American veterans commitee protest for Jon Matsuo

Covenants and Civil Rights: Race and Real Estate in Minneapolis

Published September 22, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In Minneapolis in 1946, it was virtually impossible to find a place to live. Years of economic depression and war had stalled home construction even as the city’s population continued to swell. And demobilization had escalated the wartime housing shortage into a crisis. The “train stations filled and emptied and filed again…with waves of uniforms, the dark pews in the waiting rooms become home for soldiers and sailors–stretched out asleep or sitting up, sleeping heads hanging, chins on chests,” remembered Hubert Humphrey, who was mayor at the end of World War II.

Under Humphrey’s leadership, the city launched its “Shelter-A-Vet” campaign, calling on citizens to open their spare bedrooms to returning veterans. And it constructed a small colony of Quonset Huts in Northeast Minneapolis.

University of Minnnesota veterans club demonstrates in front of Simmons School, 1947, hclib

In 1947, the University of Minnesota Veterans Club demonstrated in front of the vacant Simmons School. The group wanted public buildings to be converted into emergency housing. Image is from the Special Collections department of the Hennepin County Central Library.

Veterans did not wait for the city to find them homes. Fifty former soldiers who had enrolled at the University of Minnesota organized Oak Hill Builders to build low-cost homes on a plot of vacant land in Northeast Minneapolis. With the help of local real estate firm Dickinson and Gillespie, they sought to construct  affordable homes in close proximity to the University.

One of the veterans who joined this cooperative housing venture was Jon Matsuo. Married and the father of a baby daughter, the American-born veteran got second dibs on a lot in the new subdivision. But when he met with the real estate agent to make his choice, he was told that he could not live in Oak Hill because of his Japanese ancestry.

Some white Minneapolitans were outraged when news broke that a veteran had been denied housing. The American Veterans’ Committee–which organized the protest against the Minneapolis Board of Realtors shown above–condemned the practice of using legal clauses to restrict real estate purchases by race as “unnecessary, undemocratic and un-American.” Twenty community organizations ranging from the Communist Party to the Young Women’s Christian Association lined up behind the AVC to challenge Matsuo’s exile from Oak Hill and demand that the city ban the use of restrictive covenants in new developments.

That same year, Minneapolis did change the law to prohibit racial covenants from being used in new developments. And this episode did help to justify the work of the Minneapolis Self-Survey of Human Relations, which employed sociological methods to challenge racial assumptions in the city. This experiment helped to put Minneapolis on the map as a national leader in civil rights; in some circles it eclipsed the ignominy of being called the “capital of Anti-Semitism.”

Jon Matsuo went on to become a community leader, serving as the first president of the United Citizens’ League, the first organization devoted to protecting the interests of the Japanese-American community in Minneapolis.

I wish I knew more about what happened ultimately happened to Matsuo and his family. The story seems to end on a happy note. Newspaper reports say that the family was offered the chance to build a house at the edge of the new subdivision. And their humiliating injustice fueled social change. Outcry changed both attitudes and policies for the better.

But this narrative of racial bias is both longer and less tidy than this initial telling would suggest.

The difficulties faced by the Matsuos were hardly unique. Most Asian Americans, Native Americans, Jews and African Americans faced significant barriers when they sought to rent or buy a home in Minneapolis in the first half of the twentieth century.

Take the case of Daisuke Kitagawa, a Japanese minister who had been sent to Minneapolis in 1944 to care for the growing Japanese community affiliated with the World War II language school at Fort Snelling. He thought his family’s grueling search for housing was over when they found a “tiny three-room house at the north end of Minneapolis.” But then “the telephone rang, and the man who had just rented us the house informed me that he changed his mind because there was opposition from neighbors.” It was only with intervention from the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota that the man relented in the face of “unbearable” opposition.

Though these types of prejudicial attitudes were difficult to overcome, legal and financial hurdles posed even greater challenges to prospective renters and home buyers. Real estate covenants like the one that kept Matsuo out of Oak Hill were used for decades in Minneapolis. Before World War II, they were employed largely to keep African-Americans from buying homes in white neighborhoods. By 1948, a survey of realtors revealed that 40 percent of new developments in Minneapolis were covered by this type of restriction. But the hundreds of cases involving African Americans never generated the kind of protest that greeted the injustice faced by the Japanese-American student.

Real estate leaders defended these measures as economically practical. “For such extensive financing as is required for this project, the federally backed savings and loan associations and banks require such a clause,” Elliot Gillespie, president of Dickinson and Gillespie told the newspaper. “Also, a large segment of the public will not buy homes in real estate developments which do not include the restrictive racial clause.”

