Rochester confronts its segregated housing history, Mayo founders' role
City leaders hope Rochester can be a magnet for a diverse workforce. Part of that journey, though, means coming to terms with a troubling part of the city’s history
Pastor Don Barlow sits in the front pew of his Baptist church on Rochester’s southeast side, holding a piece of paper, faded by decades in Olmsted County’s archives but still clear in its intent.
“This property shall never be occupied by a Negro,” Barlow reads from the deed for the plat of land 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 legally blocked from worshiping there.
“The shock, the alarm comes from the clearness of the statement found within the legal documents,” he said. “It’s not so much the usage of the word Negro, because it was the language of the day, but more so the fact that in a legal document, it was being stated and accepted as the norm.”
For years, such covenants were a tool used across the nation and in Minnesota to keep nonwhite people out of white neighborhoods. They’re illegal now, but their impact remains, cascading into thousands of individual decisions about schools, homes and jobs that have collectively kept cities shackled to the past.
Reckoning with that past is hard for any city, but Rochester’s comes with an unusual twist: New research into housing covenants makes it clear how 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.
With the city expanding rapidly now around Mayo Clinic, city leaders hope Rochester can be a magnet for a diverse workforce. Part of that journey, though, means coming to terms with a troubling part of the city’s history — decades of intentional housing segregation. A recent push to map the city’s racial housing covenants shows how deep those roots lie and the challenges moving forward.
‘Racists buying real estate’
Armed with a stack of historical maps and documents, Phil Wheeler walks the streets of Pill Hill , a historic neighborhood just southwest of Mayo Clinic’s downtown campus that was home to some of the hospital’s first professionals.
Today, homes in this neighborhood can cost millions. In the early 1900s when Pill Hill was being developed, prices were high for the time, too, said Wheeler, an urban planner who once worked in planning departments for the city and county.
Now, as a member of the local chapter of the NAACP , he’s leading a volunteer effort to map intentional segregation in Rochester. The project was born from a 2021 decision by the Rochester City Council to be the first greater Minnesota city to join Just Deeds , a project that helps homeowners and cities find racial covenants and then legally disavow them.
Price minimums were required by the deeds for the land houses were built on — one way of making sure only wealthier people were able to access the neighborhood, Wheeler said.
So were racial covenants. Some were applied when the land was first being developed, some applied retroactively after homes were built to preserve the demographics of the neighborhood.
The restrictions were used as a marketing tactic, too. A newspaper ad from the late 1920s for lots near Mayo Clinic warned buyers not to build on cheap land.
A Westlawn lot will add to the sale and rental value of your home and building restrictions assure of a desirable neighborhood to live in.
The ad promoted a watch raffle — but the ad said that only white people 18 and older would be eligible to enter.
Some racial covenants were hyper-specific, Wheeler said. He read from one associated with a neighborhood in Pill Hill:
“None of said respective tracts or any parts thereof shall be sold to 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.”
Wheeler said this language can be found repeatedly in land sold and developed by Mayo Properties Association, an entity founded in 1919 by Mayo Clinic founders and brothers Drs. William and Charles Mayo, according to the Olmsted County History Center.
At the time, the duo transferred their property and capital to Mayo Properties Association, marking the shift from Mayo Clinic being a family-run organization to a nonprofit, according to the history center.
Deeds unearthed by Wheeler and his volunteers show Mayo Properties Association started subdividing land for sale in the early 20th century.
Of the roughly 850 racial covenants Wheeler and other volunteers have discovered and mapped so far, about 25 percent of them bear the Mayo name, along with that of other Mayo and city leaders of the time, including Harry Harwick, the hospital’s first administrator.
Wheeler said that while racial covenants were employed in many cities at the time, it’s hard to decipher Mayo and Harwick’s motivations. Most of the more than 5,000 plats Wheeler and his volunteers have examined so far never had a racial covenant.
“I don't know how much slack we should cut somebody like Harry Harwick, who did this everywhere that he was involved in property,” he said. “The argument that he's a product of his time is countered by the fact that about 80 percent of the plats that were made during that time had no [racial] covenant, as far as we can tell.”
Wheeler’s best guess is that the covenants were meant to create prestigious enclaves in an effort to attract physicians to Mayo Clinic.
“That depends on racists buying real estate,” he said. “And selling it too, of course.”
Disparities in black and white
Documents dating back to this time period were disposed of consistent with record retention policies, a Mayo Clinic spokesperson said.
