A faith fulfilled

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2011 - 9:22 PM

Born into a Minneapolis flawed by racial intolerance, Mary Forman kept her faith in the fair-mindedness of the city and made a prophecy before she died.

Arthur and Edith Lee, Mary Forman's parents, purchase a five-room bungalow in south Minneapolis in 1931 and faced a firestorm of racial intolerance.

Photo: Forman family photo

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When Barack Obama won the presidency in November, he was boosted by 81 percent support in Minneapolis and a sweep of all the city's voting precincts.

Mary Forman didn't get to vote for Obama. The Minneapolis woman died in 2005 at age 80.

But a year before Forman died, this black elder predicted Obama's future. It's a prophecy that showed a faith in white America. That faith was all the more remarkable considering what happened to her family when Forman, then Mary Lee, was just a girl of age 6.

The sun beat down on Minneapolis in July of 1931, the second year of what would become the Great Depression. Temperatures flirted with 100 degrees. In the South Side neighborhoods that would later become Field and Regina, tempers were boiling over as well.

The discontent was precipitated by the purchase a few weeks earlier of a five-room bungalow by Forman's parents, Arthur and Edith Lee. Lee was a Minnesota native. He was also a World War I veteran. He worked as a guard at the post office. And he and his wife were black.

Their new home was at 4600 Columbus Av. S. This was a time of both written and unwritten racial dividing lines in Minneapolis. Some subdivisions contained covenants that restricted ownership only to whites, a practice not outlawed until after World War II. There were also unwritten understandings. Some remember the racial dividing line as E. 38th Street; others put it at E. 40th.

Regardless, the Lees were venturing well south of the major cluster of black settlement in south Minneapolis around Hosmer library. "I think my grandfather knew full well he was not going to be welcomed with open arms," said Robert Forman, who was told by his grandfather of the episode as Forman was approaching his early teens. Forman, now 57, said he wasn't sure at first how much of his grandfather's tale to believe. But it's verified in the microfilm of newspaper headlines that grew larger and larger as the crowds around the Lee house mushroomed.

Demonstrations began during the first week of July. Homeowners were upset that the Lees had been able to buy into their neighborhood despite a racially exclusive covenant. A committee of area residents offered Lee $5,000 for the house -- more than he had paid for it -- to move out. Lee held out, and resentment grew.

The crowds gathering around the Lee house grew to 150 on a Saturday night, and police described their demeanor as threatening. By Tuesday, the crowd grew to several hundred, some of whom stoned the house, breaking windows. Twenty-five police officers armed with shotguns were called out to protect the Lees from further violence, but not until paint was smeared on a corner.

"Nobody asked me to move out when I was fighting for this country in France," Lee told the Minneapolis Star. "I am not here to molest anybody. My family will not annoy anyone else. They can put up a high board fence between my house and the next one if they want to. All I want is my home, and I have a right to establish one and live in it."

That night the crowd grew to 3,000 or 4,000, depending on which newspaper you read. Mary, the couple's only child, was sent to relatives for her safety as matters escalated. Some in the crowd were mere onlookers, but a reporter described the scene as a "sullen, angry semi-circle of humanity" exhorted to escalating temerity. Police ran their motorcycles toward the crowd to keep it away from the house. Many remained until after 3 a.m.

Mayor William Anderson, who had been trying to mediate, drew both black and white criticism. Lee's attorney appealed for a two-day truce, saying Lee was willing to talk. Anderson appealed to residents to stay away. Two days later, Lee insisted he wasn't moving.

Here, the story dropped out of the mainstream press. But thanks to Augsburg College history professor Bill Green, Dateline Minneapolis picked up the trail in microfilmed issues of the black-run Twin City Herald.

It reported more than a year later that the family had remained under police protection for several months. It also disclosed that in September 1932, Lee, goaded by a group of youths who repeatedly stood in front of his house and hurled epithets, chased them off his property, striking one.

When the boy's parents asked that Lee be charged, Lee admitted his guilt to Judge Luther Youngdahl, later a Republican governor. Youngdahl said that steps ought to be taken to stop the boys' conduct and imposed a token $5 fine. "Imagine the strain under which this man and his family have lived for months, and if you are fair-minded and honest, you will admit that in Lee's shoes, you would have probably exploded long ago," the Herald editorialized.

Lee hung on for another year. Land records show that the insurer that financed his purchase canceled Lee's contract in mid-1933. Many people lost their homes in the Depression, but Robert Forman thinks his grandfather walked away from the contract at the urging of his wife.

Records show that Lee soon bought a house a little more than a mile away in a racially mixed neighborhood where he remained for close to 40 years until his death at 91.

"He was the kind of person you couldn't help but like if you knew him," Forman said. Despite the family's horrific experiences, Forman's mother, a city library employee, held no grudge against whites. "My mother was of the mindset that you accept people for who they are," he said.

Mary Forman's faith in the fair-mindedness of humanity is a lesson worth remembering during Black History Month. It laid the foundation for a remark she made to Forman in the summer of 2004, after watching a little-known Illinois state senator wow the Democratic National Convention with a speech:

"Mother looked at me and said, 'There is going to be the first black president of the United States.' "

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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