Open Occupancy and the “Racial Problem”

Freeway planners and elected officials knew it would be difficult for Black people displaced by the freeway to find other places to live. 

The “Racial Problem”

In March of 1957, Minnesota Highway Commissioner Loyal Zimmerman wrote to Governor Orville Freeman to tell him about an issue that had emerged as property acquisition was beginning in St. Paul for Interstate 94, which was a couple of years ahead of the 35W project.”1 The freeway would run through Rondo, Zimmerman explained. The area “contains 1,400 families whose homes will be taken and, involved also, is the complication of 700 of these being owned by Negro families where we have the additional racial problem to solve.”2 Zimmerman did not define the problem in that memo, but correspondence Governor Freeman received in the following months, like this letter from the NAACP, made matters clear: 

A letter from Highway Commissioner L.P. Zimmerman to Governor Orville Freeman discussing the “racial problem.” Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

“I am…sure that the State Highway Department did not consider the relocation problems confronting these [Black] people. The discriminatory practices of certain groups have these persons confined to only seek relocation in the fringe areas of the so-called ghetto. Prices in the fringe areas have gone up in anticipation of frantic buying, and these persons affected by the freeway are caught up in this vicious vice.” 

And it’s not like this was unknown outside the Black community.  The issue was covered extensively in the Star Tribune.3 An article from September 1958 quoted the director of the Minneapolis Urban League, who said “There’s an acute housing shortage for Negroes in the city simply because housing is about the only commodity a Negro can’t buy on an open market.” Organizations like The Urban League, the NAACP, and other advocates for racial equality sought to address the problem by creating open housing. 

But What is Open Housing?

Open housing refers to the goal of a unitary housing market in which a person’s background (as opposed to financial resources) does not arbitrarily restrict access. That any citizen, regardless of race, religion, or national origin are entitled to available housing.  There were two strategies to pursue the goal of open housing: 1) build new housing that was available to all buyers; and 2) pass open housing laws at the local, state, and national levels that would prohibit racial discrimination in housing. But, building new open housing was incredibly difficult and rarely successful. Nationally, an estimated 8,000 open housing units had been built between 1946 and 1955, out of a total of over 10 million housing units overall.4

Open Housing in Minnesota

A group standing in front of the newly built Tilsenbuilt homes in Minneapolis. Courtesy of the St. Paul Recorder.

In 1958, the Minneapolis Star reported that an estimated 2% of new housing units (about 20,000) were available to people of color nationally. In Minneapolis, Black entrepreneur Archie Givens recruited developer Edward Tilsen in 1954 to build some of the nation’s first privately developed open housing in the entire United States. Forty-four of these Tilsenbuilt homes were built on scattered sites throughout South Minneapolis between 33rd Street and 46th Street primarily along with Clinton, 3rd, 4th, and 5th avenues. About 90% of them were purchased by Black buyers. In 1954, the Minneapolis Spokesman described Tilsenbulit homes as “one of the most important housing programs affecting the Negro community in the history of Minneapolis.” Projects like the Minneapolis Tilsenbuilt homes were rare. A national survey of open housing projects in 1960 found that space for open housing developments was hard to find, due to opposition from white-dominated communities.  Developers had difficulty finding financing and had to resort to not telling lenders that the development would be open to all potential buyers. Moreover, attracting residents could sometimes be difficult due to distrust from prospective Black residents and fear of potential white residents. 

The second path to open housing was creating laws that would prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of race. This issue remained in the news in the late 1950s as the NAACP and Urban League pressed local officials and the Hennepin County Board of Realtors to support the passage of such laws.

Cities Resisted…

In 1956 in St. Paul, the NAACP formed a committee to support an open housing ordinance. Passage of an ordinance was critical, the NAACP believed because so many Black people were about to be displaced by urban renewal and freeway construction projects. However, both of the Twin Cities resisted.5 In 1957, the Minneapolis City Attorney, Charles A. Sawyer declared such laws unconstitutional because they interfered with the rights of individuals to buy, sell, and rent the property as they saw fit.6 Two years later, the St. Paul City Attorney reached the same conclusion: the proposed ordinance would be unconstitutional. Neither seemed to have considered the rights denied to people of color to live wherever they chose. 

A snapshot of an article from the Star Tribune about the resistance to open occupancy, published in February 1958. Courtesy of the Star Tribune.

