Dateline Minneapolis: From ugly history, fresh lessons

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2011 - 3:07 PM

A stand against discrimination 80 years ago turns into a springboard for current discussions.

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A marker at the site of Arthur and Edith Lee’s house on Columbus Avenue in south Minneapolis commemorates their fight to stay in the neighborhood.

Photo: Steve Brandt, Star Tribune

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The recent commemoration of the 1931 stand by Arthur and Edith Lee on behalf of fair housing in Minneapolis looked mostly backward at that landmark event 80 years ago.

But it also can serve as a springboard for more dialogue about local race relations in the 21st century. More on that in a few paragraphs.

To recap, the Lees bought a modest white-clapboarded house that year at 4600 Columbus Av. S., making them the first blacks in an all-white neighborhood. They got a hostile reception as crowds trying to force them out swelled to an estimated 3,000 people. The Lees were physically defended initially by Arthur Lee's fellow World War I veterans and postal workers. But eventually the family left, after a year of resisting the pressure that included broken windows and poisoning the family dog. They felt they'd made their point.

About 440 people marched two weeks ago from nearby Field Community School to the former Lee home to dedicate a marker. Pearl Lindstrom, who now owns the house, watched the commemoration from her porch, sporting a corsage. The marker's stone plinth recaps the events of 1931, while a facial portrait of Lee laser-cut from a steel plate contains his pointed rejoinder to those who sought to evict him:

"Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home."

Particularly moving were the remarks given by the Lees' grandson, Robert Forman. He noted that he didn't hear the full story of what his grandparents went through until he was 40 years old and his aging mother related it to an interviewer.

Protecting younger black generations from the full ugliness of some aspects of our racial history was not uncommon, we've learned. I recently interviewed a woman who had grown up knowing the Lees as neighbors in the more heavily black Central neighborhood, where they subsequently moved.

She described her amazement that this quiet elderly couple had been the center of such a firestorm. She also learned that within her own family the lynching of a relative in Alabama was not openly discussed, in part to avoid poisoning the racial views of those who grew up in more enlightened times.

The decisions about what portions of painful black family histories to disclose are an undercurrent in the memoir published last year by Minneapolis native Michele Norris, co-host of "All Things Considered'' on National Public Radio. Her family's move to a white block a few blocks from where the Lees tried to live, 30 years after that episode, prompted no angry mobs. Instead, the neighbors one by one put their houses up for sale until virtually the whole 4800 block of Oakland Avenue S. had turned over.

Norris was born soon after that move. She grew up to graduate from Washburn High School. Not until she was an adult did she learn some of her own family's racial heritage. There was the shooting of her late father, Belvin Norris Jr., by a Birmingham, Ala., police officer weeks after he ended his World War II service. Or the stint by her grandmother, Alexandria, Minn., native Ione Brown, as a traveling Aunt Jemima on behalf of Quaker Oats.

Norris reflects on her parents' silence on such topics in her book, "The Grace of Silence.'' Due out in September in paperback, it has been chosen for the One Minneapolis, One Read project. It's an effort to use the Norris memoir to bring out in conversation the often unspoken undercurrents of racial experiences and assumptions.

The idea for such a community read comes from Building Bridges, a cross-racial series of conversations and community projects fostered by Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. One of those involved is Norris' aunt, Doris Christopher.

Glidden was troubled by the sometimes racially polarized aspects of a community debate over a dog park in Martin Luther King Park. Now people can participate in several of ways. Norris will come to Minneapolis on Oct. 3 to speak. People can read the book in book groups, or as block clubs, or classrooms, for example.

More information is available on the city's website by searching under One Minneapolis, One Read. Or interested people may learn more by sending an e-mail to oneread@minneapolismn.gov.

Third Ward's revolving door

Council Member Diane Hofstede's office door has seen its 25th staff member head out for good. That's the number of people who have left the troubled two-staffer office in Hofstede's 5 1/2 years as Third Ward representative. The latest resigning aide lasted almost seven months after Hofstede introduced him in an e-mail to colleagues as a "high caliber employee."

The going gets tough

The 95-degree temperatures led organizers to postpone the annual pre-Aquatennial Torchlight Parade 5K race last month, but local politicians -- at least those not connected with the state government shutdown -- turned out as usual for the parade.

Maybe the heat had salutary benefits. After watching one boatload of portly pols roll down Hennepin Avenue, my wife observed that a lot of them looked like they could stand to lose at least 10 pounds.

The City Council also had a float, with eight hand-waving members despite the heat. Newlywed Betsy Hodges had an excused absence for her honeymoon.

The heat didn't seem to bother peripatetic Mayor R.T. Rybak, who not only walked the route with his teal-shirted supporters, but could be spotted getting down to the beat of the Sabathanites drum corps.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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