According to this logic, property values rested on racial segregation; residential race-mixing brought instability and risk to investors. These assumptions were codified in federal lending practices that were developed during the Great Depression. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration created a system for rating the risk involved in different properties. And race was central to this scheme. Properties in white neighborhoods were deemed safe investments; those in African-American neighborhoods did not qualify for any federally-backed funds. African-Americans could not buy homes in white neighborhoods. But they also could not get financing for homes in African American neighborhoods.

close up version of red lining map from HOLC, north side

This is a detailed segment of one of the “risk” maps developed by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation during the 1930s. This map shows the near north side of Minneapolis. The areas shaded red were deemed too hazardous for federally-back loans. Most of the city’s African Americans lived in these areas that were “red-lined.” Map is from the National Archives and Records Administration via the Mapping Inequality Project.

The system demanded that realtors serve as the border patrol, monitoring the lines that divided neighborhoods by race. A professional code of ethics actually prohibited anyone associated with the national association of realtors from selling houses in white neighborhoods to people deemed not white (a broad swath of humanity that covered persons of “Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro , Mongolian or African blood”).

When Matsuo’s story became public, most realtors saw no reason to relax their vigilance. The protesters associated with the American Veterans’ Committee, according to real estate developer Gillespie, were “a bunch of trouble-making, flag-waving communists.” The actions of one firm, he asserted, could not change the situation. The protesters “will have to go to the real estate board, savings and loan associations, bankers associations and get an amendment in the federal constitution if they hope to abolish use of the restrictive covenants.”

Gillespie’s red-baiting of the civil rights protesters sounds bigoted and paranoid to modern readers. But his warning was correct, in some ways. It would take more than one real estate firm or even one city to change the entrenched policies that buttressed residential segregation in the United States for most of the twentieth century.

The same federal lending programs that made homeownership possible for millions of Americans created new barriers for African Americans to become property owners.  Today we are still living with this legacy. Many of our modern day inequalities have their roots in these structures that were born of fear in American cities a century ago.

Sources for this post: Daisuke KItagawa, Issei and Nisei: The Internment Years (New York: Seabury Press, 1967): 165-66; Report and Recommendations of the Real Estate and Housing Committee of the Minneapolis Community Self-Survey of Human Relations, Planning Department Office Files, Municipal archives, Minneapolis City Hall; Clipping file for Jon Matsuo and Oak Hill Subdivision, Special Collections Department, Hennepin County Central Library. Special thanks to Rita Yeada, citizen researcher, for finding the sources necessary for this post. Both photographs are from the Special Collections Department of the Hennepin County Central Library.

excerpt from hibbard panorama, LOC, Lake Calhoun 6a06831r

“The Joys of Camp Life”: Vacation at Mendoza Beach

Published September 8, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Labor Day means that summer is over. Sad as I am to say goodbye to warm weather and a relaxed schedule, I count myself lucky that I enjoyed lots of vacation time during this lovely time of year. Which makes me very different from working women in Minneapolis at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1909, most young women in Minneapolis had no chance to relax or enjoy the “open air” during the short summer months. A group of female reformers associated with the Young Women’s Christian Association resolved to address this problem. They established a tent colony on the shores of Lake Calhoun that allowed girls to experience the “joys of camp life.”

Those lucky enough to get a berth at this camp got on the streetcar downtown. They rode for thirty minutes until they reached Dean Parkway, disembarking at what was known as Mendoza Beach. In 1912, the Minneapolis Park Board made this section of Lake Calhoun into a resort-style beach; it enhanced the swimming area and constructed a state-of-the art beach house with changing rooms, lockers and showers.

Calhoun_Baths_Minneapolis_Minnesota, postcard, 1913,  Minnesota Streetcar Museum via the Minnesota Digital library

Calhoun Baths, 1913. From the Minnesota Streetcar Museum.

To maintain propriety at this new public facility, the park board required all female swimmers to don a regulation jersey swimming suit that included full length tights under a snug tunic. (And this impossibly cumbersome outfit drew howls of protest from social conservatives in the city, but I digress).

This was more than a decade before construction started on the towering Calhoun Beach Club. Though inside the city limits, the beach house was surrounded by fields and woods. The result was a streetcar summer resort for the people.

pf007581, mhs, vrdb, water toboggan at  lake calhoun

Water Toboggan at Lake Calhoun. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Across the street from the beach house was the YWCA camp. Five canvas tents provided sleeping quarters for thirty-five girls, who slept on cots and ate in a communal dining tent. Campers stayed for a week. They spent their vacation in bare feet, wandering the woods or wading in the water. They rowed, swam, hiked and read. They ate dinner. They roasted marshmallows. One newspaper report asserted that they started each day at dawn with “dew baths” in the adjacent woods.

women at summer YWCA, lake calhoun, from University of Minnesota SWHA

Women at summer YWCA at Lake Calhoun. YWCA Collection at the Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

But I wonder. My guess is that the campers would have welcomed the chance to slumber uninterrupted. Every other week of the year they got up early to work in the city’s factories. The girls at the YWCA camp were part of the huge population of young working women struggling to make it on their own in the city. By the early twentieth century, Minneapolis had more single working women than almost any other community in the country. And long before the iconic Mary Tyler Moore fixed Minneapolis in the national imagination as a home for independent women, these women were forging a new kind of path for their sex.

Single women in search of economic opportunity had been drawn to Minneapolis from all points on the map. But the city was an especially powerful magnet for women from the surrounding rural hinterlands, who left farms in search of financial and social independence impossible in small towns.

Employment opportunities were plentiful but hardly lucrative for women in the city. Some young girls resigned themselves to domestic service. And some lucky women typed letters or took dictation. But most female wage-laborers did piece work of one kind or another in the factories near the Mississippi River. They sewed cloth bags for flour and mattress covers. They stitched shirts. They steamed laundry. They wove luxurious and stylish blankets for travelers on the Pullman Palace railroad cars.

The products were different but the same grim conditions prevailed. These young women labored ten to twelve hours a day in workshops that were humid and dusty and dark. They had meager lunch fare and no time to eat. They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. They made barely enough to pay for room and board. Often their wages fell short.

interior of North Star Woolen Mill, MHS, women workers

Workers at North Star Woolen Mills, 1905. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Sleeping on a cot in a canvas tent with seven other women was heaven by comparison.  Even when it rained.

women at lake calhoun summer camp, ywca, swha

Campers at Lake Calhoun summer camp. From the collections of the YWCA, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota.

In 1914, the camp moved from Dean Parkway to a more secluded location at the intersection of 28th street and Upton Avenue. The camp remained in operation in this location until 1919, when the YWCA was given land outside the city on which it built a more permanent facility.

Sources: YWCA scrapbook, Box 12, YWCA Collection, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota; Joanne J. Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).


graveside service for floyd b olson, 8-26-1936, mhs

Who was Floyd Olson?

Published September 1, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In August, 1936, Minneapolis lost a native son. “One arid afternoon, the people buried Floyd Olson under the trees by a lake,” journalist Eric Sevareid remembered. “When the news hawkers shouted the announcement from their corners, the noises of the street died down and their voices with the shocking sentence were unbearably loud and distinct in the unnatural stillness. I saw a streetcar motorman get down from his car and walk back from the newsstand with tears streaming down his cheeks. Many thousands had a feeling that someone in their family had died.”

outside memorial auditorium for floyd b olson funeral 8-26-1936, mhs

Mourners outside Memorial Auditorium in downtown Minneapolis, August 26, 1936. Image from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Mourners massed in the Municipal Auditorium to commemorate Olson’s legacy. A more intimate group gathered at Lakewood Cemetery to lay him to rest in a glass-topped coffin.

olson funeral, lakewood cemetery, mhs

During that hot summer week, the city gave itself to bereavement. But not everyone was as sad as the motorman–or Sevareid– to say goodbye to the 44-year-old governor of Minnesota.  The populist politician was reviled by many who saw him as a ruthless demagogue who had served at the behest of the city’s crime bosses.

During the darkest days of the Great Depression, Olson had come to embody hope for Americans seeking real economic and political change in the United States. A compelling orator and charismatic personality, Olson was a masterful coalition-builder. Most important to young  people like Sevareid who wanted fundamental transformation of the political and economic system, he was not afraid to call for dramatic action in the wake of the worldwide economic collapse. “I am not a liberal,” Olson declared to the Farmer-Labor convention in 1934. “I am what I want to be–a radical.”

floyd b. olson, speaking, mhs

The son of Scandinavian immigrants, Olson had grown up on the near North Side of Minneapolis, surrounded by Jewish and African-American neighbors.  He was trusted in the neighborhood as a Shabbos Goy, a person employed by observant Jews to light candles and do other household tasks on the Sabbath, when they are forbidden to do any kind of work. Olson’s father had steady work on the railroad that kept his family out of poverty. But his home was located in a quarter of the city viewed by many as a terrible slum. In fact, the year after his death, his block was bulldozed in one of the city’s first effort to clear urban blight; this became the site of the Sumner Homes, the first federally funded housing project in Minnesota.

birthplace of floyd b. olson, razed for sumner field housing, photo 1, side 1

Birthplace of Governor Floyd B. Olson, razed for Sumner Field Homes. The city published this image in the newspaper to show that  “even governors’ birthplaces can be fire hazards.” Image from the Special Collections Department of Hennepin County Library.

