It was during the hectic aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, when the nation fell into racial violence, that H. Peter Meyerhoff — a Jewish immigrant from Germany who had barely escaped the Nazi regime — decided to take action.
"When he saw what was going on with black people, he could identify with that," said his wife, Rose, last week. "In Germany they had no Jews allowed in restaurants, parks and schools. He didn't want that kind of thing to go on here, 'the land of the free.' "
Peter Meyerhoff, one of Minnesota's early civil rights activists, died Tuesday in Montevideo, Minn., of aspiration pneumonia, a complication of ataxia. He was 92.
He was an engineer at Honeywell, designing laser guidance systems for jet planes, when he decided to work for better race relations in Minneapolis. In 1968, soon after King was killed, Meyerhoff compiled a mimeographed directory of black-owned businesses. He and his wife delivered the list to churches and homes in white neighborhoods, encouraging people to cross the racial divide.
"This was a problem he thought had to be solved," Rose Meyerhoff said.
That modest directory eventually grew into a 375-page book listing more than 5,200 minority-owned businesses in the United States, including 78 in Minnesota that did their business nationally. Formally known as the National Black Business Campaign, newspapers shortened it to "Buy Black" as word spread, Rose Meyerhoff said.
"The thing that made it work was that others [in the white community] felt the way we did," Peter Meyerhoff told a Star Tribune reporter in 1987. "The people who joined in didn't have to join organizations or do things differently except buy goods and services from a black-owned business, and that appealed to a sizable segment of the society."
When Buy Black became a nationwide undertaking, Meyerhoff took a leave of absence from Honeywell with full support of top managers. When he returned to work in the 1970s, Rose took over the campaign.
Will Shapira of Roseville, a close friend, said Peter Meyerhoff's idea of improving the lives of black Americans economically was unique to Minnesota at the time.
"Maybe it took a Jew to flee Hitler to have that inspiration," Shapira said.
Meyerhoff immigrated to the United States in 1939, a year after his father was taken prisoner during the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) pogrom and sent to a concentration camp for six months.
The family escaped Germany and settled in New York City, where Peter later met Rose. Also Jewish, she had lost her family in World War II. She survived because nuns hid her for two years in a Belgian convent where they disguised her as a Christian orphan and changed her name to protect her against the Nazis.
Meyerhoff was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war and fought in France and the Philippines, Rose said.
"He was 100 percent against the Germans. That's why he ran away from Germany," she said.
A fitting memorial to Meyerhoff's life, Shapira said, would be people inspired to carry forward his work.
"It's a terrible loss," Shapira said of Meyerhoff's death. "He was a valued person in the community, he gave of himself, and he's going to be missed in these racially turbulent and divided times."
Besides his wife, Meyerhoff is survived by daughters June, of Montevideo, and Karen, of New York City; a son, Eric, of St. Louis Park; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at a future date.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037