Stearns County board rejects proposal to help property owners get rid of racial covenants

Paper photocopies are spread out on a table
Students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University researched public databases to unearth some of the racial covenants that were once placed on properties throughout Stearns County.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Update: Aug. 24, 8:42 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 23, 1:43 p.m.

Stearns County commissioners this week rejected an effort to help property owners address racist language in their deeds. 

The proposal stemmed from research conducted last spring by students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, who uncovered dozens of racial covenants in Stearns County.

The covenants prevented people from certain racial and ethnic groups from buying and owning land. They became illegal in Minnesota in 1953, but were added to some Stearns County deeds as recently as the 1980s.

Under Minnesota law, property owners who discover racist language on their deed can fill out a form with their county recorder’s office discharging the restrictive covenant. In Stearns County, they must pay a $46 recording fee.

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On Tuesday, the county board spent 45 minutes debating a resolution that would have waived the fee for property owners who wish to reject a racial covenant on their title.

“Discharging these racial covenants is a way that helps us to bring our mission to light, especially the part about making this a vibrant county for all, and our value of [being] fair and equitable,” said Cortez Riley, the county’s human resources equity and inclusion partner.

The resolution also would have given nonprofits such as the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice Project access to research the county’s property records for free.

County officials in the property services division who brought the resolution to the board expected it to pass with little fanfare. But the measure failed after some board members seemed confused about what it would do and questioned whether it's needed.

Commissioner Jeff Bertram of Paynesville, Minn., called the discussion a waste of time.

“I’m not clear why this is before us at all,” he said. “If it means that much to somebody, they’re going to pay the $46 and do it.”

Commissioner Tarryl Clark spoke in favor of the proposal, saying she was disturbed to discover a racial covenant on the title of a St. Cloud home she owned for 25 years.

A significant part of the county’s population have ancestors who would have been directly affected by racial covenants, Clark said.

“This is symbolic,” she said. “There is not a way to remove it. But it allows people to at least say, ‘We don’t do this anymore.’”

Chad Martini, the county’s property services director, said Thursday his department has decided to pause review records of county-owned property such as parks and highway right-of-way for discriminatory language until it receives more direction from county leaders.