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Whiplash: A brief history of Minneapolis as a great city for white people

Police and national guardsmen patrolled Plymouth Av.at Morgan on a July night in 1967.

Police and national guardsmen patrolled Plymouth Av.at Morgan on a July night in 1967. Earl Seubert, Minneapolis Star Tribune

The following is excerpted from Tom Weber’s Minneapolis: An Urban Biography, published June 1 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

I.

The euphoria was still there on Friday, October 30, 1987.

Five days earlier, the Minnesota Twins had won baseball’s World Series. A massive parade—the biggest since a ticker-tape parade for President Harry Truman in 1948—drew two hundred thousand in Minneapolis, then another two hundred thousand when it moved to St. Paul. Many fans and players waved their Homer Hankies, which had debuted during the playoffs and were already becoming iconic memorabilia.

After the dynastic Minneapolis Lakers basketball team defected to Los Angeles in 1960, the arrival in 1961 of both baseball’s Twins and football’s Vikings kept valid—and even boosted—the region’s claim as a big-league market for professional sports. Hockey’s North Stars arrived in 1967. Unlike the Lakers of yore, none of these teams had won a championship. Until now.

But on that Friday morning, a very small group of people in the state were turning their focus away from the Twins. They were thinking about a vigil that would happen that evening and a ceremony the next morning, 125 years in the making. In the winter of 1862–63, about sixteen hundred Dakota women, children, and elders were held at a concentration camp near Fort Snelling to await expulsion after the six-week US–Dakota War.

Arthur and Edith Lee hired Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota’s first Black woman lawyer, to defend their right to own a home in south Minneapolis.

Arthur and Edith Lee hired Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota’s first Black woman lawyer, to defend their right to own a home in south Minneapolis.

Hundreds of them died there, mostly from measles and other diseases. The camp stood steps from the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, which is a sacred place of creation for many of the Dakota, who call it Bdote.

These Dakota were imprisoned within sight of what they considered the center of Earth and of all things, their most revered spot on the planet. One of Chris Cavender’s ancestors, Haza Wiŋ (Blueberry Woman), had been a prisoner. He spoke at the vigil, held on the same floodplain where the camp once stood: a wooded area next to a parking lot in what was now a state park.

As elders spoke, the fort loomed atop the nearby ridge and planes passed overhead, heading to and from the nearby international airport. The names of those held at the camp were read aloud; drummers closed with honor songs. The event wasn’t universally heralded among Dakota people.

“Unless there are reparations, what’s the point?” asked one descendent of the leader Little Crow who didn’t attend. But for those who did, it was important that the state was acknowledging that this had happened— tangible evidence, Cavender said at the time, “that the Dakota were people, that they were human beings with feelings and dignity.”

During the same week in October 1987, two locations fewer than ten miles apart had hosted one of the area’s brightest and most unifying events, while also marking one of its darkest chapters. Governor Rudy Perpich had previously declared 1987 a Year of Reconciliation in remembering the US–Dakota War.

Cavender, who has since taken the Dakota name Chris Mato Nunpa, reflected years later that no real reconciliation happened: “Justice also has to happen before we can talk about reconciliation. And that means economic justice, including payments for treaties that still haven’t been paid.”

St. Paul mayor George Latimer was probably more accurate when he said 1987 would be remembered as “the year the Twins stole the heart of every Minnesotan.”

This is the whiplash of Minneapolis’s story. Each month brings a bevy of accolades, lauding Minneapolis as one of the nation’s greenest, healthiest, most literate, LGBTQIA+-friendly, bike-friendly, dog-friendly cities. We have the best parks, and the best music, food, and beer scenes.

It’s one of the best places to live—a wellkept secret, really. And have you seen our awesome airport?

The same month also brings the latest evidence of how unaffordable the city’s housing is; how unwelcoming it can be to newcomers; and how crippling the disparities are when you measure these things by race. Minneapolis is home to some of the largest—sometimes the largest—gaps between how healthy or academically successful white people are compared to black, brown, and Indigenous peoples. A lower percentage of African Americans own homes in the Twin Cities than in any metro area in the country.

This whiplash was baked into Minneapolis since before its founding in 1867. No state seemed more behind preserving the Union and ending slavery in 1860, when Minnesotans cast the second-highest percentage of votes for Abraham Lincoln than voters in any other state. It was the first state to volunteer soldiers to the Union effort when the Civil War started. Then, a year later, Minnesota’s concentration camp was built, followed by the expulsion of all Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples.

