Jon Matsuo was just like every other American GI who returned home from World War II. He wanted to get on with his life, build a house and raise a family. He picked out a lot in Northeast’s Waite Park neighborhood. There was just one problem. He was of Japanese descent. A restrictive covenant on the property meant he could not purchase it. He decided to fight for his rights.
Restrictive covenants, later accompanied by the practice known as “redlining,” came into being just after the turn of the last century.
According to Mapping Prejudice, a mapping project launched in 2016 by the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota, the first racially-restrictive deed in Minneapolis appeared in 1910, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold a property on 35th Avenue South to Nels Anderson. The deed stipulated that the “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”
Similar language appeared in thousands of deeds across the city until the practice was finally banned by the U.S. Congress in the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
“Covenants still exist,” said Kevin Erhman-Solberg, a Windom Park resident and a PhD geography student who works on the Mapping Prejudice project. “They’re illegal, but they’re still there.”
He gave a brief history of restrictive covenants in Minneapolis. “Most of the area was still farm land in 1900,” he said. “They came into effect in the ‘teens and twenties, but effect was scattershot.” In 1916, there were five restrictive covenants in Hennepin County. By 1950, there were more than 20,000. You can watch their numbers grow, like cancerous tumors, on a time lapse map on the home page of mappingprejudice.org.
As the county’s population grew, so did the number of restrictive covenants. They were boosted by a New Deal agency created by President Franklin Roosevelt to prevent mortgage foreclosures. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) began mapping areas to assess credit worthiness. They drew red lines around the neighborhoods and properties where people were not likely to be able to make mortgage payments. Most were occupied by African Americans.
HOLC was superseded by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). “By the 1940s, FHA was encouraging the use of redlining,” said Erhman-Solberg. “The best interest rates were reserved for areas inside the red lines. The number of restrictive covenants exploded.”
Developers were quick to cash in on FHA’s recommendations. As a result, minorities, especially African Americans and Jews, were confined to certain low income neighborhoods.
The sins of the past haunt us even now: Redlining has had many long-lasting effects in Minneapolis.
It’s left the city with the lowest African American homeownership rate in the country – 23% in 2015. And, according to Mapping Prejudice, it placed “an invisible racial cordon around the city’s renowned Grand Rounds, which serves as the city’s urban commons.”
The “whitening” of Northeast, St. Anthony
There were a few black families living in Northeast at the beginning of the 20th Century. Ehrman-Solberg said the black population in Hennepin County accounted for 1% of the total population.
As more European immigrants moved in, those families moved out. Over the decades Northeast became “monolithically white,” according to Kirsten Delegard, Mapping Prejudice project director. Because of the railroads and heavy industry in the area, it was deemed as a not so desirable place to live, unless you were a skilled laborer. These white, blue-collar workers were determined to stay in their little piece of heaven. “Northeast has a reputation for being aggressively white,” said Delegard.
As Minneapolis’ population pushed north and east, so did redlining. Mapping Prejudice has produced a map that shows redlined areas of the city. It’s interactive, so you can zoom in on a specific redlined lot in a particular neighborhood and read the restrictive covenant that goes with the property. The Stinson Triangle, for instance, is completely red. So are the blocks surrounding St. Charles Borromeo Church in the Hennepin County portion of St. Anthony. A large swath of the Waite Park neighborhood east of Johnson Street also has covenanted property.
The “poster child” for testing covenants
Enter Jon Matsuo, whom Delegard ironically calls the “poster child” for the fight against redlining. “There were decades of discrimination against African Americans, but Jon Matsuo became the face of redlining,” she said.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1920, Jon Takashiro Matsuo enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. He was honorably discharged from service in 1945 and he and his wife, Ruth, moved to Minneapolis so he could study aeronautical engineering at the U of M.
Housing was hard to come by in the post-war years, so in 1946, 50 veterans who were enrolled at the U formed Oak Hill Builders to build a new subdivision on 75 tax-forfeited acres in Waite Park. In her historyapolis.com blog, Delegard writes that Matsuo, a member of the group, got second dibs on a lot. “But when he met with the real estate agent to make his choice, he was told that he could not live in Oak Hill because of his Japanese ancestry.”
The U group tried to negotiate with the developer, Dickinson & Gillespie, a major supporter of FHA loans. At one point, the Matsuos were offered a corner lot in the development which could easily be “left out” so the development could remain restricted. They refused.