Olson spent a desultory year at the University of Minnesota. Then he drifted around the continent working as a longshoreman, miner and harvest hand. He returned to Minneapolis to study law and by 1920 was Hennepin County Attorney. Over the decade that followed, his career as the county’s top law enforcement man bore the stamp of his formative years in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota.

Olson was keenly aware of the dangers of the Ku Klux Klan, which was attracting a popular following in Minneapolis in the early 1920s. He used his position as Hennepin County Attorney to expose the secret white supremacist organization. Olson’s successful crusade earned him the sustained support of the city’s Jewish community as well as emerging African-American activists like Lena Olive Smith, who would later lead the city’s NAACP.

But for those Minneapolitans who believed that North Minneapolis “provided most of the city’s criminals and crooked politicians,” Olson’s northside roots made him suspect. The County Attorney was guilty by association with a part of Minneapolis known for its gambling houses, brothels and after-hours tippling spots. His critics pointed to this personal history when they blamed him for the growth of crime and corruption during the first decade of  Prohibition. They turned a blind eye to geography (the city’s proximity to Canada helped to make it a center for the illicit liquor trade).  Instead, The Chicago Tribune–under the leadership of Robert McCormick–argued that the “career of Floyd B. Olson as prosecuting attorney of Hennepin County between 1920 and 1930 parallels the growth of organized crime.”

Olson was no advocate of Prohibition. And to be effective in Minneapolis politics in the 1920s, he needed to be able to work with its powerful criminal elements. But his most troubling flaw, in my opinion, was his opposition to a free press. He worked to silence those who linked him to the city’s underworld. And he even made a personal appearance at the Minnesota Supreme Court to champion a law that gave the state right to suppress publications viewed as undesirable. He argued that “freedom of speech is not an absolute right”; this logic was rejected by the United States Supreme Court in 1931.

The ruling did little to protect reform-minded writers; three Minneapolis journalists were murdered between 1934 and 1945. Critics castigated Olson for refusing to pursue the killers in the first two cases.

Olson’s political career was ascendant when he was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer at the end of 1935. Already serving as governor, Olson was on the cusp of winning a seat in the United States Senate. Many Americans held him up as the great hope for a dark decade, the person best suited to challenge Franklin Roosevelt as a third-party presidential candidate. Olson’s death punctured this vision. “I walked out into the parched, lifeless streets with a numb feeling of dismay,” Sevareid remembered. “Could one never win? How weak we were, when so much had depended upon one human being.”

Digital image of original artifact

Image is from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Olson could be remembered as the Paul Wellstone of his time, a populist political maverick silenced by tragedy at the apex of his influence.  But Olson remains a cipher to me. It is impossible to predict the kind of leader he would have become with the end of the Great Depression and the onset of World War II. This is food for thought during a drive down Olson Memorial Highway, through the neighborhood that helped to shape the young politician into one of the most complex figures in Minnesota political history.

Material from this post was taken from Eric Sevareid, Not So Wild a Dream (New York: Atheneum, 1976):. 71-72; George Mayer, The Political Career of Floyd B. Olson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); Marda Liggett Woodbury, Stopping the Presses: The Murder of Walter W. Liggett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); “Murder in Minneapolis,” The Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1936; “Lena Smith Among Governor Floyd Olson Supporters,” Twin Cities Herald, November 12, 1932; Floyd B. Olson House, National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, 1914 West 49th Street, Minneapolis, December 31, 1974.

Scan from original on Epson Expression 10000XL.

Back in the day, you could bring your guns to school

Published August 24, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Students return to school in the Minneapolis Public Schools today. These two photos celebrate the start of a new academic year.

At the top we have a 1925 scene from a “hobby fair” at Burroughs Elementary School, which was an opportunity for the children to share their hobbies with classmates. This image shows one girl painting while another decorates a cake. On the other end of the table, a boy was operating something electronic, perhaps a radio set? The jawdropper in this photo is the middle boy, who seems to be showing off his firearm collection. He appears to be demonstrating the operation of his rifle (which might be a toy, like the Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story). In any case, it shows that times (and policies) have changed in schools across the United States.

For those of you curious about the history of schools in Minneapolis, follow this link to learn about the origins of school names. Compiled in 1923 (when 70,000 kids were enrolled in the MPS–more than double the current enrollment), it’s a wee bit incomplete. But it’s still informative. Did you know, for instance, that Pratt School was named for the first Minneapolis soldier to die in the Philippines?

singing class at whittier school, c 1925, mhs

The second photo shows children in a singing class at Whittier Elementary school, also in the 1920s. This adorable image is notable because it shows a classroom with both white and African American children. Then as now, the Whittier neighborhood was one of the most racially diverse in the city. The school reflected its environs, bringing an economically and racially mixed group of children together.
The 1920s marked a turning point for race relations in Minneapolis. Immigration from Europe was declining dramatically. At the same time, thousands of new African Americans were arriving in the city from the South. In the decades that followed, the Minneapolis Public Schools would become increasingly racially segregated. Children attended the schools closest to their homes. And restrictive real estate covenants and discriminatory rental practices kept non-white residents concentrated in a few parts of town. Schools reflected these housing patterns, which were enforced by custom, intimidation and sometimes violence.

