clarence miller map from sumner library, north side map, daniel bergin

Sumner Field: A Tale of Two Maps on the North Side of Minneapolis

Published July 14, 2014 by Daniel Bergin

It’s Map Monday. Our guest blogger today is Daniel Bergin, Senior Producer at Twin Cities Public Television and the director/producer of “Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis.” First broadcast in 2011 on TPT’s Minnesota channel, this documentary about the history of the enclave known as the “Northside” was co-produced by TPT and the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC). Bergin writes here about two maps he found while researching “Cornerstones” and what they can and cannot reveal about the city’s near North side.

Maps can present context, scale and scope.  But it often takes the voice of the people to provide a meaningful ‘legend’ to interpret what cannot be conveyed in the abstract representations of a map.

In producing “Cornerstones,”  I came across two different maps that provide better understanding of this storied section of the city.  But it was the voices of the people that helped me understand what these maps conveyed and what they obscured.

Both maps show Sumner Field, an area of near North Minneapolis that has been reshaped several times in the last century and a half.  This multi-block area’s built environment and landscape has evolved from ramshackle, immigrant housing to the pleasantly manicured and landscaped community that is today’s Heritage Park.

A common element throughout this evolution, however, is the green space known as Sumner Field.  This approximate area is seen in both of these maps.

sumner field before construction, photo 1, side 1

Sumner Field, before construction, c. 1930s. From the collection of the Hennepin County Library Special Collections, uncatalogued newspaper photos. Thanks to Rita Yeada for digitizing.


The map at the top was hand-drawn creation by Northsider Clarence Miller. His graphic curio is on display at the historic Sumner Branch library. Sumner Field is the center of this brilliant layman’s map.  One gets the sense that this meticulously crafted folk-artwork is as much a quilt as it is a map.

Miller’s map shows Sumner Field before the area was bulldozed to create a federally-funded housing project during the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. Sumner Field was the first federally-funded housing project in the city of Minneapolis. This map shows the new development as imagined by planners and promoters:

sumner field homes, promotional brochure map from daniel bergin

This overhead view–taken from a promotional brochure for the new development–provides a sense of the multi-dwelling units, their relationship to each other and the footprint of the development.  What the map does not show is the human geography of the new development, which was designed to be segregated by race. As University of Minnesota professor Kate Solomonson explained, there were “particular parts of Sumner Field Homes that were for African Americans, another section, a larger section, for what they called ‘mixed whites.’”

Neither map illuminates the racial boundaries that were seen as necessary for social order in the city that would become known as a bastion of racial equality under mayor Hubert Humphrey after World War II.

Nor do they convey how Sumner Field ultimately broke down racial barriers. In an encouraging testament to the power of place, Janet Raskin, a daughter of the Jewish North Side, explained how the park served as a commons for all Northsiders. “We had white, we had the park, and we had Afro-American,’ And we all played together in the park.”

For more about the history of Sumner Field and north Minneapolis, click here to watch Cornerstones.

Both maps are from the collections of the Hennepin County Library.


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.



edited version, newspaper clipping for dereks' linden hills post

Race War continued: Linden Hills, 1909

Published February 25, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

Prospect Park was not the only Minneapolis neighborhood to experience racial turmoil in 1909. Linden Hills erupted in protest when one resident decided to retaliate against her neighbors by selling her home to an African-American newcomer to the city. When Marie Canfield announced that Methodist Reverend William S. Malone had purchased 4441 Zenith Avenue, neighbors were enraged. Vandals shattered the home’s windows. And the white minister of the Western Avenue Methodist Church condemned the temerity of the African-American buyer. “Black people should avoid going into a community where their presence is irritating,” he told his parishioners.

Earlier in the year, Canfield had sued the New England Furniture Company for selling her a faulty stove with a gas leak. At the trial, three of Canfield’s neighbors testified that she was frequent user of opiates. She lost her case, and was fined by the court. Her response was to list her property–in the growing streetcar suburb on the West side of Lake Harriet–“for sale to negroes only.” The resulting ruckus was closely followed by the Minneapolis Tribune, which nicknamed the property the “Spite House.”

