Listen: North Star Journey - Rochester racial covenants (Richert)

On this segment of North Star Journey, MPR’s Catharine Richert looks into a reckoning the city of Rochester finds itself going through. New research into housing covenants provides evidence that the founders of Mayo Clinic — a giant in Minnesota and Rochester, viewed globally as a force for good — played a role perpetuating practices that favored all-white neighborhoods.

Richert speaks with members of the Rochester community on coming to terms with the past and moving forward.


2023 MNSPJ Page One Award, second place in Coverage - Enterprise/In-depth Reporting category


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SPEAKER: In Rochester, volunteers are sifting through decades of property records in search of racial covenants that created all-white neighborhoods in the early 20th century. It was a common discriminatory practice used all over the country a century ago. But as Rochester seeks to diversify its workforce, the city is simultaneously coming to terms with a troubling part of its history. In this next installment of our North Star Journey series, Catherine Richert reports now on the racial covenants that have been discovered so far and how some are connected to Mayo Clinic's founders.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Pastor Don Barlow sits in the front Pew of his Baptist Church holding a piece of paper.

DON BARLOW: This property shall never be occupied by Negro.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Barlow is reading from the deed for the property where his predominantly Black church now stands. It's a moment of poetic justice for Barlow who recently learned that about a century ago, he and his congregants would have been blocked from worshipping there because of a legal tool used for years to keep non-white people out of white neighborhoods.

DON BARLOW: The shock the alarm came from, if you will, just the clearness of the statement found within the legal document and not so much the usage of the word Negro because that was the language of the day, but more so the fact that in a legal document, it was being stated and accepted and was norm for the day.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Reckoning with the past is hard for any city, but Rochester's reckoning comes with an unusual twist. New research into housing covenants makes it clear how the founders of Mayo Clinic, a health care giant viewed globally as a force for good, played a role in perpetuating practices that favored all-white neighborhoods, practices squarely at odds with the welcoming community Rochester strives to be today. Racial covenants are illegal now, but Kirsten Delegard, Co-Founder and Project Director for the Mapping Prejudice Project has examined how racial covenants shaped cities in Hennepin County. She says they're still relevant.

KIRSTEN DELEGARD: What that does is it sets up this cascading effect for intergenerational wealth transfer, which increases inequality.

CATHERINE RICHERT: For instance, she says, neighborhoods in Minneapolis that had racial covenants remained predominantly white and more expensive.

KIRSTEN DELEGARD: All of these patterns once they're entrenched, they're very hard to dislodge.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Armed with a stack of historical documents, Phil Wheeler walks the streets of Rochester's historic Pill Hill. He's standing on Plummer Lane named after Mayo co-founder Henry Plummer trying to figure out which homes have racial covenants.

PHIL WHEELER: I'd have to look at the map, which I happen to have with me.

CATHERINE RICHERT: As a member of the local chapter of the NAACP, Wheeler is leading a volunteer effort to map intentional segregation in Rochester. Some racial covenants were hyper specific. He reads from one associated with this neighborhood.

PHIL WHEELER: ThAT none of said respective tracts or any parts thereof shall be sold to used or occupied by any person of Negro, Indian, Mongolian, Chinese, or Japanese descent, provided however, this restriction shall not apply to a bonafide servant employed by a resident thereon and housed in his residence.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Of the roughly 850 racial covenants Wheeler and other volunteers have discovered so far, about a quarter of them bear the name of Mayo Properties Association, an entity created in 1919 by Mayo Clinic founders and brothers doctors William and Charles Mayo. Many deeds also bear the name of Harry Harwick, the hospital's first administrator. Wheeler says it's hard to decipher Mayo and Harwick's motivations. Most of the thousands of properties Wheeler and his volunteers have examined so far never had a racial covenant.

PHIL WHEELER: I don't know how much slack we should cut somebody like Harry Harwick who did this everywhere he got as far as I can tell where that he was involved in property. Well, the argument that saying he's a product of his time is countered by the fact that about 80% of the plans that were made during that time had no covenant, as far as we can tell.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Wheeler's best guess is that the covenants were meant to create prestigious enclaves in an effort to attract physicians to Mayo Clinic.

PHIL WHEELER: So that depends in turn on racist buying real estate and selling to, of course-- [INAUDIBLE]

CATHERINE RICHERT: On the other side of town, Yoko Kan sits at her kitchen table and scans a county database searching for racial covenants. A lot are handwritten and hard to read.

YOKO KAN: Oh, this one is typed. oh my gosh. And then you just literally look at the deed, and usually if there's some kind of a racial covenant, it should be right here.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Kan is among the volunteers helping with the racial covenants project. Kan, who's Japanese-American, says she was drawn to the project because of her and her family's experiences. Her parents faced discrimination when they moved from Japan to Seattle in the 1970s. Kan says, even today, she's sometimes asked if she speaks English.

YOKO KAN: Where you have white people, you have exclusion. I think it's important for people to know the history of their land. I think it's important for homeowners to know where they're living.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Mike Resman is a volunteer, too. In the living room of his Pill Hill house, Resman, says 100 years ago, the racial covenant on his property would have prevented his daughters,, adopted from Korea, from living there.

MIKE RESMAN: The thing that surprised me the most is that it had been sold by the Mayo Properties. I always associated the Mayo Clinic with all good things. But here, they were in the business of real estate and had put a covenant on the land that they were selling to try to get a higher price. That surprised me.

BARBARA JORDAN: And I just look at it as a sign of the times and probably along with the segregation that was occurring across the country and right here in Rochester.

CATHERINE RICHERT: That's Barbara Jordan, Administrator for Mayo's Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity office. Jordan, who's Black says, Mayo can't ignore this aspect of its history.

BARBARA JORDAN: We don't want to let it go on unnoticed or let it just sit and say that was wrong, but no, to take affirmative actionable steps.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Jordan says Mayo is lending its legal team to the Covenant Mapping Project on a pro-bono basis. Mayo has also dedicated $100 million to improving diversity and equity within its walls and in its communities. And it's trying to recruit more workers and students of color.

But Jordan says the institution can do more. When she talks to new Mayo recruits of color, she often hears that they don't feel like they fit in. Mayo and Rochester remain predominantly white.

BARBARA JORDAN: So it is a priority for us. Our learners have told us, our employees have told us that their sense of belonging is not at levels that we would like to see.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Once the racial covenants are fully mapped, the city says it will create a process for homeowners to legally disavow them. But at City Hall, Rochester Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director ChaO Mwatela is thinking bigger. For instance, the data may help the city understand why home ownership among the city's non-white population is so low and how to address it.

CHAO MWATELA: I think sometimes when we say we want to do those things without having the data and the history to inform that, then it is perceived as, why is this community getting it and I don't? But laying the groundwork for people to understand that for a lot of times, we're not starting from an equal playing field or ground, whether it is monetarily or other resources of time and education and access.

CATHERINE RICHERT: Back at his church holding the deed that declares, "The property shall never be occupied by a Negro," Don Barlow says, acknowledging the city's history of housing segregation is necessary for it to become the welcoming community it perceives itself to be.

DON BARLOW: We benefit when we're willing to acknowledge the truths associated with our past however uncomfortable they may be.

CATHERINE RICHERT: "Because that single sentence in the church's deed," Barlow says, "has impacted generations of people." Catherine Richert, NPR News, Rochester.

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