City leaders began to see school segregation as a problem to be addressed in 1967, when John Davis became superintendent in Minneapolis. Davis pushed integration at all levels, hiring African Americans as teachers and administrators and support staff across the district. And he began to work on creative ways to bring children from different backgrounds together in classrooms. Out of this desire came the plan to “pair” all-white Hale School with the all-African American Field School. The idea was to put the younger children from both schools at Hale and the older kids from both kids at Field.

scan from original negative Mpls Star Trib News Negatives Box 310

First day of busing in Minneapolis, 1971. Monica Lash (left) and Molly Johnson (right) were two of the hundreds of children who were bused as part of the Hale-Field school pairing experiment.

The reaction to this plan–at least in some quarters–was less than positive. After the plan was announced in 1970, school board member Harry Davis remembered that he needed a police escort to get home and round-the-clock police protection while he slept. Mayor Charlie Stenvig–who had been elected in 1969 after tapping fears of racial violence in the city after unrest on the North Side–helped to rally opponents of busing, who jammed community meetings.

Despite this opposition, the city had little choice but to proceed with a sweeping integration plan in 1972, after federal judge Earl Larson decreed that Minneapolis had “intentionally and deliberately” kept students segregated.

Forty-five years later, Minneapolis schools continue to be segregated. And the district continues to struggle with how best to create diverse learning environments that meet the needs of all students.

Today, if we need to find inspiration to meet this challenge, we need to look at the sweet faces in the ninety year old photo from Whittier School.

Information for this post comes in part from Harry Davis’ autobiography, Overcoming. Images are from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Playing Ball at the Lake

Published December 9, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard


The shores of the lake we now know as Calhoun have always been the site of play.

In August, 1834, a missionary named Samuel Pond wrote his first letter to his mother from his new home on the banks of this lake in the northern interior. He had just completed a rough cabin, intending to take up residence in the thriving Dakota village that had been established near Fort Snelling as an agricultural experiment. He may have expected more solitude. But his new neighbors were busy at work around him. “One Indian has been here to borrow my axe, another to have me help him split a stick; another now interrupts me to borrow my hatchet; another has been here after a trap which he left with me; another is now before my window at work with his axe, while the women and children are screaming to drive the blackbirds from their corn,” he reported. “Again I am interrupted by one who tells me that the Indians are going to play ball near our house to-day. Hundreds assemble on such occasions.”

Pond hoped to use this gathering as the opportunity to deliver the gospel for the first time. I am imagining the reaction of the players pictured here, as a young and earnest missionary tried to interrupt this intense competition with his important message. This painting by George Catlin depicts the type of ball game Pond would have seen. The match shown here was played by women in nearby Prairie du Chien in 1835.

The contemporary photo is from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The historic painting is from the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.


Lawrence Taliaferro's close up map of Lake Calhoun, MHS, 1835

Names matter: the story of Bde Maka Ska

Published December 9, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

Names matter. They serve as cultural signposts that articulate the social geography of a community. They declare who is remembered and who is revered.

And this is why the body of water now known as Lake Calhoun needs a new name. Or in this case, an old name that can help us understand the complex racial history of the land that became Minneapolis.

One of the jewels in the crown of the Minneapolis Parks, Lake Calhoun got its current name from a team of U.S. Army surveyors mapping the military reservation around the newly established Fort Snelling in the early nineteenth century. When they came to a lake that local people called Bde Maka Ska, which translates from Dakota to mean “white bank lake,” they paid no mind to established nomenclature. Instead, they designated the lake as “Calhoun” on their map to honor their patron, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. This move planted the American flag on the region’s cultural terrain. It also curried favor with a powerful politician who would ultimately serve in both houses of Congresses and as Vice President and Secretary of State. In this way, a South Carolinian was written into the landscape of a place he would never visit.