In 1909, with slavery abolished and Minneapolis on the right side of history, a race riot started by whites in Prospect Park signaled the beginning of a new generation of real estate contracts that kept people of color from buying homes.

Minneapolis exists where it does because of St. Anthony Falls. The Dakota call it Owamniyomni. The falls—now cloaked in a concrete apron, a whiplash of a different kind—fueled industries that separated the city from any other between Chicago and Seattle. The timber and flour industries provided markets and jobs for farmers, lumberjacks, and laborers throughout the Upper Midwest.

The Minneapolis whiplash exists here, where Pillsburys and Washburns made their fortunes and built corporate industrial giants that created offshoot markets for prosthetic limb businesses because so many people lost body parts on the job. A mile downriver, the immigrants who lived in the flood-prone Bohemian Flats fed themselves, in part, by snagging floating fruit discarded upstream.

Even the river is part of the whiplash: it was a crucial part of the city’s growth and success, until it wasn’t. So we turned our backs on the river, until we didn’t.

Before white settlers renamed St. Anthony Falls, Dakota knew the river falls as Owamniyomni.

Before white settlers renamed St. Anthony Falls, Dakota knew the river falls as Owamniyomni.

Minneapolis has a history of collapses and rebuilding. Some collapses were real, as when the falls were nearly destroyed; others were metaphoric, as when corruption and the mob threatened to overtake the city’s workings until a progressive movement was born and, later, a young mayor named Humphrey did something different.

And yet, even as we always have rebuilt, it’s worth asking who was in charge of rebuilding—who was left in and left out, and how did those decisions leave us with the whiplash we have today.

For Minneapolitans seeking solutions to these inequities and disparities, to ignore the city’s history of discrimination, racism, and inequality is to condemn such an effort to failure.

II.

The city’s elite initially built their mansions downtown. As Minneapolis grew, posh residents moved farther from the core—a common trend in cities at the time. In general, much of the working class went north and northeast as well as to near south and south-central neighborhoods, remaining close to jobs on the riverfront; the rich went farther south and southwest.

Park Avenue became known as a Golden Mile with thirty-six large mansions. Another hub for the wealthy was Lowry Hill. Later, more desirable places to live were developed near Minneapolis’s southwestern lakes—Lake of the Isles, Harriet, and Bde Maka Ska (then known as Calhoun).

State lawmakers created the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board on the same day in 1883 they expanded the city’s borders to include these lakes, as well as Lakes Nokomis and Hiawatha. The areas were swampy; Lake of the Isles wasn’t part of early park plans because of the muck. But the well-off were quickly attracted to these spots—even Lake of the Isles, thanks to a massive dredging effort in the early 1900s.

Before they built auspicious mansions around the lakes in south Minneapolis, many of the city’s rich lived downtown.

Before they built auspicious mansions around the lakes in south Minneapolis, many of the city’s rich lived downtown.

There’s a reason Minneapolis’s southwest neighborhoods have always been the toniest—and the whitest: the city’s white elite created some of them that way, and residents in others worked to make or keep them white.

In 1909, a black man, Rev. William Malone, bought a home in the Linden Hills neighborhood, at 4441 Zenith Avenue South. Neighbors said that the owner, upset at them over a court case, had listed the house out of spite “for sale to negroes only.”

The enraged neighbors hired a black attorney to fight the sale and prevent Malone from taking ownership. Someone shattered windows at the home, and a white minister preached, “black people should avoid going into a community where their presence is irritating.” The sheriff eventually found a way to seize the house, letting the owner resell it to a neighborhood organization but not to Malone.

The Minneapolis Tribune noted in apparent relief “the residents of Linden Hills have averted the establishment of a ‘dark town’ in their midst.” Malone never gained the property or the chance to pass that wealth to his descendants. The house, still there today and more than a century old, was worth more than $600,000 in 2020.

By 1940, the thirteen other African American residents of the Linden Hills neighborhood were gone. This incident of racism in Linden Hills happened the same year as a “race war” in Prospect Park, a leafy neighborhood not far from the University of Minnesota.

Madison and Amy Jackson bought a home there, and with their encouragement, Madison’s friend and coworker William Simpson bought land on nearby Melbourne Avenue to build a house. The thought of two black families was too much for neighbors, and 125 of them marched to the Jacksons’ house on October 21, 1909, to read a prepared statement.

