The extensive African American historical presence on Minneapolis’ South Side was highlighted on June 28 when from 6:30 to 8:00 pm community members from the Central, Bryant, and Kingsfield South Minneapolis neighborhoods participated in the first annual East 38th Street area Black History Walking Tour.
Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, who represents those neighborhoods, was among several individuals who took the tour. Along with her council staff, Glidden also assisted with the organizing efforts for the event, which was sponsored by Preserve Minneapolis. “Community members have been talking about doing this tour for a long time,” said Glidden.
The walking tour covered 12 different historic locations, with some pending designation as historic landmarks and a few others already so designated, like the Hosmer Library. Hosmer is located at 347 East 36th Street and is on the national register of historic places.
Another location not yet nominated as a landmark but carrying a rich history is the Richard Green School. The original Central High School building stood at 3416 4th Avenue South from 1860 to 1982.
Some of the people touring already knew that Minneapolis Central High School has several noteworthy graduates, like the late legendary musician Prince Rogers Nelson; the first African American woman mayor of Minneapolis, Sharon Sayles-Belton; and Judge Pamela Alexander, just to name a few. The only part of the original Central High structure remaining is the gymnasium that was built in 1976.
The corner of 38th Street and 4th Avenue has long been known for Black entrepreneurship and was described by one of the tour guides as another “Black Wall Street.”
Currently, the oldest Black business in the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR), is still located there at 3744 4th Avenue South. Founded in 1934 by the late Cecil E. Newman, the business celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015, and on November 20, 2015, the MSR building, constructed in 1958, was designated as a local historic landmark. The MSR is still family-owned and operated by the current CEO and Publisher Tracey Williams-Dillard, who is Newman’s granddaughter.
Next on the tour was the Lena O. Smith House, located at 3905 5th Avenue South, which has also been designated as a historic landmark. Lena O. Smith, born in 1855, was the first African American woman licensed to practice law in the state of Minnesota. Smith was also the first president of the NAACP, and a founder of the Minneapolis Urban League. One of Smith’s high-profile cases was featured during the tour — she was the attorney representing Arthur and Edith Lee.
The Arthur and Edith Lee House, located at 4600 Columbus Avenue South, is a National Historic Landmark. The Lees purchased their home in 1931, but felt hostility from their new neighbors, who were all White. As many as 3,000 White people regularly formed angry mobs to surround the Lee home and threw rocks while chanting threats and racial slurs in an attempt to force the Lees to move out.
The Lee family fought back and held their ground. The family’s attorney, H.E. Maag, made a statement to reporters that the Lee family would consider moving if certain conditions were met, but the Lee’s sought the advice of attorney Lena O. Smith, who advised them not to move out in spite of the relief that a settlement would bring.
The Lees decided to stay in their home, fired attorney Maag, and hired attorney Smith, who began officially representing the Lee family. The Lees lived in their home for a few more years and eventually, on their own terms, moved a few blocks north to the Central Neighborhood area.
By 1950, when the Tilsenbilt Homes on 3rd, 4th and 5th Avenue South were constructed, there was a smidgen of progress in the area regarding access to housing. Built by Edward Tilsen with help from African American philanthropist Archie Givens, Sr., Tilsenbilt Homes was one of the first federally-supported residential housing developments in the United States that was open to buyers of all racial backgrounds, according to the tour information.
Greater Sabathani Mission Baptist Church was established in 1959, located at 3805 3rd Avenue South, and later changed its name to Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, eventually moving to 2600 East 38th Street. The newly built Seward Coop Friendship store, built on the former church’s site, is named in its honor. Directly across the street is Sabathani Community Center, located at 310 East 38th Street South. Founded in 1966 by concerned members of Sabathani Church, the center celebrates 50 years of service as of 2016.
The tour ended with a walk over I-35W across the 40th Street bridge to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, which was renamed following the civil rights leader’s assassination in 1968. After the walk, 18 people who participated in the tour gathered at Pepito’s Restaurant to fellowship and recap their tour experience.
The MSR spoke with Mary Merrill Anderson, a former Minneapolis Park Board superintendent, who was helping with the walking tour. Asked why a Black history walking tour is important, she said, “People get a flavor and a feel for the community [by walking] that you just can’t get by driving or biking through. Where it was, where it is, where it’s going, and a feel for the people from there.” Anderson believes that the tour should be annual because it could eventually create a shared understanding among community members about the true value of these landmarks and the history they represent.