Over the twenty years that followed, John C. Calhoun established himself as the nation’s most passionate proponent of race-based slavery. While many of his contemporaries defended slavery as a necessary evil, Calhoun declared that race-based bondage was “a good.” In a 1837 speech he asserted that “never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

Calhoun’s fiery oration likely would have met nods of assent among the officers at Fort Snelling. Many shared Calhoun’s southern heritage and had grown up in slave-holding families. And many of them owned slaves, since the U.S. Army provided a financial incentive for them to embrace the institution of human bondage. They drew bonus pay if they employed a “private servant,” a policy that encouraged them to buy and hold slaves at military installations across the country. Slavery was forbidden in the Northwest Territories, which included the land of the Dakota. But laws did not change the conditions for Courtney, Eliza, Mary, Louisa, William, Peter, some of the men and women we know labored in slavery at Fort Snelling.

Their stories are largely forgotten by Minnesotans, who think the bloody history of slavery hangs only around the neck of the South. But a group of Minneapolitans are challenging how our community pays homage to white supremacy. Mike Spangenberg started a petition on that calls on Minneapolis Park Commissioners to remove the Calhoun name from this Minneapolis lake. This petition builds on the efforts of Park Commissioner Brad Bourn, who has been demanding this change for years.

Spangenberg was inspired by this television report as well as the move in Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi to remove the Confederate battle flag from public buildings. This comes after the massacre of nine African Americans in a Charleston church by a white supremacist who posed with the pennant and professed his desire to start a “race war.” The flag was conceived during a fratricidal war over slavery. Southern whites embraced it again as a response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

If South Carolina can grapple with how the past lives in the present, so can Minneapolis. If the Palmetto state can discard a bitterly-contested symbol of white supremacy, Lake Calhoun can become Lake Bde Maka.

Peeling away the Calhoun appellation would honor the early Minnesotans whose names have been lost to history. Courtney, Eliza, Mary, Louisa, William, Peter would have likely decried any attempt to describe their conditions of labor at Fort Snelling as “civilized” or intellectually elevated. And restoring the original name of the lake provides an opportunity for Minneapolitans to recognize that they live in the homeland of the Dakota.

Native American historian and activist Kate Beane has spent years uncovering the story of her ancestors who lived on the shores of Bde Maka Ska in a village that was called Heyate Otunwe or Cloudman’s Village. Led by Mahpiya Wicasta, or Cloud Man, this settlement was an agricultural experiment that melded Native American lifeways with farming practices championed by American settlers. This was the place where the Dakota language was first systematically recorded on paper by missionaries Samuel and Gideon Pond. This 1835 map created by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro clearly shows this community on the lake. Taliaferro’s drawing–which is part of the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society–also describes the lake as having “good fish of all description.”

Though successful in many ways, the village was abandoned in 1839. Hostilities between the Ojibwe and Dakota had flared. Inhabitants feared they were too vulnerable to attack. Any trace of Cloud Man’s Village was buried for good when the lake was transformed from an unruly marsh to a manicured urban playground. While there is a small marker to the Pond brothers, nothing indicates the historic presence of the Dakota people.

Defenders of the Calhoun moniker argue the name illuminates the sometimes uncomfortable history of the land that became Minneapolis. But we can do better. We can make our modern urban commons reflect the broader currents of the past. As we struggle to understand the origins of our racial disparities, we need signposts that can guide us as we explore the histories submerged in the city of lakes.

Where did the Gateway Turtle Fountain go?

Published June 4, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

One reader asked me yesterday whether the Gateway Turtle fountain had been destroyed. The fountain–which sat at the center of the park’s Beaux Arts Pavilion–features prominently in images of the district. Once it became a gathering spot for Skid Row denizens in the 1930s, the city drained the water from the basin to keep men from bathing and drinking from it.

The fountain survived the demolition of the Gateway and now lives in the Lake Harriet Rose Garden, where it now serves as a backdrop for many wedding photos.


8a22072v, harvest worker in the gateway district, russell lee, LOC

Scenes from Skid Row: the Minneapolis Gateway District during the Great Depression

Published June 3, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

The Minneapolis Gateway District drew the eyes of the nation during the Great Depression.

It started with the 1934 Truckers’ Strike, which pitted the Teamsters’ Union against a seemingly invincible employers’ association. Led by Trotskyites, who employed all kinds of novel organizing tactics, the truckers triumphed. But their victory came only after blood ran in the streets of downtown, where strikers and employers battled hand-to-hand, beating each other with clubs and bricks.

This civil war erupted just a few blocks from the Beaux-Arts pavilion of Gateway Park, which had become a gathering ground for crowds of unemployed men during this economic crisis. Some men tried to sleep their way through the global economic collapse, crashing on benches or snoozing on the grass. Others talked and read the newspaper. Everyone imagined better times. Their days were punctuated by appeals from missionaries and radicals. The missionaries pleaded with Gateway denizens to sin no more. The radicals called on the men to recognize what they regarded as the gospel truth: global capitalism had failed.