“It’s hard to know the nature of the thinking in the minds of those property holders drafting the covenants at the time,” said Barbara Jordan, the administrator for Mayo’s equity, inclusion and diversity office. “But I just look at it as a sign of the times and probably along with the segregation that was occurring across the country.”
Jordan, who is Black, said that it’s important for Mayo not to ignore this aspect of its history.
Mayo has grappled before with racist episodes in its past. In 2018, the institution apologized for William Worrall Mayo’s desecration of Marpiya Okinajin, a warrior hanged in the 1862 mass execution of Native people in Mankato, Minn. William Worrall Mayo — father of William and Charles — took Marpiya Okinajin’s remains following the execution, dissected them and kept the skeleton for years for research and display.
“We don't want to let [the racial covenants] go on unnoticed or, or let it sit and say, ‘That was wrong,’ but to take affirmative, actionable steps,” said Jordan, noting that Mayo is lending some of its legal team to the covenant mapping project on a pro bono basis.
And that’s just one aspect of Mayo’s work to improve diversity and equity within its walls and in its communities. After George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a police officer in 2020, the institution pledged $100 million to diversity efforts — money that’s been used to pay for equity and inclusion training among staff, and a leadership camp for BIPOC teens , among other things.
Meanwhile, Mayo’s population of nonwhite employees across all its campuses has increased from 8 percent of its workforce in 1999 to 18 percent last year.
Jordan said she’s had her own experiences with racism in Rochester. Decades ago, she said, white students at her daughter’s middle school were allowed to display the Confederate flag until students and families pushed administrators to ban the practice.
When Jordan talks to new recruits of color at Mayo, she often hears that they don’t feel like they fit in. Despite its international visitors and increasingly diverse demographics, Mayo Clinic remains predominantly white; the city of Rochester is 78 percent white.
“They are the ones who are surprised when they see that our staff may not reflect the diversity of our community,” she said. “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.”
Exclusion can take many forms, Jordan said, like not being invited to work-related social events or being told they speak too loudly. These microaggressions can accumulate over time, Jordan said.
“It’s constantly helping people to understand that the white-centered viewpoint is not the only viewpoint or perspective,” she said.
Addressing racism inside its walls and community is essential to Mayo’s success as a health care provider. Even a decade ago, Jordan said the Mayo community was less receptive to this.
“But today, they demand it,” she said. “They expect it because we know in order to provide the best care to every patient, we have to prepare learners and our staff to care for a diverse group of patients, as our doors are open to all.”
Segregation that’s ‘hard to dislodge’
It’s not yet clear how these racial covenants have powered racial and economic disparities in Rochester, but city leaders are eager to use the data to better understand the city’s inequities and work to fix them.
Still, Chao Mwatela, Rochester’s diversity, equity and inclusion director, sees hints of the practice’s legacy everywhere. Some of the neighborhoods that were born with racial covenants remain largely white, affluent, and with access to higher-performing schools. They tend to have more green space and sit farther away from industrial areas.
Meanwhile, city data shows that clusters of households that earn less than the area median income also have high counts of people of color, and seniors.
The starkest example, Mwatela said, is in homeownership among the city’s nonwhite population, an indication that Rochester’s residents of color today continue to be blocked from accessing generational wealth just as they were 100 years ago.
Roughly 60 percent of the city’s renters are people of color — a notably high proportion, Mwatela said. Members of these communities are less likely to have had parents or grandparents who owned homes that accumulated wealth to pass on to their children, she said.
“The process of buying a home is not a simple one,” she said. “We don't realize how much of that is passed down from generation to generation and what impact it has on someone's ability to navigate that system, or to even purchase a home.”
Mayo Properties Association perpetuated racial covenants, but so did other developers in Rochester. In some cases, neighbors adopted racial covenants after homes were built in an effort to keep out nonwhites.
Racial covenants became unenforceable in 1948, barred in Minnesota in 1953, and illegal nationally in 1968.
But they were common in Minnesota in the first half of the 20th century, said Kirsten Delegard, co-founder and the project director for the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota Libraries. In her work mapping how racial covenants have shaped cities in Hennepin County, Delegard has found examples of the University of Minnesota and the Catholic Church using racial covenants.
They were popular in part because they were promoted by the National Association of Real Estate Boards as a tool to protect property values and promote neighborhood stability, she said. The federal government’s underwriting manual mandated that racial covenants be in place to get the most favorable terms.
“That mandate from those big national institutions meant that anyone who is considered to be a respectable or credible or ethical dealer in this realm was going to certainly come under a lot of pressure about racial covenants,” Delegard said.
