades, some 8,000 were filed in Minneapolis alone.

The covenants barred sales most often to Black homeowners. The restrictions were added by developers and the homeowners themselves. Some put racially restrictive covenants on deeds after individuals canvassed their neighbors, and suggested it was in their best interests to get it done.

The federal courts ruled such covenants unenforceable in 1948, but people kept adding the restrictions to their properties into the 1950s.

When they discovered a racial covenant on their home, Golden Valley City Attorney Maria Cisneros said her husband, a newcomer to the U.S. whom she describes as Afro Latino, asked if they were barred from ownership.

Two people standing and smiling.
Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Amy Schutt and Golden Valley City Attorney Maria Cisneros work with Just Deeds, which helps homeowners remove racially restrictive covenants from the deeds of their homes. Such covenants barred future sale of the property to people of color.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

“He didn't know if it was enforceable or not. And then, of course, the second reaction is, ‘Do I even want to live here?’ "

Cisneros works with Just Deeds, an organization that helps homeowners discharge covenants they find attached to their property.

Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Amy Schutt also works with Just Deeds. She said when people ask about why to even bother with archaic documents, she points to their legacy and lasting impact.

"Neighborhoods that have large numbers of racial covenants on them at the time are still more white than the average Minneapolis population,” she said. “And neighborhoods to which people of color were then forced to move are still more Black than the average Minneapolis population, despite the fact that those covenants haven't been enforceable legally, in 60 plus years.”

Raising money to increase Black homeownership

Free the Deeds also is collecting money for a down payment fund for the new African American Community Land Trust. They hope to raise at least $500,000.

On Sunday, Free the Deeds will host a community event in Brackett Field Park in the Longfellow neighborhood. They’ll talk about the issues and hand out more lawn signs.

Organizer Miré Regulus said that as a woman of color, she was uncomfortable to learn there was a restrictive deed on her home, but she's heartened by the response she gets when she asks people if they know about the deeds.

“What I find super exciting about this is the vast majority of the response is ‘Yes, and I've been thinking about it,’ or ‘I don't know, Oh, my goodness!’ And for people to even be able to engage at that level, feels really good.”

Two people stand on a patio in a backyard.
Homeowners Cara Letofsky and Jack Becker both have Free the Deeds signs in their front yards. Both hope the signs will encourage conversations about the impact of racially restrictive covenants.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Homeowner Jack Becker has one of the lawn signs in his yard. As the retired founder of Forecast Public Art, he knows the power of starting simple and then revealing more complexity.

"And if there's a neighbor handy, they'll want to talk about it," he said. "And that's actually what's happening. So lawn signs as a conversation starter. It's just, it's a simple idea. Very effective."

Free the Deeds only covers Minneapolis for now, but they have plans to grow.