When digging through the Star Tribune’s dusty basement archive, what I least expected to uncover was the ugly racist past of a fabled Minneapolis restaurant.
Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale enjoys a reputation so sterling that the folks behind the Charlie Awards, which honor excellence in the Twin Cities dining and drinking scene, adopted the name for their program when they started out four years ago.
But a disturbing 1953 clip from the Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper tells a different story.
The frail, yellowed newsprint appears to have never left its archival envelope since it was filed away more than six decades ago. The further I read, the greater my shock and dismay. Even the story’s somewhat bright-sided ending, featuring Hubert Humphrey, failed to keep my blood below the boiling point (the anecdote dates to Humphrey’s tenure as mayor of Minneapolis, an office he held from 1945 to 1948). It's painful to read.
Still, context: The terrible events outlined in the Spokesman's story took place more than six decades ago, when the city – and the nation – were much different places.
“This article from the Minneapolis Spokesman is a vivid reminder of the kind of overt racism that existed in the Twin Cities when this article was written 62 years ago,” said Scott Mayer, co-founder of the Charlie Awards. “We will exert due diligence to garner the facts when and after this article was written and before any conclusions are reached about the restaurant, its employees and/or its guests.”
My guess is that most living Minnesotans remember the Charlie’s Cafe of the 1960s and 1970s, long after its namesake was involved in its operation.
Based upon other archival clips, it appears that founder Charlie Saunders pretty much stepped back from the restaurant's day-to-day operations in 1961 after suffering a heart attack; he died three years later. Saunders' wife Louise (the couple married in 1959), an attorney, took over the restaurant’s ownership and management. In 1982, when Charlie's was in its 49th year, Louise Saunders retired and closed the restaurant, selling the property to a developer. The site is now occupied by the 701 Building. Louise Saunders died in 2003.
Unfortunately, the Spokesman's story hits a dead end, at least in the Strib's archives. A microfilm search through June 1953 issues of the Minneapolis Tribune (the morning paper) and the Minneapolis Star (the evening paper) yielded nothing, other than reports of a sweltering heat wave, a Jaycees convention and a Minneapolis visit by President Eisenhower. There's no mention of the incident described in the Spokesman story, or of a subsequent press conference with county attorney Michael Dillon.
Here’s the Minneapolis Spokesman story (the typos reflect the original text) which the newspaper tagged under the subhead “Wrong Color”:
Charley’s Cafe Exceptionale Evicts Fager, Refuses to Honor Reservations
Charley’s Cafe Exceptionale, Fourth Ave. and 7th St. So., the last restaurant in Minneapolis which practices a policy of race discrimination, Wednesday evicted Frank W. Fager, executive secretary of the Minneapolis Mayor’s Council on Human Relations bodily when he objected to being refused a reservation service because he was in the company of Clifford Rucker, a Negro and executive secretary of the Governor’s Interracial Commission.
Fager, accompanied by Rucker and Rev. George Siudy, pastor of the First Congregational church went to the restaurant for lunch. Rev. Siudy had previously phoned the cafe and requested and received a reservation.
When the three men approached the main dining room the man apparently in charge as host, observing Rucker in the party immediately told Siudy that he could not find the reservation for his party.
Fager was familiar with the fact that no reservations are necessary at the cafe for noon luncheons, but this is used as a subterfuge to keep Negro patrons or parties with Negroes in them from the main dining room. Knowing this he questioned two other patrons. He learned from them that they had no reservations and were being seated.
When the man in charge of the dining room saw Fager talking to the other patrons he called two bouncers and Fager was forcibly removed from the cafe via the kitchen entrance.
Rucker and Siudy walked from the cafe. Parked near the corner was a police car in which Jake Sullivan, police morals squad was seated.
When Sullivan was told of the incident he went into the restaurant where Fager identified the two men who had evicted him from the premises. Sullivan questioned the manager who said he did not know anything about the affair.
Sullivan then drove the three men to police headquarters where they made statements on the discrimination and Fager’s eviction.
The three men visited County Attorney Michael Dillon who has scheduled a conference on the case for 10 a.m. Thursday. Whether the refusal to honor the Siudy reservation is a violation of the state civil rights law will probably be discussed.
Charlie’s is the only top-flight restaurant which continues to practice discrimination against Negro patrons in Minneapolis.
Carl Rowan, the Minneapolis Tribune staffer and author and president of the Minneapolis Urban League, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Wilfred Leland were subjected to discriminatory practices several years ago.
Wednesday night the Minneapolis NAACP board discussed the matter and decided on action to force the famous Minneapolis restaurant to obey the law.
A reporter for this paper called Harold Ahlman, secretary and treasurer of the cafe and manager. Ahlman refused to make a statement. He referred the reporter to Charles W. “Chuck” Saunders, owner of the restaurant.
The only Negro ever known to be served in the main dining room of Charlie’s was William Seabron, Urban League industrial secretary, now of Detroit.
Seabron had gone to the restaurant in company with a National Urban League official and Mrs. Genevieve Steefel, civic leader. The party was shunted to an upstairs room, despite protests.
Later when Mrs. Steefel protested to then Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey, the cafe’s violation of the law, the mayor decided to take Seabron to lunch at Charlie’s.
Making no reservation, Mayor Humphrey met Seabron at the cafe and walked smilingly in and was, of course, seated with Seabron in the center of the main dining room.
It was reported that Saunders from that day was anti-Humphrey. A mayor has the power to revoke the licenses of bars, restaurants or taverns who violate either city ordnances or state laws.