Racial covenants are still relevant today, she said. Her organization’s mapping efforts of communities in and around the Twin Cities show that neighborhoods established with racial covenants are still overwhelmingly white.
And houses in Minneapolis that had racial covenants at any point are worth about 15 percent more today than an identical house that never had a racial covenant, Delegard said.
“What that does is it sets up this cascading effect for intergenerational wealth transfer, which increases inequality,” she said.
Delegard uses her own family as an example: Her grandparents bought a home with a racial covenant on it in 1942 in south Minneapolis near Lake Nokomis, and it appreciated significantly over the years. When they died, Delegard’s family sold the home and gave all the grandchildren a share of the proceeds.
“I took my piece and was able to put a down payment on a house in south Minneapolis that would be out of reach for people who did not have that same kind of family help,” Delegard said. “These patterns, once they're entrenched, they're very hard to dislodge.”
‘People here are so friendly’
Racial covenants are being discovered all over Rochester by a small group of volunteers who comb through and map property records one block at a time.
Mike Resman is one of those volunteers. In Pill Hill, he’s sitting in the living room of the home he and his wife have lived in for 45 years. In his lap is a cache of property documents his bank sent him in the 1980s, including a racial covenant that would have prevented his two adopted daughters from Korea from living there a century ago.
“I knew that it was not enforced. So I wasn't worried about it as a parent of nonwhite children,” he said. “But the thing that surprised me the most is that it had been sold by the Mayo Properties. I always associated Mayo Clinic with all good things, but here they were in the business of real estate and had put a covenant on the land.”
Resman said he wants this information to be used as a tool to educate his neighbors and the community about their city’s history, how some people have enjoyed privilege in Rochester at the expense of others.
“I'm not one of those people who thinks that we should literally whitewash history and pretend that none of these things happened,” he said.
Across town on the porch of her home in the Slatterly Park neighborhood, Wilhelmina Jacob said she wasn’t shocked that her home has a racial covenant. As a Black woman, she said it’s validating.
“What is phenomenal is that things that have been in the dark for years are now being exposed,” she said. “I think the validation of being rejected is not taboo, or ‘it's not real.’ It is real, it has been real.”
She said that, unlike her upbringing in New Orleans, racism is harder to decipher in Minnesota; people here, she said, are hard to read and really get to know.
“There are wonderful people here, but it is very Minnesota Nice. And the difference for me is that in the south, [racism] is just there. So we don't have to wonder — it just is what it is,” Jacob said, pointing out that as a child in New Orleans, there were informal rules about where Black people could go at night. “Here, you don't know. Everybody just smiles, and you don't know … I think it's a little bit more difficult to navigate.”
Pastor Barlow sits on the Rochester School Board and hears echoes of racial segregation in schools today. Schools in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods reflect those demographics, a challenge the district is constantly working to address through redistricting, resources and by hiring more staff of color.
But even still, Barlow can understand how it feels to be excluded in Rochester — a city purported to be welcoming when he moved here with his wife years ago so she could access long-term care at the clinic.
“I was staying at a hotel downtown. It was a Friday, early evening, and a car of white youth passed by and yelled out the N-word,” he said. “It wasn't like it was the first time I heard it. But it shocked me because I've heard a number of [Mayo doctors] at the clinic say, ‘You're not going to find a nicer place to live’ and ‘people here are so friendly.’
“And I'm sure from their point of view, and their lived experience, those are all true statements. But then I began to realize it doesn't necessarily apply to everyone,” he said.
At Rochester’s City Hall, Mwatela is thinking along the same lines. Once racial covenants are fully mapped, the city will create a process for homeowners to discharge those covenants for free.
But she said interweaving this information into all aspects of city policy — in zoning decisions or in targeting homeownership classes at disadvantaged populations — is the bigger goal.
“I think sometimes when we say we want to do those things without having the data and the history to inform it, it is perceived as ‘Why is this community getting it and I don't,’” she said. “Laying the groundwork for people to understand that a lot of times [some people] are not starting from an equal playing field, whether it is monetarily, education and access.”
Back at his church in southeast Rochester, holding the deed that declares the “property shall never be occupied by a Negro,” Don Barlow said uncomfortable conversations about the city’s past are necessary for it to be the welcoming community it perceives itself to be.
“We benefit when we're willing to acknowledge the truths associated with our past, however uncomfortable they may be,” he said. “Because these are the types of things that have affected generations.”
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