Stearns County commissioners rejected a proposal Tuesday that would help universities and land owners find and discharge racially restrictive covenants in property deeds or titles.
Racial covenants were legally enforceable contracts written to keep homes and neighborhoods in the hands of white people. In 1953, the Minnesota Legislature made it illegal to put new racial covenants in property records. Their use was prohibited in 1962, but the language remains on some deeds.
The proposal would have waived county records and research fees for individual homeowners and allowed the Mapping Prejudice project based at the University of Minnesota access to those records.
Students have already discovered racial covenants on some properties in Stearns County as part of the Great River Covenants Project in central Minnesota. But without access from the county, students can only get so far, said project co-director Brittany Merritt, a professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.
Several counties and cities across the state have supported such efforts by waiving fees and partnering with Mapping Prejudice and Just Deeds, a volunteer organization helping property owners discharge racial covenants.
Work with other counties in the area is already underway, said Michael Corey, who leads technical data for Mapping Prejudice. "That's a first for us," he said of the board's decision.
The reactions to the proposal were surprising, Merritt said, since proposals at county boards around the state have passed easily.
"It seems like it became an issue focusing on the recording fees rather than on the larger work," Merritt said.
Finding a covenant on her property was shocking for County Board Vice Chair Tarryl Clark, who made a motion to pass the resolution. Clark said she has been approached by a number of people interested in discharging their own deed or volunteering to help.
"There's an opportunity for some education and probably some reconciliation. At least there's something you can do," Clark said.
County Board Member Jeff Bertram questioned why the board was wasting time on the proposal and how it even made it to the agenda when they have so many other important things to consider.
"A lot of things happened in 1930. But that's history. That's what happened," Bertram said. "If you really feel strongly about it, and you want to do it, then do it."
Board Member Steve Notch clarified that the move would be a symbolic measure on behalf of the county, and Board Member Leigh Lenzmeier threw his hands up, saying, "Congrats, you're a hero," as the board moved on to other matters.
Merritt said she hopes the board will take up the proposal again and that her group will be able to talk about their project.
"We want to be able to have the same kind of comprehensive documentation of racial covenants in central Minnesota that exists in Hennepin and Ramsey and other other counties in the metro," Merritt said.
If people want to do so, they should be able to discharge any covenant on their property on their own, Board Chair Joe Perske said in an interview Thursday.
"By all means, we want to see that stuff off the books," Perske said. "The Supreme Court made a ruling, the State Legislature made a ruling, if folks want to take that off the title or abstract, by all means."