Photo from minneapolis mob outside Lee house, 1931, published in the Crisis

“A Right to Establish a Home”

Published August 22, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

Some of you might recall that in July I wrote about the Lee family and their efforts to make a home in an all-white neighborhood in South Minneapolis. A new exhibit that explores this subject–examining the violent reaction of the community–opens tonight, at Rapson Hall, on the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota.

“A Right to Establish a Home” is the work of University of Minnesota professor Greg Donofrio and his students. The exhibit looks beyond the chilling mob vigil–which divided the city in the summer of 1931–to look at the broader context of race and housing in Minneapolis, racism in Minnesota, and the individuals and organizations that defended the Lees, including the NAACP and the distinguished attorney Lena Olive Smith. For more background about what went into this exhibit, read this article.

If you can’t make it to the opening reception, the exhibit will be up until early January. Check it out. This is one of the most critical–and ugliest–episodes in the history of the city.

grand jury abortion indictment, theresa solie

“An Illegal Operation”: The Case of Theresa Solie, part 2

Published April 24, 2014 by Derek Waller

Today’s guest blogger is Derek Waller, a senior from St. Olaf College who interned with the Historyapolis Project for his January term. A history major with a minor in gender studies, Waller explores the history of abortion in Minneapolis in this two-part post.

Shortly after Theresa Solie died from a botched abortion, the Minneapolis Tribune reported “2 Face Arraignment In Illegal Operation.” An inconspicuous piece on page 20, the article gave the names and addresses of the doctor and Martin Schmidt, reporting that the men were put on trial for performing the operation. The doctor, R.J.C. Brown, was an African-American who had operated a small practice in the Near North side for over a decade.

The average cost of an abortion in the 1930s was $67; Solie paid less than half that amount for her abortion. This probably indicates that Brown was catering to a less affluent group of women. We have no way to know whether he specialized in abortions or merely began to offer this service as a way for making up for the income that many physicians lost in the economic collapse of the Great Depression.

At the trial, Dr. Brown was represented by Lena Olive Smith, a prominent civil rights pioneer and Minnesota’s first female African-American attorney. Smith called on only two witnesses at the trial, Dorothy Johnson and Marie Schmidt. Dorothy, a friend of Theresa’s, testified that she was working as a prostitute, and Mrs. Schmidt’s testimony supported this claim. She said that Theresa was rarely home in the evening, and was unemployed. Mrs. Schmidt testified further that Theresa had received a package with medication to induce an abortion. However, the court refused to admit the pillbox as evidence, which was found among Theresa’s belongings. At every turn during the trial, the court ruled against Brown and Schmidt, admitting all the testimony for the prosecution while blocking evidence and testimony from the defense.

The court charged Brown and Schmidt with first degree manslaughter, sentencing both to prison. Schmidt was released after a year, while Brown served nearly 10 years; racism was almost certainly a factor in this outcome. Whether either of these men were responsible for Theresa’s death, we will likely never know. What does seem likely is that Theresa was a sex worker. No records of employment or testimony from an employer surfaced during the trial. Under desperate circumstances, Theresa had few connections in Minneapolis, and did not really have other options. Given the economic climate of 1938, many women ended up working as sex workers. Without the money or support system to raise a child, Theresa had to terminate her pregnancy. An unregulated and non-standardized practice in 1938, abortion was more likely to lead to death than it is today.  The state found two men to blame for Theresa’s death, but did not recognize the material circumstances that caused it.

Thanks to William Mitchell law professor Ann Juergens, who shared this case and her other research on Lena Olive Smith with Historyapolis.


social composition of near northside neighborhoods, map from a study of social conditions, 1925

“The mixture of races in this district is detrimental”

Published March 24, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This “Social Composition of North Side Neighborhoods” was drawn by a researcher associated with the Women’s Cooperative Alliance, which assembled an encyclopedic analysis of moral conditions in the city in 1925. The Cooperative Alliance was a consortium of women’s groups organized in April, 1917 to identify and eradicate conditions contributing to juvenile delinquency.  The Alliance had broad community support and attracted active representatives from nineteen local women’s organizations, including the Council of Jewish Women, the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis and the League of Catholic Women.

None of this would be obvious from this map, which seems merely to codify popular ethnic and class prejudices. The key on the right side shows how the research cartographer divided this district into sections defined by race, ethnicity, class and moral rectitude. It delineates blocks of “American Born, socially inadequate” from “American Born, socially adequate.” It distinguishes areas inhabited by “Colored” from those dominated by “Foreign Born Slavics” from those defined as “Jewish” and “Jewish, prosperous families.” These categories were separate from the sections annotated as “Miscellaneous Nationalities unskilled wage earning families” and “Scandinavian- thrifty comfortable homes.”

These crude characterizations obscure the complex and contradictory mission of the Women’s Cooperative Alliance, which employed twenty-four staff members, who had assembled this data in this report to demonstrate the need for a more wholesome urban environment for children. They lobbied for improved lighting in the city parks and better enforcement of juvenile curfew laws. They monitored the treatment of women and children in the judicial system—an issue that I will discuss more in a later post. They fought to mute the siren song of commercial amusements. The women associated with the Alliance would have been delighted to see the city shutter all of its dance halls, pool halls, movie theaters, candy stores and carnivals, just as Prohibition had closed its saloons.