State Legislators Divided on Open Occupancy 

Statewide, elected officials were divided on the question of open housing. In 1957, the Minnesota state legislature declared that discrimination based on race, color, creed, religion, national origin, or ancestry was a state concern because it eroded the foundations of democracy.  It declared the opportunity to buy, acquire, lease, and occupy housing to be a civil right  And it created a commission to study the problem, composed of five members of the house, and five members of the senate. Over the next two years, the commission heard testimony, studied anti-discrimination laws in other states, and drafted an anti-housing discrimination law for Minnesota, based on one that had been recently passed in New York State. In its final report published in 1959, the members of the Legislative Interim Commission on Housing Discrimination and Segregation Practices all agreed that public education was needed to end discrimination and encouraged school systems and the State Board of Education to develop programs on human relations. 

The Commissioners failed to reach an agreement on the need for legislation. Five of them voted against it, four voted for it, and one abstained. The five who voted against it wrote in the report that “Much of the present friction in housing can be avoided if the negro people can recognize the need for, and actually practice great patience. The solution to so complex a problem as discrimination in housing is not easy, nor can it take place overnight. Attempts at a quick and easy solution to the problems are likely to bring suffering to the entire community, negro, and white alike.”  Off the record, one of the commission members referred to open housing laws as “communist doctrine.” Governor Freeman, who knew about the “racial problem” of freeway construction, failed to advocate for the solution of open housing laws by saying “I hope legislation in this field won’t be necessary,” in a speech to suburban officials in 1958. “You all know I’m against segregation.” But, instead of passing laws, political leaders hoped educational materials like this pamphlet would win the hearts and minds of white Minnesotans with appeals to their sense of morals, their belief in the American dream, and their respect for the US constitution. 

A room full of individuals who attended a hearing on open occupancy in 1959. Courtesy of the St. Paul Dispatch

Finally, a State Law…

In 1962, Minnesota passed the Fair Housing Law. This prohibited discrimination based on color, race, creed, religion, or national origin in real estate transactions involving owners, real estate agents, brokers, banks, and salesman. However, there were two critical loopholes to the law. The first one exempted rentals where part of the dwelling was owner-occupied. The second exempted the sale of privately owned single-family homes without government financings, such as mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration or the Veterans Administration. Open housing advocates estimated that 60%-75% of the single-family housing market was exempt from the law. Not surprisingly, most of those single-family homes that were publicly assisted–supported by federally-backed mortgage programs offered through Federal Housing Administration or the Veterans Administration–were being built in the suburbs since 1945, so the single-family dwellings that were located in Minneapolis and the area around the freeway were likely not protected from discrimination under the 1962 law.

Individuals protesting against housing discrimination. Courtesy of City of Seattle Archives.

Then, in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the national “Fair Housing Act of 1968” into law. The purpose of this act was to expressly ban many of the public actions and private practices that had evolved over the years to deny black people access to housing. This act also outlawed the refusal to rent or sell to someone because of race; it prohibited racial discrimination in the terms and conditions of rental or sale; it barred discrimination in real estate advertising; it banned agents from making untrue statements about a dwelling’s availability in order to deny access to blacks, and it enjoined real estate agents from making comments about the race of neighbors or in-movers in order to promote panic selling. Unlike the Minnesota law, there were no exemptions. Seen as a catalyst for progress, the Fair Housing Act was supposed to end housing discrimination altogether. Yet, think about the neighborhoods in which you live. Even though it has been a little over 50 years since the Fair Housing Act, are the problems housing discrimination that the act of 1968 was trying to mend still at work clandestinely and remain in the patchwork of our cities?

Were you or someone you know displaced by the freeway and had to seek housing elsewhere? 

Connect with us here: ___________

Who was Displaced and Where did they go?

Residents who lived along the path of 35W in South Minneapolis lost their homes, were displaced from their neighborhoods, and had their lives interrupted, or worse. Memories of the gaping slash of a dusty construction site where houses once stood, and remnants of the lives that were impacted by the freeway, faded away and were replaced with the buzz of traffic when the freeway opened in 1968. The goal of A Public History of 35W is to understand the freeway from a community perspective. The freeway’s construction required the Minnesota Highway Department to condemn or purchase nearly 1,000 properties in South Minneapolis, most of them residential–apartments and single-family homes. Exactly how many people were displaced by its construction is still unknown. 

Minnesota Department of Transportation Map that highlights the freeways right of way path.
Top photo shows the map in its entirety, courtesy of MnDOT.

Historical Context of Freeways

A closeup of the MnDOT map showing each housing lot and respective number associated with the address.

During the era of post-WWII American prosperity, cities began unveiling plans for a new interstate highway system that would connect cities and suburbs like never before. It is now well known that freeway planners deliberately chose to route this massive transportation network through neighborhoods where low-income residents and people of color lived in cities across the country.1 They reasoned that land would be cheaper in these communities, residents would have fewer resources and political power to fight back, and demolishing their homes would effectively eliminate “blight.” It was estimated that by the mid-1960s, freeway construction in the United States would “displace a million people from their homes before it was completed.”2 By choosing to have the interstates rip through places that policymakers and highway engineers labeled as insignificant, entire vibrant communities were destroyed or flattened. Much like other areas of the country, the old Southside, home to a thriving Black middle-class community in Minneapolis, was one of these neighborhoods.

