Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.

“Gentiles Only”

Published March 6, 2015 by Kirsten Delegard

In the spring of 1942, the Minneapolis Morning Tribune published a rental advertisement for a duplex on 34th and Holmes Avenue South. The opportunity to inhabit the elegant Tudor-style building two blocks from Lake Calhoun would have been attractive, especially in light of the wartime housing shortage. At first glance the rental notice seems formulaic: “May 1st occupancy. No children. Rent $95. Shown by appointment only.”  Yet one of its provisions jars modern readers: “Gentiles only.”

close up of Gentiles Only Rental Ad, Council on Jewish Community Relations, MHS

Rental Advertisement from the Minneapolis Morning Tribune March, 1942.


This advertisement appeared five years before journalist Carey McWilliams named Minneapolis “the capitol of anti-Semitism in the United States.” In 1947, the radical journalist distilled years of commentary on the city into a pithy article in Common Ground that drew on the imagery of totalitarianism made famous by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “In almost every walk of life,” McWilliams wrote, “‘an iron curtain’ separates Jews from non-Jews in Minneapolis.” McWilliams declared: “Minneapolis is the only city in America in which Jews are, as a matter of practice and custom, ineligible for membership in the service clubs. . .Even the Automobile Club in Minneapolis refuses to accept Jews as members.”

McWilliams’ devastating description rocked the city, helping to spark a community-wide effort to remake race relations in the city during the latter half of the 1940s. But he was hardly the first outside observer to level these kinds of accusations. In 1943–one year after this ad was published–journalist Selden Menefee visited the Mill City while gathering material for a book about the American people during wartime. He was shocked by the city’s hostility to Jews. “Anti-Semitism is stronger here than anywhere I have ever lived,” one professional man told him. “It’s so strong that people of all groups I have met make the most blatant statements against Jews with the calm assumption that they are merely stating facts with which anyone could agree. ”

Commentators speculated on the origins of this prejudice, settling on another set of ethnic stereotypes for explanation. They blamed Scandinavian “clannishness”; Lutheran hostility toward other religions; and Yankee “aloofness.” They singled out the city’s trade unions for racism. They decried the influence of evangelicals like William B. Riley and Luke Rader, who mixed biblical prophecy with anti-Semitic bile.

Religious intolerance in the isolated “Gateway to the Northwest” would probably never drawn national attention without the efforts of local Jews, who organized in 1938 to fight a rising tide of anti-Semitism. Jews had long been scapegoats. But the rise of Hitler and anti-Semitic totalitarianism re-cast this rhetoric. In the wake of a bitter election campaign that turned on anti-Semitic propaganda, Mill City Jews concluded that countering these prejudices was a matter of survival.

Out of this resolution grew the Jewish Council of Minnesota, which appointed Samuel Scheiner as its first director. Charged with documenting incidents of anti-Semitism, Scheiner crusaded against bigotry in the community for three decades. He fought many battles on the terrain of property and real estate, where racism was firmly institutionalized.

On April 2, Scheiner typed a shockingly conciliatory protest to John Turber, the owner of the Holmes Avenue property.  He opened by acknowledging that the landlord had broken no laws. “The owner of any real estate has the absolute right to select his tenants on the basis of congeniality and ability to get along with other tenants in the building,” Scheiner conceded. But “we believe that where a real estate owner draws the line of discrimination, such feelings should not be expressed by way of an open want-ad, for it serves to stigmatize as socially inferior or undesirable a whole group of American citizens.”

Scheiner allowed that there were ” unworthy Jews and vulgar Jews” and that attempts ” to mix Jewish and non-Jewish tenants sometimes reacts to the detriment of the person owning the property.” But he appealed to Tuber’s patriotism. “We all have a job to do in educating our fellow citizens,” he declared. These practices signify “the beginning of a trend toward totalitarianism, which I am sure you abhor equally as much as we.”

Scheiner closed by acknowledging that Turber might remain determined to “keep people of our faith out of your building.” But he implored him to “exercise your policy of discrimination in a discrete and unpublicized manner. I am sure that you will find many ways to keep from renting your premises to people of our faith without the necessity of advertising the same so openly.”

Scheiner reported that Turner withdrew his advertisement. Perhaps the landlord had secured a tenant who met his criteria. But even if Turner had recanted his prejudice, the retraction of this ad would have been a minor victory in a long-running battle for tolerance.

