There is a moment early on in Josie R. Johnson’s memoir, “Hope in the Struggle,” where her father, on a visit from Texas, takes a walk around her neighborhood in south Minneapolis. It is the late 1950s.
For a long time, there is no sign of him. As worry sets in among Johnson, her husband, their daughters and her mother, her father reappears.
“I found them,” he announces.
He was looking for other black people. It took a while. Minneapolis’ black population back then was not quite 2.5 percent.
I did similar things when I moved to the Twin Cities in 1987 to work as a reporter for the Star Tribune: the moments searching for people who looked like me; hours spent trying to understand what it meant to be black in such a white space. If only I’d had a book like “Hope in the Struggle” to help.
Full disclosure: I met Johnson not long after I arrived, though I have not seen her now in more than 15 years. She was always kind and supportive, always dignified and measured in tone. That spirit infuses her memoir.
This is not a tell-all. It is a tell. She does not show the Minneapolis skyline when the Foshay Tower was the tallest building downtown. She doesn’t bemoan or brag about enduring bitter windchills and thick snowdrifts. Nor does she dish gossip or share intimate secrets.
She is 88 years old now, a member of the so-called Silent Generation. For her, decorum means nothing if breached. Instead, with the help of writers Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Little, Johnson tells the city’s history, from the early 1950s until now, by placing its tiny but vibrant black community at the center. This is a memoir of Minneapolis. That it is told by an African-American woman makes it rare and necessary. That she is not afraid to identify and call out the ways in which white supremacy excluded black people from their full rights as Minnesotans — from exclusionary housing covenants to employment discrimination — is important.
It’s a book that might help newcomers understand the city’s racial history and one that long-timers might find revelatory.
Johnson grew up in Houston’s college-educated, black upper class. Her family instilled in her a sense of duty and racial responsibility: When coming from a point of relative privilege, first you lift up other black people who don’t have your advantages, then you worry about yourself. Once she and her husband moved to Minneapolis and began rearing their three daughters, Johnson carried on that mission.
She began as a community organizer and later a lobbyist for the Minneapolis Urban League. Fair housing for black families and equal education for black students became her mission. From there she rose through the state’s civic ranks, becoming the confidante of city operatives, business leaders and governors. Eventually, she became a University of Minnesota vice president and provost.
Her work as she describes it was always rooted in service to the black community, even though she enjoyed privilege that most of the city’s working-class blacks did not. Her husband was an engineer at Honeywell, only the third black professional hired by the company. Yet, there were always reminders that despite her achievements some white people would see her race and gender, and nothing more. This became apparent when she joined the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.
“I learned quickly that my suggestions and observations were not immediately heard or acknowledged. However, if a white male member repeated what I had said, the words were heard,” she writes.
Black people of every class are familiar with that sentiment.
Her book is a who’s who of Minnesota luminaries, black and white. So much so that it sometimes reads as if she’s afraid to leave out anyone. Because it is written at some remove, the moments where Johnson reveals personal loss and trauma, such as the dissolution of her marriage, let me see her as I rarely did: vulnerable. It made me want to know more about that lady.
The photograph in the book that remains my favorite is one where she is standing with her parents and two younger brothers in front of a shiny car. She is a teenager. Her smile is one of delight. She is lovely. She is radiant. As she now closes in on her 90th birthday, that glow remains. From what she reveals in “Hope in the Struggle,” so does that impulse to fight for justice.
Rosalind Bentley, a former Star Tribune reporter, is a writer in Atlanta.
Hope in the Struggle
By: Josie R. Johnson, with Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Marie Little.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 232 pages, $21.95.
Event: 7 p.m. May 14, East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul.