Keys in hand, the minister went to check out the bungalow he’d just purchased at 4441 Zenith Av. S., near Lake Harriet in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was the day after Christmas, 1909.
But the Rev. William Malone “was met by several of the men living near the house and informed that members of his race were not wanted,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported.
Malone was black. The next night, more than 100 white neighbors gathered across the street at Oscar Carlson’s house for what the newspaper called an “indignation meeting.” Windows at Malone’s new house were soon shattered and, the Tribune reported, “the anti-negro feeling may run so high that attempts will be made to burn the structure.”
Malone, hoping to start a Methodist Episcopal mission in downtown Minneapolis, produced his bank book and church certificate. Neighbors said they heard “from another negro” that he had extorted money in other cities from residents alarmed that he was moving in, charges that Malone denied.
“That’s my property. I bought it ... with my own money. I’ll live out there if I want to,” he said, noting Minnesota wasn’t the South and that he didn’t believe his neighbors would “lynch me.”
The imbroglio was further muddied by the circumstances of the sale. Malone had bought the house from Marie Canfield, who was accused of selling to a black man to “spite” the neighbors who testified against her in a civil suit. Canfield denied it, saying “the real estate market was dull” and that she had decided to sell her property “to the first person that was willing to take it.”
Malone and Canfield asked Minneapolis police to go after the window-smashing vandals. But the Tribune said “little hope is held out that an investigation along that line will yield anything.”
With headlines calling the Linden Hills clash a “Race War,” both black and white clergy called on their fellow preacher Malone to give up.
“There is no necessity of our thrusting ourselves where we are obnoxious to others and can never feel at home,” the Rev. James Wharton, who was black, told his flock at First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
A white minister at Western Avenue Methodist Church echoed those words: “Black people should avoid going into a community where their presence is irritating,” he told parishioners.
Adding to the case’s complexity, the white Linden Hills neighbors hired one of Minneapolis’ first black lawyers, William R. Morris, to advise them “how to best get rid of the man of the lawyer’s own race.” A son of former slaves, the Kentucky-born Morris came to Minneapolis in 1889 and would go on to lead the local NAACP in 1914.
To boost their own reputations, Morris and Wharton were eager to distance themselves from Malone’s mission to help poor African-Americans downtown, according to the Historyapolis Project, a website created in 2013 by the history department at Augsburg University. “Wealthier blacks like Morris and Wharton helped build an image of middle-class respectability for the small black community in Minneapolis,” the website says.
With Morris as their improbable counsel, the neighbors promised to make “a strong attempt ... to oust” Malone and other black residents. They lived up to the pledge, passing the hat for $10 from each family in the area to block the sale and take control of the property.
“By the payment of good, hard coin the residents of Linden Hills averted the establishment of a ‘dark town’ in their midst,” the Tribune reported on Jan. 21, 1910.
It wasn’t the first time white neighbors had banded together to block diversity in Minneapolis. Only two months before Malone tried to move in, Pullman railroad porter William Simpson tried to build a house in the Prospect Park neighborhood. His plans drew a protest march of more than 100 neighbors.
And Malone’s ouster wasn’t the last racial flare-up in housing. When black attorney William Francis and his suffragette wife, Nellie, moved into St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood in 1924, crosses were burned on their lawn.
In 1931, black World War I veteran Arthur Lee, his wife and 6-year-old daughter moved into a home at 4600 Columbus Av. in Minneapolis’ Nokomis neighborhood. Crowds of up to 3,000 people gathered there nightly, throwing stones, lighting firecrackers and threatening to “burn them out.” The Lees stood firm, declining buyout offers and waiting years to move to show that they couldn’t be forced out.
By then, racial covenants written into Minneapolis property deeds had become effective in keeping neighborhoods segregated. There were more than a dozen African-Americans living near Lake Harriet in 1910, according to mappingprejudice.org, which chronicles the history of racial housing barriers. “Thirty years later, they were all gone,” the website says. “By 1940, the neighborhood was entirely white.”
It wasn’t until 13 years later that the Legislature banned racial covenants.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.