There were signs outside the Mankato house saying there was a room for rent, but when the Mankato State College student knocked on the door in 1967, he was told there was no vacancy.

The same thing happened at a second residence where he applied.

The student, who was black, asked a white friend to go to the two residences and ask if they would rent to him. Both still had their vacancy signs up and his friend was told they were still available for rent.

“You get desensitized to racist behavior,” said William Finney, the Mankato student. Finney later became St. Paul’s first black police chief, from 1992 to 2004.

With a new generation challenging racial bias and this being Black History Month, some older black people shared examples of discrimination they faced in the past. They told stories of discrimination in jobs, accommodations, education and housing.

“By Minnesota state statute there couldn’t be any segregated facilities,” said David Taylor, former dean of the general college at the University of Minnesota. “Discrimination was overt and subtle.”

Black schoolteachers were rare or nonexistent. “In childhood, I didn’t have one male black teacher role model until I was in the seventh grade,” he said.

Many jobs were off limits. Taylor said he and his brother were hired in 1958 as carryout boys at an Applebaum’s grocery store on University Avenue in St. Paul, the first black residents to hold that job locally.

Some restaurants did not serve blacks. He visited a diner near Applebaum’s, but a waitress ignored him, never took his order, and he finally left.

Fair Housing Act

In 1969, Harry Davis Jr. saw a newspaper ad offering a one-bedroom apartment in south Minneapolis.

But when he applied in person, he was told it was rented. Davis called the number in the ad two days later and was told the apartment was available. Davis filed a complaint and the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department found the landlord guilty of housing bias.

Josie Johnson was the key lobbyist who got the state Fair Housing Act passed in 1962.

In June of ’62, she and her husband found a house to buy near Lake of the Isles. The owners hosted the Johnson family for an afternoon visit.

Early the next morning, she got a call from the owner, saying she was selling to another buyer who offered her more money.

“We thought, ‘Isn’t this ironic,’ ” said Johnson. The Fair Housing law did not apply because she couldn’t prove discrimination, she said.

Ron Edwards is a longtime local civil rights activist. Edwards says he was 19 in 1958 when he applied for a job as a cleaner at Northwest Airlines, where word had it that job applications from black candidates were routinely torn up.

Edwards visited the airline’s office in St. Paul. “A white woman was sitting there. I asked her for an application. She gave me an application, I made it out and left.” Edwards waited a few minutes, then came back on the pretext he needed to check something on the application.

“She looked funny, her face got red,” he said. “I was standing next to her desk. I looked down and there was my application in the waste paper basket.”

 

randy.furst@startribune.com

612-673-4224