One reporter from Fortune magazine who visited the city in early 1936 feared that this message would find its mark. In April of that year he concluded that it was from the Gateway Park that “the revolution” so feared by many Americans  “may come.”

The same conditions that attracted radicals and missionaries also proved magnetic for a crew of talented photographers, who saw this area of concentrated despair as rich with documentary possibility. Russell Lee visited the city in 1937. His colleague John Vachon followed two years later. Both men were working for the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, part of what one historian has called the “alphabet soup” of Works Progress Administration agencies created by Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal team.

The images created by Lee and Vachon are transporting. They document the lost world of the early twentieth century Skid Row. And they provide an unparalleled view of Minneapolis at a moment of profound crisis.

Photographers in the FSA were employed to support the research of the Resettlement Administration, which brought together economists, sociologists, statisticians and agronomists to address the problems of the rural poor. This team–which included well-known photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange–illuminated the poverty of Americans whose geographic isolation hid them from public view. Lange’s iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother” came out of this effort.

There are few cities documented by the FSA in this period. Lee and Vachon may have chosen Minneapolis for its connection to the agricultural economy, the central concern of the FSA project. Many of the men they photographed in Minneapolis had drifted into the city after failing to find work in the agricultural economy. Vachon was also raised in St. Paul.

The Vachon and Lee photographs are housed in the FSA-OWI collection in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. This gallery also includes some images from the same period that are from the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society and Special Collections Department of the Hennepin County Library.


LOC Gateway fountain image, Lee, 1937, 8b36603v

Looking for the lost Gateway District of Minneapolis

Published June 1, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

On Saturday morning, Historyapolis will again team up with James Eli Shiffer to lead a Preserve Minneapolis tour of the lost Gateway district of Minneapolis. This will be our third year doing the tour, which poses some challenges since we have to re-create a world that no longer exists. To be successful, this expedition into the past demands the active participation of tour-goers, who have to make heavy use of their historical imaginations. If you’re willing to do some work and some walking, click on this link and join us for the fun.

For some people at least, the effort is worthwhile. This lost world holds riches for anyone interested in understanding the city in all of its seamy complexity.

The infamous Gateway, which became the region’s largest skid row around World War I, began to disappear under the bulldozers in 1959. That was the year the city launched its massive, federally-funded effort to redevelop downtown. When the dust settled, the city had flattened 40 percent of the central business district. City planners envisioned a futuristic cluster of skyscrapers rising from the rubble.

mpls_hra_081950_200, photo of Rod Engelen, Gateway model

Rod Engelen and other Minneapolis city planners. From the personal collection of Derek Engelen.


Some new, modern buildings did appear, like this structure constructed by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance company. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also was the architect of the World Trade Center in New York City, it was the pride and joy of the city’s urban planners.

Northwestern Mutural life insurance building, gateway, CPED collection

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Building, CPED collection, Hennepin County Library Special Collections.


But the clear-cut area was dominated by surface parking lots which are only now starting to be developed, more than 50 years after the wrecking balls did their work.

Before it was flattened, the district was known for everything that city boosters hated. Minneapolis was built on a river and tied to  the power of water. But its founders imagined it as a “city on a hill”: a model metropolis with no urban problems. This civic ideal persisted, despite the regular intrusion of reality. But it was the Gateway–perhaps more than anything else –that constantly challenged the city’s claim to be an urban paragon.

In the historic heart of the city, the alcohol flowed freely, the idlers wiled away their days in the park and on the sidewalks; the prostitutes were brazen; men sought sexual encounters with other men; the buildings were dilapidated and vermin-ridden; the communists and Wobblies called for the overthrow of capitalism and the American political system. Its flophouses sheltered people not welcome elsewhere. In these squalid conditions, a community took shape that included exhausted lumberjacks and harvest hands; alcoholics wanting to drink out their last years in peace; Chinese men seeking respite from West Coast racial violence; Native Americans looking for anonymity in the big city.

HG4 1 r6

Radical speakers in Gateway Park. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.


During the Great Depression, the district drew journalists and photographers who wanted to document the human suffering of the economic crisis. Photographers from the Farm Security Administration–like Russell Lee who shot the image of men in Gateway Park that is featured at the top of this post–immortalized Gateway denizens as the urban counterparts to Dorothea Lange’s migrant workers. And when a reporter from Fortune magazine visited the city in 1936 to investigate the origins of the Truckers’ Strike, which had been organized by Trotskyites but supported by thousands of working-class Minneapolitans, he concluded it was from the Gateway that “the revolution” so feared by many Americans “would come.”

smaller version, bemelmas image of gateway, fortune magazine 1936

The Gateway distilled the city’s social problems, concentrating them in a few overcrowded blocks that offered adventure, oblivion and community. Here was everything the city wanted to hide. Which is why a close examination of this one neighborhood reveals so much about Minneapolis.