“We are not here to argue,” the letter read, “but to make a perfectly plain statement of our position in the matter, to wit, that we do not want you.” Simpson later told a reporter he only wished to be left alone to spend his savings—about $3,400—on construction. He made no demands for social equity and didn’t think any other black families would move into the neighborhood.

Police arrested a demonstrator on Plymouth Av. July 4, 1976

Police arrested a demonstrator on Plymouth Av. July 4, 1976

The Simpsons lived there into the 1920s. Their former home still stands on the property in 2020, valued at more than $350,000.

In 1910, the year following these two incidents, the first racial restriction was written into a contract for a home sold in Minneapolis. In 1917, the US Supreme Court said governments couldn’t pass laws restricting property sales to certain groups of people.

But covenants were written into private real estate contracts. The court allowed them in a 1926 ruling. Covenants would be added to tens of thousands of deeds across Hennepin County. Minneapolis didn’t need explicit Jim Crow laws like the South’s to keep out blacks. Contractual tools and other informal practices achieved the same outcomes.

III.

The lack of any formal laws to allow discrimination—in fact, the presence of several antidiscrimination laws—shows the gap between how life is governed by laws and how life is lived in practice. It was a daily decision by real estate developers to add covenants to deeds to prevent certain people from being able to buy a house. It was a daily decision by restaurant owners to ignore laws requiring them to serve black customers, just as it was a daily decision by black customers to not even try to be served.

The University of Minnesota had no official policy to exclude black students from living in the dorms, but they were regularly rejected— and even removed. One student, John Pinkett Jr., was removed from Pioneer Hall after one night in the dorm; this suggests he had been placed there without anyone knowing his race.

The Phyllis Wheatley House in Near North became a boardinghouse for black students who couldn’t stay in dorms. While welcoming, it was also several miles from campus—a significant commute. In a letter to Pinkett’s father, University of Minnesota president Lotus Coffman noted it was “common sense”—not any formal policy—that called for segregation: “The races have never lived together, nor have they ever sought to live together,” he wrote.

The same year Pinkett was kicked out of his dorm, 1931, a bungalow at 4600 Columbus Avenue South in the Field neighborhood of South Minneapolis caught the eye of the Lee family. The selling point was two bedrooms on one floor; perfect for Arthur, Edith, and six-year-old Mary.

When neighbors discovered the Lees were black, a routine common in cities across the country unfolded: the neighborhood association offered to buy the house for more than the Lees had paid, just to get them out. They declined. From there, over several nights, growing crowds stood outside the house to hurl threats like “Burn them out!” The mob soon reached several thousand while police largely stood by. Garbage and human excrement were thrown in the front yard. The crowds were so predictable, night after hot summer night, that enterprising vendors came to sell refreshments and ice cream.

The Lees received legal help from Lena Olive Smith, the first black woman to be a licensed lawyer in Minnesota, and the only one until 1945. She also helped found the Minneapolis Urban League and was later the first woman to be president of the Minneapolis NAACP.

In representing the Lees, Smith worked for several months to protect the family’s right to stay in their home—even as the crowds returned. The family hadn’t broken any laws, only a taboo. The Lees moved into a black neighborhood a few years later. Their home, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was valued at more than $225,000 in 2020.

IV.

In 1950, Minneapolis reached a pinnacle. In that year’s federal census, the city’s population was 521,718. It’s the highest-recorded population in Minneapolis history and the only time a census put the city over the half-million mark.

From there, the city’s population started a decades-long decline, thanks to the postwar movement of people into the suburbs and out of the Midwest in general. Minnesota was the eighteenth most populous state in 1950; it fell to twenty-first by 2010.

It’s also hard to comprehend how white the city was in 1950: an incredible 98.4 percent. Fewer than eighty-five hundred people in Minneapolis listed their race as Black, American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, or Other. That has gradually changed. In 2010, the census tallied Minneapolis’s white population at 63.8 percent.

In 1953, Minnesota banned discriminatory housing covenants. The state passed housing antidiscrimination laws nine years later, and the federal government followed suit in 1968. But as historian Kirsten Delegard notes, “By the time that covenants were made illegal, the damage was already done. Covenants made it difficult for African Americans to secure stable and affordable housing, which affected the health, educational opportunities and job prospects of generations of residents.”

