Edina's historical mystery: Black flight

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2013 - 11:09 PM

At the turn of the 20th century, Edina had a vibrant black population with leaders in key positions. Where did they go and why?

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The Yanceys “were very much a part of community life,” said Marci Matson, executive director of the Edina Historical Society. They were “mover and shakers in their time,” she said, but the times were also buffeted by significant social forces that were afoot in the state.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Thursday Jan. 1, 1880

Wether pleasant and thawing. Tilled West in afternoon after Mill job -- got out at 3. Pleasant evening singing and talking.

The spidery, penciled scrawl belongs to Edina pioneer Beverly Claiborne Yancey. In a photo taken around 1900, Yancey is a handsome, serious-looking man with a full white beard and mustache. He stares at the camera with a slightly wrinkled brow and a penetrating gaze -- a dignified man, not to be taken lightly.

Yancey was a farmer, a founding member of the local Grange and the recorder for the 1888 vote that created the Village of Edina. He served on the village council, and his wife, Ellen, founded the first PTA in Edina.

The Yanceys were black, part of a surprisingly large and integrated community that mixed easily in the city's early days. But by the 1930s, almost all of Edina's black residents had left the city.

"One of the questions is, where did all the black people go?" said Marci Matson, executive director of the Edina Historical Society.

Now, in an effort to help document the role blacks played in the city's early days, a historical society volunteer has begun transcribing entries in seven diaries that belonged to B.C. and Ellen Yancey. The goal is get a fuller picture of their lives and the community before a celebration of Edina's 125th anniversary at the end of this year.

Wednesday Jan. 7

Wether plesent. Worked on the hall all day. Cal hauled in the fodder and halled parts and wood. I am very tierd.

So far, almost every entry volunteer Martha Johnson has transcribed from B.C.'s 1880 diary begins with the same word: "wether."

"He was a farmer," she said.

The Yancey potato and berry farm was where City Hall now sits, at Eden Avenue and Hwy. 100. With city redevelopment plans for the nearby Grandview area advancing, some residents have suggested that the Yancey name should be used somewhere to salute the prominent role the family played in Edina's early days.

Since 1996, the Historical Society has owned seven Yancey diaries that date from 1880 to 1915. They were donated by a descendant who lived in Connecticut and who has since died. Over the years, interested residents and students have come in to read the diaries, only to leave discouraged by the cramped, sometimes faint writing and misspellings.

Armed with a magnifying glass, Johnson painstakingly types each entry into a computer, exactly as they appear in the dusty little books. Ellipses indicate writing that couldn't be deciphered.

Friday Jan. 9

Wether cold -- is above ... icy. Took 2 tons of corn to get ground. Got Ketz shod. Got corn sacked. Went to lots in city ... house. Had a plesent time. got home at 10:00.

B.C. was born in 1828 in southern Ohio and may have lived as a free man his entire life. Census records list him as a mulatto; he was a Union soldier during the Civil War and was discharged in 1865 for a disability. His wife, Ellen Maria Bruce Yancey, was born in Washington, D.C., and is thought to have worked at the White House as a cook, Matson said.

Ellen may have been a slave. In her 1998 Edina history book, Deborah Morse-Kahn quotes from the memoir of a Yancey contemporary calling their daughter Mae the "daughter of an ex-slave."

According to Morse-Kahn, at least 17 black families lived in Edina between the Civil War and into the mid-1930s. Quaker and Episcopalian residents with links to the Underground Railroad may have played a role in their settlement, she wrote. The black residents included farmers, day laborers, housekeepers and servants.

Friday Jan. 16

Wether was plesent. Took all the family to bulls [the Bull family, who were Quakers and prominent citizens in Edina] and ... to grange. I installed officers, and a banquet and entertainment next. Had a good time. Filled wagon with salt. Got home at 11.

Marshall Schwartz, who is on the society's board and learned about the Yanceys as he researched Edina's veterans for its coming veterans memorial, says B.C. deserves more attention.

"He's a real key person in founding Edina, and he's not really appreciated yet," Schwartz said. "The meeting to found the Grange was held in his house."

Minnehaha Grange No. 398, which opened in 1879, was run by the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal group that was an advocacy group for farmers. At the time it operated as a sort of secret society, with passwords, a door with a peephole and shuttered windows. B.C. was named "gatekeeper" of the new group.