It is this symbolic power of the Gateway that fascinates me. But for James, it is the culture and stories of Skid Row that draws him to this lost world. He has just completed a new history of the Gateway–which will be published by the University of Minnesota Press–that uses vivid storytelling and description to transport readers to this world in its twilight moments. The narrative centers on the life of John Bacich, aka Johnny Rex, the self-appointed “King” of Skid Row.  Bacich owned a bar and liquor store and flophouse in the Gateway. He also had a documentary impulse and shot home movies of these venues right before they were demolished. This footage was incorporated into a 1998 TPT documentary which James happened upon several years ago. Inspired to track down Bacich, James spent three years interviewing him before his death in 2012.

Beyond the Bacich footage, there is rich visual documentation of the Gateway, which has attracted generations of artists, documentarians and city planners. Over the course of the week to come, I’ll share some of my favorite of these images, which never fail to transport me to world that is utterly foreign to modern Minneapolitans.


“Into the boulevards”: Abby Mayhew and the lady cyclists of Minneapolis

Published May 14, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In honor of bicycle week, Historyapolis is going to pay homage to those who laid the foundation for our thriving cycling culture in Minneapolis.

In the 1890s, the United States was seized by what historians have called a “bicycle craze.” Minneapolitans were not immune to the seduction of two wheels. So in 1894, a group of young women decided to organize a cycling club that would take group “runs” to Cedar Lake and Lake Harriet twice a week.

Yet before they could embark on their first outing they had to settle a pressing question. What to wear?

The answer was provided by Abby Mayhew, pictured above, who can be credited with bringing physical fitness for women to the city. After arriving in Minneapolis in 1892, Mayhew started gym classes at the Young Woman’s Christian Association. She attracted both wage-earning women and their socially prominent sisters to her downtown gymnasium.

In the spring of 1894, she resolved to bring her female athletes, in the words of one newspaper account, “into the boulevards, country roads and upon the bosom of the waters.” The result was summer outing clubs for the growing membership of the YWCA. Thanks to Mayhew, Minneapolitans got accustomed to seeing large groups of women biking, rowing and playing tennis in the city’s parks.

This kind of physical activity was impossible without proper attire. So Mayhew designed a bloomer costume for lady athletes. This issue drew the fascinated attention of the city’s journalists, who made repeated visits to the YWCA to observe and sketch the costumes of the exercising women. And a reporter was on hand when members of the newly constituted bicycling club voted “amid the blushes of the fair members” to wear Mayhew’s bloomers “at each club run.”

Exercising women, YWCA, U of M collection

Women in “Syrian garb” exercising at the YWCA, c. 1890s. Image is from the YWCA Scrapbooks, Social Welfare History Archives, the University of Minnesota.

The “Syrian garb,” as Mayhew called it, was both “attractive and sensible” though it was shorter than other bloomer costumes seen in the city since it clasped “well up to the knee.” But the would-be cyclists steeled themselves with the resolution that “union is strength.” They decided to “make their first essay at public appearance in this garb together. Being sweetly sensible girls of the right calibre,” the newspaper reported, “they will doubtless persuade man to show his gallantry by not staring or being otherwise rude.”

On a May evening in 1894, the inaugural run of the bicycle club attracted the curious but not the vulgar. Newspaper accounts marveled at the spectacle of “nearly 20 young women in bloomer costume, ready to mount their wheels. . .in front of the Young Woman’s Christian Association rooms on Nicollet Avenue.” Only “one solitary member of the party was without the divided skirt; the rest adopted the latest cut and set an example in a body.”

After their ride, the women wrapped up the evening with a social hour at the YWCA. This group was led by Captain W. Snow and her lieutenant Madge Elliott. This fearless band of pioneers included Mlles. E.E. Mills, Kittie Webster, Hattie Evans, Fowler, Nichols, Butman, Dunn, as well as sisters Chadbourne and sisters Peck. The matrons included Mesdames Blair, Hall, Witchie, Chator and Nash.

To these women, I say thank you for defying gender conventions to get on your wheels in public. Their trepidation may seem laughable to modern day readers who don shiny spandex and cycle to all corners of the city. But these lady riders were part of a long-running effort by women to claim public space. They likely did not identify as feminists. But they shared the feminist vision that women should be able to move –under their own power and in the company of other women–through city streets without harassment.

Abby Mayhew left the city three years later to head the physical education program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She returned to the Twin Cities upon her retirement in 1930, dying in 1954 at the age of 90. Perhaps all that physical activity paid off.

Images and text for this post is taken from the 1894 scrapbooks of the YWCA, Box 12, YWCA Collection, Social Welfare History Archive at the University of Minnesota.