FARGO — Last summer, Barry Nelson became aware of a rarely-discussed secret that at one time barred people of color from purchasing homes in the city of Fargo.

The city Human Relations Commission member began to investigate the existence of racial covenants in local property records and on Thursday, Nov. 19, shared his findings.

“In part of the history of our city, there have been racial covenants existing in our community, which, I’ll be honest, was a total shock to me," Nelson told the commission. "It was a way to limit ownership and occupation of property that really grew out of the Jim Crow laws and in the Southern states, and as we’ve come to learn, it was also very pervasive in northern communities as well."

One racial covenant Nelson found came from what was called in 1914 the Belmont Park Addition in south Fargo’s Clara Barton neighborhood. Other similar covenants exist in the same area and most likely throughout the rest of Fargo. Information on covenants is public record and can be found in records documenting a property's history.

Screenshot of Barry Nelson of the Fargo Human Relations Commission during the virtual meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19.
Screenshot of Barry Nelson of the Fargo Human Relations Commission during the virtual meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19.

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Scrawled in nearly illegible penmanship on the covenant, the paperwork from 1914 says:

“It is understood and agreed that this lot shall not be sold to or occupied by a colored person.”

The paperwork includes lots 302, 303 and 304 in the Belmont Park Addition in south Fargo, which was sold for $287, and was signed by H.D. Brown, N.P. Dodge Jr. and Laura W. Dodge.

A 1914 racial covenant included in legal deed for the Belmont Park Addition in Fargo. Special to The Forum
A 1914 racial covenant included in legal deed for the Belmont Park Addition in Fargo. Special to The Forum

“We have no idea if it did cause harm, but one could assume that it probably did,” Nelson said.

During the commission's meeting, Nelson made a motion for the commission to recognize and “own this racist past, and offer an apology for past and present wrongs,” Nelson said. “This kind of impact continues to this day.”

Michelle Rydz, the executive director of High Plains Fair Housing Center, a statewide advocacy organization, said in the commission meeting that racial covenants had harmful effects on people of color that last to this day.

Racial covenants are one of the many legacies of systemic racism left in American cities across the country, Rydz said. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld racial deed restriction laws and then reversed its decision in the 1940s.

But by then, it was too late, she said.

“The decision did nothing to alter other structures of segregation. It remained perfectly legal for realtors and property owners to discriminate on the basis of race,” Rydz said. “For example, the discriminatory housing policy of redlining assigned grade levels and color codes to neighborhoods to indicate lenders perceived credit risk based on neighborhood residents, race and ethnicity.”

Fifty years after the federal government started enacting policies to fight housing discrimination based on race, properties in redlined neighborhoods continue to be worth much less than other greenlined, or white districts, in cities across America. During the first part of 2020, 44% of Black families owned homes compared to 73% of white families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Five times as many Black people owned homes in redlined districts than white people, government data shows.

The real estate industry introduced racial covenants in the early 1900s, according to Mapping Prejudice, a University of Minnesota project documenting the history of discrimination in housing. The practice changed the landscapes of cities like Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington by forcing people of color into undesirable districts.

The deeds primarily targeted Black people, but also included Jews, and "any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish ... Mongolian or African blood or descent," according to Mapping Prejudice. Public officials of that era quickly embraced the covenants.

“And unfortunately, in the last three months, while many Americans in Fargo and across the nation were demanding racial justice to end systemic racism, the (Trump) Administration rewrote two important aspects of the Fair Housing Act, the Furthering Fair Housing rule and the Disparate Impact rule, marking major steps backward in the fight for fair housing,” Rydz said.

The new policy, formally called the “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice” rule, significantly decreases the fair housing obligations of state and local governments that receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the Fair Housing Project.

Now, the law allows discriminatory policies to be kept in place if there is an economic reason to do so, Rydz said.

North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, speaks about the inequality that existed in real estate purchases in Fargo from his home in the Clara Barton neighborhood. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
North Dakota Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, speaks about the inequality that existed in real estate purchases in Fargo from his home in the Clara Barton neighborhood. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, is a longtime resident of the Clara Barton neighborhood in south Fargo. In 1980, he purchased a house in the Belmont Park Addition at 406 Elmwood and was shocked to find a racial covenant in the property abstract.

As Mathern read the deed, he found a covenant prohibiting the sale of the property to Blacks. He wanted it removed but was told it wasn't worth the effort.

“The title company, attorney, and the realtor said this was not of concern as this prohibition had been found illegal by a court at one point in the past,” he explained.

But Mathern was adamant about getting the clause removed before he would consider purchasing the property.

“They all stated that I was overreacting and that houses were bought and sold daily with this in the deed,” Mathern said. “Nevertheless, I hired an attorney to do the legal work to amend the deed to delete the discriminatory language. I bought the house with a clearer conscience.”

Such racial covenants have been tacitly ignored for generations, Mathern said.

“Another interesting point is that a former owner of the house was a Christian church. It saddened me that they would not have objected to it while the house was in their ownership,” Mathern said.

Mathern, a state senator since 1997 and treasurer with the Clara Barton Neighborhood Association, said he has worked hard for his district, which in return has been instrumental in his political career. He said he couldn’t imagine what his life would be like if he had been barred from living in the Clara Barton neighborhood.

“Covenants such as these are proof of the racial discrimination in our history," Mathern said. "Rooting discrimination out is not easy and often requires not only government action but also individual action."