One indication of the challenge of changing hearts and minds is a 1947 report from the Governor’s Interracial Commission of Minnesota that found 60 percent of white people favored segregation. In addition, 63 percent said they would not sell their property to a black person, even for a higher price.

V.

The same New Deal program that created redlining—the boxing out of certain urban neighborhoods where federal backing for housing loans was routinely denied—also had helped subsidize the growth of suburbs before the war. Those developments won those subsidies only if the homes were sold to white families and included covenants that prohibited future sale to blacks.

Federal housing loans made to returning veterans followed the same practices. As the growth of suburbs took off after the war, these barriers only compounded the whiteness of new communities built outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul. After peaking in the 1950 census, Minneapolis’s population began a four-decade decline.

The overall loss of eighty-seven thousand people from 1950 to 1970 masks the fact that nearly 107,000 white people left the city during that time.

VI.

There had been a time when north Minneapolis was a hub of black business and economic activity—not available to African Americans elsewhere in the city. At one point in 1937 it was so chock-full of pedestrians that the black-owned Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper compared the stretch to Beale Street in Memphis. “The most famous corner on Sixth Avenue North is the Lyndale Avenue corner where for years the colored people of that section have congregated.”

Sixth Avenue North later became Olson Memorial Highway, named for Governor Floyd Olson, who was born on the north side and later died in office. When it was widened into a highway in the late 1930s, it cut Near North in half. Gone was the pedestrian ambiance and community feel.

After the war, housing discrimination against Jews eased, and Jewish families started moving to the suburbs, but many maintained their businesses in north Minneapolis. Some former neighbors resented this racial inequity. After a few incidents of looting in August 1966, Mayor Arthur Naftalin—a former aide to, and protégé of, Hubert Humphrey, and also the city’s first Jewish mayor—met with leaders of the black community and acknowledged the lack of opportunities.

He reached out to his network for help, and across the city some jobs opened for blacks. At the community’s demand, a center called The Way devoted to empowering young black people was established in an empty storefront on Plymouth Avenue.

But by the next summer, the promised progress had stalled. On July 19, an argument broke out during Minneapolis’s Aquatennial Torchlight Parade, which led to accusations that a black woman had been mistreated. As a crowd of African Americans walking up from the parade site converged on Plymouth Avenue, violence erupted.

Someone set the Knox Food Market, a Jewish-owned business, on fire, and someone threw Molotov cocktails at the home of the local alderman.

Harry Davis, a well-respected leader in the black community, and Josie Johnson, then an adviser to the mayor, encouraged Naftalin not to have the police sweep the street. The National Guard was called in to maintain order but also to be a calmer force than the city’s own cops, many of whom wanted to take a harder line.

After sporadic incidents the second night, a peaceful dance held at The Way helped calm the neighborhood enough to end the unrest. No one died, but several people were injured and several businesses, many Jewish owned, were vandalized or destroyed. Minneapolis wasn’t alone; 1967 became known as the “long, hot summer” because of 159 instances of unrest that occurred in cities across the country.

Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken to students at the University of Minnesota a few months before the unrest. His words would seem prescient. “I see no more dangerous development than the build-up of central cities surrounded by white suburbs,” he noted. King had chastised his largely white audience for not being genuinely committed to the hard work of racial equality. Simply speaking out against the most racist figures in the news wasn’t enough. Legislative victories, he said, “had rectified some evils of the South, but did little to improve conditions for millions of Negroes in teeming ghettoes of the North.... I have an obligation to vigorously condemn the conditions in our society that cause people to feel they have no other alternative than to engage in self-defeating violence. Riots are the language of the unheard. Our summers of riots are caused by our winters of delay.”

Davis later led a coalition that joined business and community groups to work to address the injustices in the community. When Rev. King was assassinated in 1968, Davis and the still-new coalition worked to largely prevent the rioting that happened in other cities. Another aftermath of the summer unrest was voter backlash. When Naftalin decided not to seek reelection in 1969, Charles Stenvig used a “law and order” campaign—similar to the one George Wallace used to run for president in 1968—to win the mayorship.

Stenvig had been the bombastic head of the Minneapolis police union. He thought the police reaction should have been stronger on Plymouth Avenue, and he pledged to “take the handcuffs off the police.” Harry Davis opposed Stenvig two years later as the city’s first-ever black mayoral candidate; Davis lost.