Nearly 100 years ago, hundreds of white residents of what is now known as St. Paul’s Macalester-Groveland neighborhood wielded picket signs and fiery crosses to tell a black couple they weren’t welcome in the neighborhood.
Thursday night, in a chilly church near the long-ago home of William and Nellie Francis, a mostly white audience and a new generation of neighbors were considerably more welcoming after watching the couple’s story dramatized by the play “Not In Our Neighborhood.”
They stood and applauded.
“We want this to spark a discussion about race, about faith, and about racial reconciliation,” said Michael Johnson, an elder at CityLife Church, which moved to the former Cleveland Avenue United Methodist Church a little more than two years ago. “We don’t do this to promote our church. We want the story to be told.”
The little-known story about how William, a prominent black St. Paul attorney, and his wife Nellie, a civil rights and women’s suffrage activist, stood up to hate and bigotry from their new white neighbors in late 1924 has been playing in front of sold-out crowds at St. Paul’s Landmark Center since it opened Feb. 13. The community theater production has proved so popular that several dates were added to its original schedule. (The remaining performances are sold out.)
Johnson first learned about the couple’s tribulations when he read a newspaper story on Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month.
“I was wearing a bathrobe and slippers at the time,” he said. “And I got an idea.”
The idea: Invite the actors to his church, just four doors east of the former Francis home, to tell their story in the neighborhood where it occurred. He e-mailed playwright and director Eric Wood with an invitation.
“Honestly, I thought it was a shot in the dark,” Johnson said. “It was the proximity that made me want to do it — have ‘Not In Our Neighborhood’ in our neighborhood, for our neighborhood.”
A week later, they met. Wood and co-playwright Tom Fabel, who plays former St. Paul Mayor Arthur E. Nelson, warmed to the idea. They agreed to add an in-the-neighborhood performance in the middle of its Weyerhaeuser Auditorium run.
In some ways, the neighborhood isn’t all that different from when members of the Groveland Park Improvement Association first marched in front of the house at 2092 Sargent. According to its 2017 neighborhood profile, Macalester-Groveland is still nearly 90 percent white; just 2 percent of area residents are black. Of the 230 worshipers at CityLife Church on Sundays, Johnson said, only one is black.
But the neighborhood is different too, residents say, at least in worldview. After the audience of more than 130 delivered its standing ovation, several in the cast and crowd shared their desire to be a more welcoming community, more willing to embrace those from different ethnicities and cultures.
“We always bar our doors and windows when new ethnic groups come,” said Jerry Poindexter, who plays Rev. L.W. Harris, former pastor of St. Paul’s Pilgrim Baptist Church. “What if we did something different? Instead of fearing the differences, embracing the differences.”
Rev. Shawna Horn is pastor at Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church, which merged with the Cleveland Avenue congregation after that church closed. The neighborhood’s continuing racial imbalance and economic disparities require continuing efforts for justice, she said. For example, she said, white residents in the neighborhood’s ZIP code make $75,000 a year; blacks, just $28,000.
Twenty years ago, her church started partnering on some programs and worship services with St. Albans Church of God in Christ in the old Rondo neighborhood.
“As a neighborhood we have to own that this story did not end in 1924,” she said. “It’s up to us to effect change.”
The Francises remained in the Sargent Avenue house until William Francis was appointed U.S. minister to Liberia in 1927. He died there two years later after contracting yellow fever. Nellie returned to St. Paul with his body, and the play opens at his funeral. She returned to Nashville and died 40 years later, in 1969. They are buried side by side in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.
John Faley’s family moved to the neighborhood in 1923, a year before the Groveland Park group began its “improvement” efforts. Faley said he never knew about the episode. His father never mentioned it, even though it was likely he knew of William Francis. Before moving to Groveland Park, his father had also lived just a few addresses away from the Francises on St. Anthony Avenue.
“I find it very disturbing. I didn’t realize it was this close,” he said of what happened in 1924. “It’s good to raise awareness to how we were — and how we are. It hasn’t really changed that much.”
Johnson said the question is how his congregation will move forward, now that it’s learned the neighborhood’s past.
“Where do we go from here?” he said.