Site of racial showdown in Minneapolis heading to National Register

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2014 - 1:41 PM

Site of racial showdown in Minneapolis is heading to the National Register.

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Pearl Lindstrom lives in the Columbus Avenue house where Art and Edith Lee, a black couple, took a stand in the 1930s and held out as mobs of thousands tried to force them out.

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII • rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com,

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A modest white craftsman house at 46th and Columbus in south Minneapolis had a largely forgotten history as a flash point in a remarkable racial showdown eight decades ago.

Now that house is officially a history lesson.

The former home of Arthur and Edith Lee is being added to the National Register of Historic Places this month, only the second such designation for a Minneapolis site rooted in black history.

“This is a unique property. It is a special property,” said Denis Gardner, national register historian for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Arthur and Edith Lee bought the corner house in 1931, the lone black couple in an all-white neighborhood. Mobs that sometimes swelled to thousands of people surrounded the home to intimidate and force out the couple and their young daughter, who was 6 at the time.

But the Lees dug in. Arthur Lee’s fellow World War I veterans and postal workers turned out in force to protect the couple, and police protected the house for more than a year.

The Lees endured the hostility for about two years, before moving a mile north to the historically black Central neighborhood. Then the clash faded into history.

The story remained only as lore among south Minneapolis black families until the 2001 publication of research by law Prof. Ann Juergens. Her work focused on a longtime local NAACP leader who represented the Lees during those tense times.

Once the Lees’ story resurfaced, it touched off a decadelong effort to preserve the story and the house.

The story inspired a state-champion history project, a puppet show and an upcoming exhibit on the Lees’ struggle and parallels to race relations in modern times. Neighbors placed a memorial marker at the corner of the property.

“It was a sad situation, very sad,” said Pearl Lindstrom, a 92-year-old widow who has owned the house for decades. “It’s a great thing to have it put on the register.”

Lindstrom said she always hoped the home would land on the historic register while she was still alive.

The Field Regina Northrop Neighborhood Group and students of assistant Prof. Greg Donofrio, who directs the heritage preservation program at the University of Minnesota, began working to secure the historic designation.

Donofrio’s students conducted research and oral interviews that are being displayed in an exhibit opening at the university on Aug. 22 called, “A Right to Establish a Home.”

“This question of how racism has changed, if it has, is a very important question, and this exhibit allows us to talk about that,” Donofrio said.

The effort to honor the home and its history highlights that racial hostility remains an issue in the community.

Stearline Rucker, former president of the neighborhood group who led the push to recognize the legacy of the Lee house, recalled being told 32 years ago not to reveal her identity to the woman selling her house out of fear the owners might not sell to a person of color.

At the closing, Rucker said she sensed that her race was an issue. “The only thing she said to me was, ‘Could you please take care of our home?’ ”

Rucker worked with others, such as Parkway Theater and Pepito’s restaurant owner Joe Senkyr-Minjares, to create a stone and metal memorial featuring Arthur Lee’s profile and words to be placed on the property.

The 2011 dedication of the memorial drew about 440 people, who marched from nearby Field school to the Lee house. At the time, the Lees’ grandson Robert Forman spoke about not learning the full account of what happened until he was 40 years old.

The Lees’ story continues to reverberate around the city and has sparked a new look at other historic black landmarks.

Greg Poferl began teaching history at Cretin-Derham Hall and taught the Lee incident in class.

Last spring, two of his students, Molly Hynes and Emily Voigt, took first place among high school students at the state History Day competition for their exhibit on the Lees and also spent a day during the national competition sharing the Lees’ story at the National Museum of American History.

“In history books we didn’t learn about racism in the North,” Hynes said. “It just surprised me and shocked me.”

The only other such Minneapolis site on the national register is the Bryant neighborhood home of Lena O. Smith, the attorney and civil rights leader who represented the Lees in the uproar when they moved into their home.

Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden is determined to change that.

Work is now underway to build the case for local heritage preservation designation for the office of the 80-year-old Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, which bills itself as the state’s oldest minority-owned business.

The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission Tuesday ordered a study to see if the building is worthy of historic designation.

Glidden is now seeking suggestions for other sites associated with local black history that could be worthy of locally or national recognition.

The story of the Lee home has highlighted another reality for local advocates — Minneapolis knows very little about significant landmarks in the black community.

“We really need to people out there to tell us, ‘These are properties that are intimately connected with the African-American community,’” said Gardner, the historian for the Minnesota Historical Society.

 

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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