The Yanceys "were very much a part of community life," Matson said. The family is mentioned in diaries kept by white families in the area, with no mention of race. A school photo taken around 1900 shows a mixed group of black and white children, all of them with silly grins on their faces. Another shows a festive group of berry pickers who rode their bikes to the Yancey farm, sitting on the grass with B.C. and Ellen.

Friday Jan. 30

Wether cold. Below zero. Bought and halled 40 bu. of wheat from Shoots. Halled one bach of wood. Went to kallas [Swedish for party] at the grange. Had a plesent time. Charly [the Yanceys' son] fell down in the celler -- hurt him. Had got home at 11. Got beef from Shotts, 128 lbs.

Johnson, who spends a couple of hours a week on B.C.'s diary, is finding it slowgoing. Early entries in the first diary are in faded pencil. Someone else stuck a card in the diary with a key to some of B.C.'s idiosyncratic penmanship. Johnson is adding her own notations.

"It's getting better, little by little," she said.

B.C. refers to Ellen only as "wife," Johnson noted with a disapproving frown. But she said he comes off as a sociable man, with a love of dancing and singing. The Yanceys often visited James and Amie Bull, who raised dairy cattle and donated the land for the Grange hall. According to Morse-Kahn, the Bulls helped found the University of Minnesota's agriculture school and home economics programs.

Sunday Feb. 22

Wether plesent. Red most of the dy. Wife and I went to bulls Spent 2 hours.

In the three months' worth of diary entries transcribed so far, B.C. often references books he has "red" or says he plans to "reed" until late at night. His spelling wavers between proper and phonetical.

While Yancey was a reader, it isn't clear how much schooling he had. Surrounded by neighbors who were teachers and people involved with the U of M, "he certainly was aspiring," Matson said. One of the goals of the Grange was self-improvement for farmers, with a "word of the day."

But Yancey had stature outside of Edina's boundaries.

An Aug. 2, 1889, Minneapolis Tribune column of social items mentions "a number of the colored people of Minneapolis and St. Paul" marking Emancipation Day with a picnic, music and sports events at the State Fairgrounds. Archbishop John Ireland spoke, the crowd was welcomed by an officer of the State Agricultural Society "and was responded to by President B.C. Yancey of Edina Mills."

What Yancey was president of isn't known.

Saturday. Feb. 28

Wether stormy. IT snowed all day. Cold. I red most of the dy. [Son] Charley is ... icy. He feared a hanful of clotted blood from his mouth probly from his....

According to online genealogical records, the Yanceys had eight children. Mae, who married a Canadian, played the organ, attended the U of M and supervised the Sunday school for the Episcopalians, Morse-Kahn wrote. Maggie married a Swedish farmer. As a youth, Charles was in a popular music group, and his wife, Helen, was an accomplished pianist from Toronto. He became Edina's village clerk and worked in the Hennepin County auditor's office. His career took a turn in 1922 when he was indicted for allegedly padding the city payroll, taking about $4,000. The charges were dismissed when he paid the money back.

B.C. died in 1904 or 1905, Ellen in 1915. Edina's black population was dwindling.

In her book, Morse-Kahn links the shrinking black population to the 1920s development of the Country Club area, where blacks and Jews could not buy homes. Second-generation black residents moved to farms northwest of Lake Minnetonka in Maple Plain and Independence township.

Some early black settlers as well as their children also moved to Canada, continuing north to join friends or family who had settled there via Underground Railroad connections, Morse-Kahn said.

Friday March 26

[Unclear reference...] cut brush the rest of the dy. We all went to the library. Eve. Wife and mery sang a duet. Charly and my ... and Charly spoke. Wether warmer, and most of the snow all gone. Looks like rain.

Matson isn't satisfied with the Country Club explanation for Edina's shrinking black population. Bigger social forces may have been at work, she said.

"I think that is part of the story," she said. "But in 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth. ... It needs to be put into context. We don't know if Edina was any different in their acceptance or rejection of [black] people."

In his diaries, Yancey tends to simply recite the events of the day. "B.C. never tells us what he feels," Johnson said. "He's not moody. He's industrious."

Next December, Edina will mark its 125th anniversary with a Founders' Day that will feature first-person accounts of significant times in the city's history. Matson would like the Yanceys to be featured that day.

"We're doing that not just because they were black, but because they were movers and shakers in their time," she said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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