An example of what is shown on a Minneapolis city directory.

Determining who was most directly affected by the freeway’s construction, and how they were affected, is an important step in our project. Questions we hope to answer are: 

  • What was it like to be displaced by the construction?
  • How has it been to live adjacent to the freeway for the past 50 years? 
  • How has 35W changed the neighborhood?  
  • And, most especially, how has it impacted Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities in ways that might be similar to or different from white residents? 

The Scope of the Records

We began with a map from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that depicts 35W’s “right of way,” the path it carved through South Minneapolis neighborhoods. Over seven feet in length, the map includes the names of every property owner in its margins. This is a good start but the map doesn’t indicate the addresses of the homes or the names of everyone who lived at that location. 

A section of the names and addresses in the Minneapolis City Directory.

Next, we turned to cross-referencing the 1958 Minneapolis City Directory, which gives the names of heads of households along 2nd Avenue South and Stevens Avenue along the path of the freeway. We matched the heads of households listed on the map with addresses listed on the directory. Older directories in many cities like Minneapolis were formatted in two ways: 1) with names and addresses listed alphabetically; and 2) with addresses listed sequentially down each street, showing who lived house by house, block by block. We used the second format to examine who lived on the even-numbered side of Second Avenue South and the odd-numbered side of Stevens Avenue. Once a name and address is found, we enter it into our database.

Connecting the Records

The opening interface of, where we attempt to find past residents that were in the freeways right of way path.

Using the names and addresses, we next refer to census records (specifically, the 1930 and 1940 census), access through The census provides demographic information including birth date, race, occupation, spouse, family members, or possible descendants if they owned their home and its value. Other records that surface on are from, which provide accurate birth and death dates, as well as the location and photograph of where the individual is buried. 3 The process is complicated and time-consuming, and numerous challenges arise when searching for properties that were demolished long ago.

A comprehensive database that includes information we have collected from the MnDOT map, the city directories, and the census.

A screenshot from showing what comes up from a general search.

For example, there is a gap in time between 1957, when the freeway was being constructed and people were forced to move, and when we can locate them in the census (1930 or 1940). 4 Since there is a 20-year gap, it can be difficult to track someone if they have moved or died… Another challenge of searching for people in the census is confusion with common names. Since the search parameters are broad and grow considerably when there is no specific address associated with them (when we cannot find them in the directories), the number of possible people that come up in the census broadens and it becomes difficult to pinpoint an exact person. Additionally, City directories are an important source, but they only list the head of household that lived at each address. They don’t enable us to know everyone who lived in a house, which would be necessary to determine the total number of people displaced by the freeway; only an estimated number of residents is possible. 

Once an individual is found on, here is one example of the multitude of records that have been collected and are conveniently in one place.

Of course, an accurate number and information from every single person that was displaced by the 35W freeway would help our team answer the questions that drive this project. A next step, which we haven’t started yet, is to determine where people relocated after they were displaced by the freeway. We plan to use city and suburban directories for 1965, searching for people by their last names.

We know generally that people of color, due to racism in real estate and lending practices–such as redlining and racial covenant–had fewer options than white people in terms of where they could move. So we will be looking closely for these types of racial disparities in residential mobility.

An example of what the actual census record looks like, the highlighted portion is one of the freeway residents.

Next Steps…

Another classified found where freeway families that were displaced were looking for homes.

Locating individuals that were displaced by the freeway is a large part of the city’s history and in many ways the country’s history in this period. Understanding this process from a human perspective can show us what life was like for those people who lived through this period. More specifically, today the city of Minneapolis has the highest racial disparity in homeownership rates between Black and white residents of any city in the county. This isn’t natural and is not happenstance. There is a reason for this, and we think that freeway construction may be one of those reasons. We believe that racial justice and equity are at stake in this research, and we believe everyone should care.   

A snippet, courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, of freeway families advertising the need of homes in the classifieds.

The database, maps, and other community stories will be featured in an A Public History of 35W exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum, set to open late summer/early fall of 2021. Additionally, and on a more granular level, we hope we can find the eventual landing places of as many different families as possible by continuing this research. Data that is collected could inform people of where their families have been, and reclaim a sense of community that was taken away by the freeway. Tracing thousands of people who lost their homes and their community shows how freeways, that were meant to unite the nation, became tools of displacement and trauma. 

Think you might have a connection with someone who was displaced? Here you can find their name. 

Have a story or information to share? Please connect with us here.

35W Timeline