Janet Russell of the Minneapolis Tribune interviewed Matsuo’s “attractive wife” Ruth. “When I think of how the young Nisei fellows in relocation camps stood up against their elders in defense of America and democracy and how they entered the army, which had previously excluded them, in order to fight for democratic rights for citizens, I feel we’re almost obligated to see this through for the sake of the ones who didn’t come back from the war,” Ruth said.
After the war, people of Japanese ancestry who had fought for the U.S. were seen as war heroes. Letters to the editor ensued, backing the Matsuos. The story was followed closely across the U.S., particularly by the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League.
In true Northeast style, building contractor Stanton J. Tompkins, 1123 Monroe Street, offered to build the family a home at cost. “If they’re big enough to fight for this country, I’m big enough to build them a house,” he told the Tribune.
The following day the American Veterans Committee (AVC) staged a protest outside the real estate agents’ office in support of the Matsuos. They were joined by Molly Erlich, a former WAVE. Dickinson & Gillespie CEO Elliott Gillespie called them “communists.” On July 1, they picketed the Minneapolis Board of Realtors’ office.
The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners censured Dickinson & Gillespie. Gillespie defended his company’s actions by saying “we’re just doing what everyone else does.”
City Council Member W. Glen Wallace (they were called “aldermen” then) sought to get the Minneapolis Board of Realtors to “secure elimination from all deeds in all new subdivisions of any discrimination against any person because of race.”
Jon Matsuo vowed to continue to contest the issue. “While I stand to gain nothing personally, I’d like to clear up the situation so families of minority nationality groups will not have to go through this in the future,” he told the Tribune.
The Minneapolis post of the Jewish American War Veterans added their voice to the fight. By July 3, 20 organizations throughout the city had expressed support. As the movement gained steam, the Minneapolis Tribune noted that “1,500 other Nisei and 6,000 Negroes” were in the same boat as the Matsuos. Later in 1946, Mayor Hubert Humphrey was successful in banning racially restrictive covenants on new developments in the city.
While it appears the Matsuos did not build in Waite Park, some of the Oak Hill Builders group ended up building in the Camden neighborhood of Minneapolis where there were no covenants.
The Matsuos stayed in Minneapolis for a few more years. Jon, a Golden Gloves boxer, gave boxing lessons at the Wesley Temple. By 1950, they had moved to Seattle. Jon was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. He went on to patent many inventions for the Navy, including a releasable clamp for a dual parachute ripcord. He died in California in 1992.
“Covenants and Civil Rights: Race and Real Estate in Minneapolis,” by Kirsten Delegard, http://historyapolis.com/blog/2015/09/22/covenants-and-civil-rights-race-and-real-estate-in-minneapolis/
“What Pearl Harbor Means To Me: Reflections From a Quarter Japanese Grandchild, by Alex Matsuo, Alexmatsuo.com, December 7, 2013
“Housing firm to push FHA loans,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 28, 1936
“Nisei Couple Plan Fight to Buy Lot,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 27, 1946
“Vet Group, Builder Back Nisei in Zoning Rebuff,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 28, 1946
“”U” Veterans Picket Firm in Nisei Case,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 29, 1946
“Matsuo wins commission in U.S. Air Force,” Pacific Citizen, August 26, 1950
“Already-low homeownership rates of Twin Cities minorities fall further,” Minneapols Star Tribune, August 19, 2017
Is your property covenanted? How to find out
Although redlining has been outlawed, covenants still exist. In 2019, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that allows property owners to “discharge” the covenant. It doesn’t alter the historic record, but it allows homeowners to disassociate from the covenant.
Hennepin County has more than 3 million pages of registered deeds. You may have to do some in-person research at the Hennepin County Government Center, 300 South 6th Street. The Recorder – Registrar of Titles is located on the skyway level.
For more information, instructions and forms, visit https://www.hennepin.us/residents/property/real-estate-recording-information
Below: American Veterans Committee members protest race-based real estate covenants which barred Jon Matsuo from purchasing a house in the Oak Hill development in Northeast Minneapolis. Shown in front of the offices of the Minneapolis Board of Realtors. (Minneapolis Newspaper Photograph Collection, Hennepin County Library) Jon Matsuo. (From Alexmatsuo.com) Map showing covenanted areas in Northeast and the Hennepin County portion of St. Anthony. For an interactive map, go to MappingPrejudice.com. (Provided by Kevin Ehrman-Solberg, Mapping Prejudice, University of Minnesota).