The work of the organization had yet another element. More than 3,000 women volunteered with the Alliance to serve as block, precinct and ward workers, who were charged with visiting every home in their district to ascertain conditions and educate mothers. They hoped to reach out to immigrant mothers in particular, who they feared had neither the resources nor the knowledge necessary to keep their children out of pool halls, movie theaters, saloons and dance halls.

This map—which was part of the group’s five-part Study of Social Conditions–sought to guide this work by illuminating where education was most necessary. The accompanying text explained that the moral crisis was acute on the city’s North Side where the greatest “evils” were “prostitution and the liquor traffic. Not only are many of the furnished rooms over stores on Sixth Avenue vice resorts, but in many of the homes through the district women are prostituting themselves before their little children.” There was plenty of blame to go around, the writer asserted. “This vice is not confined to one race but occurs between colored and white, both Gentile and Jew. It does not include many Jewish women. The making of liquor, however, is reported by social workers to be common among the Jewish women and under cover of junk peddling it is easily distributed.” The problems of the North Side, according to the researcher, were rooted in its polyglot character. “The mixture of races in this district is detrimental,” she concluded. “The situation grows more serious because of the continual influx of migrant people of both races.”

The map is from a Study of Social Conditions, held at the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Central Library. Information about the Cooperative Women’s Alliance is from the vertical files at the Minneapolis Collection  and Leigh Ann Wheeler, Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

Photo from minneapolis mob outside Lee house, 1931, published in the Crisis

The woman who faced a white mob: Lena Olive Smith

Published March 13, 2014 by JaneAnne Murray

Today’s guest blogger is JaneAnne Murray, a Minneapolis-based solo criminal defense lawyer and Practitioner in Residence at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she teaches classes in criminal law and procedure.  In this post she describes the life and legacy of Lena Olive Smith, an African American lawyer and one of the earliest leaders of the NAACP in Minneapolis.

There are strikingly modern echoes in the life and times of Minneapolis lawyer and activist, Lena Olive Smith (1885-1966).  She herself cut a distinctly contemporary figure, and not just because of her masculine suits and ties. At age 21, she became the family breadwinner, evolving into a self-made career woman at a time when that ambition was shocking. She was an early devotee of reinventing oneself, trying out a motley series of professions (cosmetologist, hair-dresser, embalmer, realtor) until she alighted serendipitously on the law in her 30s.  She broke ceilings most people did not even contemplate– graduating from law school in 1921 with a handful of other women, and becoming the first African-American woman lawyer to be licensed in Minnesota.  She was one of the original public interest lawyers – taking on (often pro bono) the claims of tenants, modest homeowners, struggling professionals, and criminal defendants, always with an eye to the broader and constitutional dimensions of their cases.  And, in part due to her advocacy at the personal level, she became a community organizer and leader, operating with the savvy of one of today’s political strategists who understands that power is seized and wielded in diverse ways.

This fiercely independent woman found her calling in the nascent civil rights movement.  In a highly readable article about Smith’s life and career, William Mitchell law professor Ann Juergens describes several of the major cases Smith handled during her tenure in leadership positions of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, including a ten-year stint as its president from 1930 to 1939.  In her most famous case, Smith represented Arthur and Edith Lee, a black couple facing a white mob protesting their purchase of a home in a white neighborhood. This photo–published in the NAACP publication The Crisis–shows the scene outside 4600 Columbus Avenue, when Smith took charge of the volatile situation.

Shoring up political allies and police protection, Smith counseled the Lees to stand their ground – which, with Smith and the NAACP’s support, they managed to do for several years.  In another case, Smith and the NAACP helped strategize a political campaign on behalf of a black student denied admission to the nursing program of the University of Minnesota, ostensibly because there were no “colored wards” for her clinical training.  These efforts shamed the Board of Regents into reversing the University’s position.  Other causes during these heady years included lobbing against showings of The Birth of A Nation (a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan), contesting discrimination in public places, and identifying and challenging racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Juergens sees Smith’s career as bridging “the ideal and the real in Minnesota,” between “egalitarian rules” and the “racist practices” they masked – a project, she acknowledged, that is ongoing.  One cannot help but see the parallels between Smith’s battles and the segregation, racial inequality and racial stereotyping that continue to persist today: in the areas of housingeducationemployment and criminal justice.

History is made real through the stories of people who touch and inspire, connecting the past to our present and to our future.  Lena Smith is one who reaches across time with the possibilities – and responsibilities – of engaging with family, community, and principle.  These impulses invariably conflict.  They did in spectacular fashion for Smith, when, in a bizarre and tragic turn of events, she defended one brother on murder charges involving another, just a year out of law school (ethical issues, be damned!).  After a hung jury, the surviving brother took a plea to manslaughter.  Reality is messy and right isn’t always clean.  Smith accepted and straddled these contradictions, while playing her part in the bigger struggle to make the world a better place.  As such, her story has an Everywoman quality that speaks to all women navigating the dual demands of society’s opportunities and tradition’s expectations.



racial covenant

Racial Covenants

To enforce racial segregation in Minneapolis, real estate agents encouraged property owners to attach covenants to their property. Covenants like the one pictured here were incorporated into the property abstract. They bound property owners to not convey the property to anyone of “Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Monogolian or African blood or descent.” Many homes in Minneapolis have these kinds of covenants buried in their abstracts. Do you know what is in your deed?