Project Background and Rollout

Project Background

On November 6, 2019, a community-campus partnership co-sponsored a presentation by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, co-founder of the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice Project, about their effort to map racial covenants in Hennepin County and facilitated a panel discussion on the local impact of racialized notions and policies in the greater Mankato area. This partnership included the GMDC led by Bukata Hayes, the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences led by dean Matt Loayza, and the Office of Diversity & Inclusion led by Kenneth Reid, among others. After this event, a group of academics, activists, students, and other concerned community members invited the Mapping Prejudice team to help initiate a similar project in Mankato.

In response to this request, Ehrman-Solberg, who in addition to co-founding Mapping Prejudice served as its digital and geospatial director until his untimely death in 2021, identified a population of real estate deeds that were most likely to contain racial covenants based on date and evidence of certain target words. He identified this subset from a larger population of digitized deeds provided to him by Michael Stalberger, director of Blue Earth County Property & Environmental Resources. Ehrman-Solberg provided the resulting subset in the form of picture files (in TIF format) of individual pages of hundreds of deeds to the project team in Mankato. The Free Press ran several articles on the project and the GMDC gathered a list of volunteers. But, in the spring of 2020, the Mankato team put the project on hold because of the global pandemic.

In August 2021, the team formed again to actively pursue the project. Bryan Johnson, IT solutions architect in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Minnesota State Mankato, set up a system in the university’s Microsoft 365 environment to read the deeds and document the findings. Johnson, with assistance from Rabin Burlakoti, graduate assistant and webmaster for the college, also converted some of the deeds (known as Torrens deeds) into PDF files to make them easier to read. The remaining deeds (the warranty deeds) could not be converted because we cannot find entire deeds in this population. We are therefore analyzing the one page marked as “match”—meaning it contains a target word—and will go the Blue Earth County Government Center to get the entire deed for those in which restrictive covenants are identified. Jill Cooley and Tim Meegan, history teacher at Mankato East High School, each used this system to direct a class of students in reviewing the digital deeds. Through this process, we identified that, although community members not affiliated with the university can access these deeds on the university’s system, there are challenges for this work. The university students had no problems accessing the deeds but needed a lot of help to read and analyze the sources.

In November 2021, Cooley accompanied two students, Marius Vold and Isabella Pearson, to the office of Blue Earth County Property & Environmental Resources (BECPER), where the deeds are held, to learn where the deeds and plats are stored and how the records are organized and to begin a review of hard copy deeds that we don’t have digitized. We started by locating the abstracts of deeds from selected neighborhoods in which racial covenants had been identified by Cooley’s class. This work identified additional deeds with racial covenants. Cooley, Vold, and Pearson copied the additional deeds to maintain in our project files. In February 2022, we expanded the project to five additional university classes, led by Cooley; Elizabeth Sandell, professor of education; and Kristi Treinen, professor of communication, who are reading and analyzing the digital deeds. In anticipation of expanding the project to community volunteers, a subcommittee composed of Kuma Takamura, education director at GMDC; Matt Loayza, dean of the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences; Leah White, director of the Honors Program; Cooley; and Meegan drafted this proposal.

Process and Current Status

We will conduct the project in 5 phases (which will overlap). Our target date to finish the deed research and map is December 2023. Additional historical research associated with this project may take much longer. This estimated timeline will depend upon the availability of resources and volunteers.

Phase 1: Review the digital deeds to document racial covenants. Map these covenants.
(Started August 2021; Completed May 2022) Students in high school and university classes evaluated the digital deeds to identify racial covenants. The students documented their findings in Sharepoint. This data set will be provided to Rama Mohapatra of the Department of Geography to map the covenants. 

Phase 2: Review “suspect” hard copy deeds to document racial covenants. Map these covenants.
(Started August 2022; Expected completion May 2023) Phase 2 involves going through hard copy Torrens deeds (located at the Blue Earth County Government Center) for all lots in neighborhoods in which racial covenants are present. We will also pull entire warranty deeds in which restrictive covenants exist. (Because of unavoidable problems with the digitized sources, we only have one page of each warranty deed.) These “suspect” deeds will be identified by Cooley in phase 1 and represent a research priority in phase 2. Honors Program students and community volunteers are conducting this research.

Phase 3: Review other hard copy deeds to document racial covenants. Finalize the map.
(Expected start January 2023; Expected completion December 2023) Cooley and other team members will identify whether there are any other hard copy deeds that need to be reviewed. We will review the deeds and document the results using the same process as phase 2. The population to be reviewed may include every deed starting circa 1910 that has not been reviewed to date as well as plat maps. After the team determines all relevant deeds and plats have been reviewed and we are confident with our results, Mohapatra will finalize the map. The team will update the website with our progress. The map may go live at this point.

Phase 4: Research the history of Mankato and the development of its neighborhoods.
(Started August 2022; Expected completion TBD) We will research the history of Mankato and the development of its neighborhoods to contextualize the racial covenants map. This research will be based on primary sources including city directories, city maps, newspapers, clippings files, oral histories, obituary files, census records, and similar sources. Among the issues that will be relevant is the history of a cemetery with restrictive covenants we’ve identified in Mankato and the existence and activities of any neighborhood associations. But the ethnic and racial make-up of the city’s neighborhoods over time as well as school districts and other public services also need to be better understood. Students and other volunteer researchers will conduct this research.
Sources may be available at the Blue Earth County Historical Society, Memorial Library, the Minnesota Historical Society, and online. We will start this research in August 2022 working with students in HIST 452/552: Minnesota History taught by Lori Lahlum of the Department of History. The research will be documented in student papers, on the project website, on Cornerstone, and in other relevant outlets. This research will be ongoing and is important to understanding how Mankato changed over the years looking especially at the expansion of housing and school districts and city demographics. This research will provide context for understanding our covenants map and the continuing impact of historical discrimination.

Future Developments: Partner with Just Deeds to discharge covenants.
(Expected start TBD; Expected completion TBD) We will draft a report to document our results and will update our website. We will plan a public presentation to communicate with the community. We should partner with The Just Deeds Project to discharge racial covenants and publicize this opportunity through our website, public presentations, The Free Press, and other outlets. (Just Deeds has a toolkit to advise us on this process.) We will consider publications, exhibits, and other opportunities to communicate our results and educate the public. We should consider ways to extend the project into North Mankato and/or St. Peter.