Geographer studies housing covenants to map racial discrimination in Milwaukee history

Erik Gunn - Wisocnsin Examiner

Milwaukee’s history of racial covenants that restricted where Black people could live shaped housing and economic patterns that echo to this day.

A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geography professor has been part of a project bringing to light not only the web of racial housing covenants in the Milwaukee metro area but also resistance among Black Milwaukeeans and their allies who worked to pull that web apart.

Now Anne Bonds and members of the team she’s worked with have won a federal grant that will allow them to turn the results of their research into a website that members of the public can use to learn more about that history.

Bonds studies the history of racial property covenants to understand why Milwaukee became so deeply segregated and how that history helps explain the unequal distribution of resources in the community to this day.

“We’re trying to understand the historical and geographical production of these patterns,” Bonds says. “We’re trying to understand how spaces were made through boundaries and exclusion.”

The $147,412 grant Bonds and the project’s codirector, UWM English professor Derek Handley, are receiving from the National Endowment for the Humanities was announced Jan. 10 by U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee).

“The consequences of racial covenants and other discriminatory housing policies live on. We can see that in the continued segregation of our Milwaukee communities — thanks to efforts like the Mapping Racism and Resistance in Milwaukee County Project,” Moore says, referring to Bonds’s project.

“Even though the racial covenants and restrictive property deeds were eventually deemed to be illegal and unenforceable, that didn’t stop discrimination from occurring in practice,” she adds. “As we continue to move forward with policy solutions to build some real equity, we need to confront our history.”

The endowment also awarded $149,969 to the House of History Project, which compiles oral histories from members of Milwaukee’s LGBTQ+ community.

“Milwaukee is home to amazing Black LGBTQ+ Milwaukee leaders whose stories must be more broadly known,” says Moore. She calls the project “a wonderful opportunity to share their efforts to create community and networks of support, challenge racism, homophobia, and transphobia while seeing the impact of the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 public health crises. Hearing these oral histories can be both educational and inspirational, which is why this grant is so important.” 

Bonds’ work mapping the presence of racial real estate covenants in Milwaukee is emblematic of how the study of geography goes far beyond the grade school topics of capital cities, native languages, or principal crops and exports.

As geographers, “We’re interested in not just the where — where the boundaries are — we want to know the why of the where,” Bonds says. “Maps can really visualize things in a way. They can tell a story.”

In the late 1940s and early 50s, for example, banks and insurers “redlined” neighborhoods  based on the race of residents — a form of discrimination that left communities unable to access insurance and loans  that was encouraged by federal policy. Maps that document those practices help visualize “how ideas about race were used to carve up space,” Bonds says.

The project has enlisted a range of supporters and participants: researchers, public officials, community organizers and others.

In the course of the research, Bonds and her team members have also found stories of resistance and resilience among the Black Milwaukeeans who were excluded — “how they were working to challenge these restrictive covenants and other forms of housing discrimination,” striving “to build their own future to live where they want to work where they want.”

It’s a story much older than the high-profile civil rights campaigns of a half-century ago.

“We know a lot about Milwaukee’s housing struggles in the [19]50s and ‘60s — the efforts to bring open housing and the uprisings in 1967,” Bonds says. “We know a lot less about what was happening earlier in the 20th century.”

Her team’s research has been working to fill that gap — tracing both the history of enforced racial segregation as well as resistance to it.

In 1924, for instance, the Milwaukee NAACP protested zoning and development practices that were trying to carve out a “black belt” in the city.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial covenants were unenforceable, yet it was another 20 years before they were officially outlawed.

“This is not so far in the past,” Bonds says. “What we can see is that racial covenants are just one piece of the picture of the kinds of mechanisms of exclusion that have been used to ‘preserve the character’ of areas — or to exclude and discriminate against people and neighborhoods.”

The exclusion, “hasn’t gone away,” she adds. “It’s manifested differently.”

The team has mapped 16,000 examples of racial covenants in properties across the Milwaukee area.

“Most people who live in Milwaukee County can look at those and can see a pattern — can see the way they worked to contain populations in the inner core of Milwaukee,” Bonds says.

And the maps are more than silent, passive records. The team’s work has included community workshops with people whose lives have been touched by racial real estate covenants.

“It’s not only just having people look at these documents and see what racial covenants look like, but it’s the kind of conversations and dialogues that have come from this,” Bonds says. “We’ve heard many stories from Black Milwaukeeans about their encounters with racial discrimination, and from white Milwaukeeans who didn’t know what were the policies, mechanisms and practices in place that came to produce what we’ve taken for granted today.”

The covenant documents and the maps made from them have turned an abstract idea into something concrete.

“It’s really powerful to use covenants as an example,” Bonds says. “People have articulated to us how this makes the function of structural racism more clear. This wasn’t an outcome of people’s preferences. This was an explicit and normalized approach to discrimination in housing.”

The 18-month grant will enable Bonds and her team to assemble their data and create a digital platform to house the maps they’ve created as well as archival documents that help tell the story of resistance.

 Their goal is to visualize it in ways that make it accessible and understandable to website visitors, so that it is a dataset “that everybody can use,” Bonds says. “We see this as really a project for the community.”

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