Ads like these were only one weapon in the arsenal of anti-Semites. Jews were barred from living in South Minneapolis by  property managers who denied their rental applications; real estate agents who turned away their purchase offers;  neighborhood organizers who wrote restrictive covenants into property records; and landlords who penned their  prejudices into leases like this one:


Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.

Lease for Dupont Court Apartments, 1939.


This rental agreement for the “Dupont Court” Apartments on 1101 West 28th Street stipulates that the floors will be washed, the bedroom walls papered and a deposit paid for each key. It forbids the tenant from hanging wash from the balcony. And finally, it makes two declarations. First: “the makers and signers of this lease are of Arayan descent.” And second, the tenant was prohibited from subletting “this apartment to anyone of Semitic descent.”

Images and correspondence are from the Council Records of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota at the Minnesota Historical Society.


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.



Indian sugar camp, eastman

March is Maple Sugar Month

Published March 5, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

The month we now devote to women’s history was traditionally dedicated to maple sugaring for Dakota and Ojibwe women. The beginning of meteorological spring sent Indian men in search of muskrat pelts.  They separated from their women and children, who moved their camps into the sugar bush. These camps labored to create enormous stores of maple sugar, which would sustain the community for the rest of the year. In good years, they were able to make enough for their own consumption and extra to trade. Women could exchange maple sugar for the manufactured goods that had transformed their lives in the early nineteenth century.

Most critical for women were the kind of metal kettles pictured here, in this 1845 watercolor by Army officer Seth Eastman. Normally used for routine cooking, these pots were filled with sap in March. The sap boiled for days until it was reduced to sugar, which could be packed into birch bark containers. These served as early Indian tupperware.

Maple sugar was an important dietary supplement for everyone in the region. According to the explorer Henry School craft, it was “profusely eaten by all of every age,” leading to enormous problems with tooth decay. Sugar consumption increased with the advent of the fur trade, when newcomers brought both metal kettles and an expectation that their food would be sweetened. Pots made large scale sugar production possible. And Indian women cornered the market on maple sugar; local cravings for sweets were satisfied by their hard labors and planning every spring.

In the area that became Minneapolis, Dakota women made annual pilgrimages to sugar bush groves located on Nicollet Island and near Minnehaha Falls. In these spots, proximity to the Mississippi River ensured that trees had the moisture they needed to create a steady stream of sap. Early reports describe how soldiers sometimes tried to push women out of these choice locations, in an effort to seize control of this valuable local commodity. In 1829, the Dakota protested to Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro. “You my Father promised not to let any person interfere with a Small piece of ground where our women go sometimes make a little Sugar,” they asserted. “You promised us this.”

Information on maple sugaring in Minneapolis is from Bruce White and Gwen Westerman’s Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2012): 97-98. This watercolor was created by Seth Eastman and might depict the Nicollet Island sugar bush in the winter of 1845.

Smaller version, Minnehaha park photo, Minneapolis newspaper photos, special collections, hclib001

Minneapolis and the Cult of Hiawatha

Published February 26, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

I found this photo in the newspaper morgue in the Minneapolis collection at the Hennepin County Central library. Dated October 6, 1927, it shows two girls–one dressed like a fictional “Indian maiden”–posing by Jakob Fjelde’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha statue at Minnehaha Park. It’s impossible to know the reason this photo was taken. Yet it illuminates a larger story, the nation’s obsession with the “cult” of Hiawatha that grew out of Henry Longfellow’s 1855 poem. This epic verse was a literary sensation that popularized a fictional Indian–a spiritual and peace-loving aborigine who had little in common with the real Native Americans the nation was determined to exterminate in the same period. Longfellow’s Indians came to epitomize American virtues at a moment many feared the nation was threatened by unrestricted immigration. With its high proportion of foreign born residents, Minneapolis claimed the verse as its own, even though it was set “on the shores of Gitchee Gumee.” The urban landscape was reshaped by the poem’s iconography. Minnehaha Park was christened in 1889; Lake Amelia became Lake Nokomis in 1910; Rice Lake was reborn as Lake Hiawatha in 1925. Created in 1893, the statue pictured here was placed on this spot above Minnehaha Falls in 1912.

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?