Neighbors decided to fight the sale, hiring an attorney to represent their interests. Their choice was strategic. They tapped William R. Morris, one of Minneapolis’s few African-American attorneys. Born in Kentucky to former slaves, Morris graduated from law school in Chicago, and moved to Minneapolis in 1889. Morris became the executive chairman of the newly-founded Minneapolis NAACP in 1914, and was a leader in the local black community. By hiring Morris, the neighborhood association legitimized their mission to the city’s established black community. The following Sunday, Rev. Wharton of the Minneapolis African Methodist Church preached: “there is no necessity of our thrusting ourselves where we are obnoxious to others and can never feel at home.”

An outsider to the city’s small African-American middle class, Malone had planned to start a small mission at 707 Washington Avenue. Malone’s mission in a poor, working class neighborhood conflicted with the African Methodist Church’s image of black respectability. Wealthier blacks like Morris and Wharton helped build an image of middle-class respectability for the small black community in Minneapolis. They were eager to distance themselves from Malone, bolstering their own reputations in the process.

The neighbors tried to raise money to buy the Canfield house from Malone. Before they reached a settlement, the Hennepin County sheriff seized the property. Canfield had not paid the judgment from her lawsuit against New England Furniture Company, so the county took the property. After the seizure, Canfield sold the property to the neighborhood association, cutting out Malone. The Tribune reported: “By the payment of good, hard coin, the residents of Linden Hills have averted the establishment of a ‘dark town’ in their midst.”

Image is from the Minneapolis Tribune, December 28th, 1909. Proquest Historical Newspapers. Access provided by St. Olaf College.

This post was written by Historyapolis intern Derek Waller, who researched the origins of residential segregation in Minneapolis for his January term project at St. Olaf College. Waller is continuing his research into this and other incidents, which he will present as part of a senior capstone paper.

map of prospect park, 1914, real estate atlas, for derek's post

Minneapolis “Race War” 1909: Prospect Park

Published February 24, 2014 by Kirsten Delegard

It’s map Monday. This plate–from the 1914 real estate atlas for Minneapolis–shows the Prospect Park neighborhood near the Mississippi River. This orderly grid gives no hint of the emotions stirred in this section of the city in 1909, when an African American family purchased three lots at 17 Melbourne Avenue.

William H. Simpson had decided to establish a home in the leafy, middle-class neighborhood at the advice of his friend and fellow Pullman Porter Madison Jackson. Both Jackson and Simpson were African American. Both had good jobs with the railroad, which provided some of the best employment prospects in the Twin Cities for black men at the time. Neighbors grumbled when Jackson had moved his family into the all white neighborhood. But when his friend Simpson decided to do the same thing, they sprang into action.

On October 21, 1909, a crowd of over one hundred residents marched to the Jackson residence, where Simpson was staying to oversee the construction of his new house. There they delivered an unequivocal message to Simpson: members of his race were not welcome in Prospect Park. In the face of threats and insults from the Prospect Park Improvement Association, Simpson held his ground, hoping that residents would come to accept him and his family, as they had Jackson. He continued building and improving his home, investing over $4,000 into the property. Some residents interfered with the process, blocking builders from working on the property. According to the Tribune, these intimidation tactics brought Simpson to the negotiating table with the neighbors, who had organized a corporation to buy him out.

Local clergy proved supportive of Simpson. The pastor at St. James African Methodist Church in St. Paul, the leading black church in the Twin Cities, denounced neighbors from the pulpit as “colossal hypocrites.” Perhaps more surprising was the reaction of the minister of the local Methodist Church, who announced that he would not aid white residents, who were probably some of his parishioners. He told the Minneapolis Tribune that  “I am glad if my absence in the gathering of Thursday night was noticeable.”

The Simpsons remained in the Prospect Park home into the 1920s. The small African-American community in Minneapolis did not forget the conflict. When the leader of the white neighbors was nominated for County Attorney the following year, The Twin City Star, an African-American newspaper, reminded its readership of the Simpson house conflict. When the same man was arrested for forgery a year later, the Star reported: “Negro-Hater in the Toils, Prospect Park Agitor in Jail.”

This post was written by Historyapolis intern Derek Waller, who researched the origins of residential segregation in Minneapolis for his January term project at St. Olaf College. Waller is continuing his research into this and other incidents, which he will present as part of a senior capstone paper.