Joe Senkyr-Minjares is no stranger to racism.

When he's had to eject unruly patrons from his Pepitos bar and restaurant at 4820 Chicago Av. S., he's been called some nasty names for his Mexican-American heritage. He's had customers ask his employees how they could work for a Mexican. Some customers once implied that he must have gotten minority preference for a loan 40 years ago when he bought the moribund place as a 24-year-old.

Never mind that he grew up on the North Side. Or that his great-grandmother is buried just two blocks away at St. Mary's Cemetery. Or that he spent four years in the service. Or that he parlayed a small loan from his father, a contract for deed and workweeks that sometimes exceeded 100 hours into an establishment that has more than quadrupled in seating since he bought it.

But when Senkyr-Minjares learned that thousands of white Minneapolitans swarmed into the neighborhood in 1931 to try to force out a black couple who bought a home nearby, he was still surprised.

"I was taken aback by the fact that it had happened so close and I had never heard about it," he said.

His determination that such an ugly past should not be forgotten has set in motion a commemoration on July 16 to mark the 80th anniversary of the stand taken by Arthur and Edith Lee.

As recounted previously in this column, Arthur Lee was a postal worker and World War I veteran. He had the temerity to buy a modest two-bedroom house at 4600 Columbus Av. S. That violated the unwritten rule that blacks didn't live that far south. That unwritten rule was beginning to be codified in real estate covenants intended to keep subdivisions lily white.

Lee's decision aroused protests that escalated until they attracted crowds estimated at 3,000 people. They thronged E. 46th Street, forcing officials to call out police. Lee's fellow veterans and postal workers formed a protective cordon as rocks flew.

The crowd aimed to force the Lees to sell.

Although some in the South Side black community have passed the episode down in family lore, the incident is largely a repressed memory in the state's history. Law professor Ann Juergens ran across the story in the 1990s in NAACP archives at the Library of Congress, while researching the life of Lena Olive Smith, Minnesota's first black female lawyer, who represented the Lees. A 2001 article by Juergens in the William Mitchell Law Review detailed the events based on archives, news accounts and interviews with participants, including Mary Forman, the Lees' daughter, who died in 2005.

Unwritten law

Juergens found that although segregation was not the law in Minnesota, as it was in the South, social codes here could be almost as rigid. When blacks began testing patterns of segregation in housing by moving into mostly white neighborhoods, they were accused of extorting money from whites to buy them out. Indeed, white homeowners tried that tactic when the Lees moved in, but on Smith's advice the Lees resolved to stick it out.

Eventually, the crowds thinned. After a year or more -- during which Edith Lee tired of being home all day fearing the threat of rocks or bricks flying through the window while Arthur worked -- the family sold. They moved 10 blocks north to the heart of a traditionally black middle-class neighborhood.

Kim Hines, who grew up close to the Lees, recalled that in her childhood blacks generally didn't live south of 42nd Street, but she was an adult before she was stunned to learn that the elderly neighbor couple she recalled was at the center of a racial maelstrom.

This month's commemoration was the idea of Senkyr-Minjares, but he recruited friend Jim Bush to do the organizing, along with other area residents, supported by the Field Regina Northrop Neighborhood Group. "If we don't learn from history, we're bound to repeat it," Bush said. "It's something that needs to be told so we can acknowledge it and move on."

Stearline Rucker, the neighborhood group's president, said that uncovering the incident has prompted informal conversations among members of the organizing committee and other community members about racial name-calling and the treatment of same-sex couples. She said those conversations will continue as part of the Building Bridges cross-racial dialogs initiated by Council Member Elizabeth Glidden after the Martin Luther King Park dog park dispute.

The incident has fired the interest of residents from Bush, 68, to Sydney Okeson, who will enter sixth grade at Field Community School. Sydney was seeking a report topic for a fifth-grade class earlier this year when her mother recalled the interest of Senkyr-Minjares in the Lees, whose home was just a block away from where the Okesons now live. After Sydney completed her writing, she plunged into the commemorative effort. She joined the organizing committee, where she met Robert Forman, a Lee descendant. She raised $152 for the commemoration with a lemonade stand, and won a community service award from the Field PTA for her efforts.

The physical legacy of the commemoration will be a plaque that will be mounted on a plinth in the yard of Pearl Lindstrom. The 89-year-old widow was born 10 years before the mobs confronted the Lees in what is now her yard. She lived in her house for decades before learning of the incident.

"How could people be so cruel?" she asks now. "In the sight of God we are all the same."

The commemoration will begin with a 6:45 p.m. July 16 with a gathering and a few words at Field Community School, at 4645 4th Av. S. A procession then will march a few blocks to the Lee/Lindstrom home, where a dramatic retelling of the incident is planned, along with remarks by Robert Forman. The walk will finish at McRae Park, 906 E. 47th St.

Theater segregated, too

Senkyr-Minjares had his own brush with the segregation of long ago after he purchased the Parkway moviehouse just next door to Pepitos. One day a man stopped by for a nostalgic look at the theater, and the new owner discovered the visitor was the son of the original owner.

The theater opened in 1931, a few months before the Lees bought their home. Out of curiosity, Senkyr-Minjares asked where blacks were seated at the time. The man pointed to a few rows up front on the right. "He said, 'I just needed to keep an eye on people.' You can take that any way."

When Senkyr-Minjares recovered the theater seats, he decided to set off the segregated seats in a different color. His upholsterer stripped off several layers and told him that the ornate original fabric was in good condition. So Senkyr-Minjares kept it and installed a small plaque to explain.

"It serves as a reminder that these things are there and you need to talk about them. I don't think racism is ever going to be solved. You need to talk about it."

And that includes himself and his own community. He said he's seen racism there to rival that of the majority culture.

"No one is insulated from that. No one is free. I have to constantly check myself, to take my personal inventory as to how I treat other people. Am I looking at stereotypes?"

For Senkyr-Minjares, the commemoration fills a need to pay tribute to the Lees. "To stand up to that much adversity takes a lot of courage. To me, they were remarkable human beings. I thought this shouldn't be forgotten."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438