A candid conversation with Nathaniel Khaliq
Sometimes the term living legend simply fits. Point in case, Nathaniel A. Khaliq’s life, career and legacy. The St. Paul native son has fought on the frontlines for civil rights longer than many of us have been alive with a sense of unstinting commitment to community.
He served as president of the Board of Directors of the St. Paul NAACP and the Islamic Center Masjid An Nur. He is a trusted liaison between the grass roots and mainstream and has served on on search committees for the police chief and fire chief of St. Paul. He’s accepted numerous appointments from the mayor of the City of St. Paul and the governor of the State of Minnesota.
Importantly, Khaliq was involved in initiatives to improve opportunities for housing, economic development and criminal justice for African Americans. These accomplishments have been recognized with the inaugural Elizabeth Clark Neighborhood Activist Award, William Mitchell Law School Community Service Award, Minnesota Association of Black Lawyer’s Profiles in Courage Award, the Minnesota Minority Lawyer’s Profiles in Courage Award, and St. Paul Urban League Family of the Year Award.
He co-founded BNV Properties with his wife Victoria Davis to provide affordable housing, an increasingly invaluable resource. Marine Corps veteran, graduate of St. Paul College and Dunwoody Institute, he is retired from the St. Paul Fire Department. Ms. Davis reflects on being shoulder to shoulder with her husband through the years of fight for what’s right.
“It has been an amazing journey,” she says. “The best part was watching God reward his spirit of love for family and community with a bold commitment to serve.”
Easygoing, unassuming, over coffee in his kitchen, Nathaniel Khaliq (NK) relates historic events in an iconic era of social progress with candid, thoughtful recollection.
MSR: How did it all begin?
NK: I got involved in community politics and being a community activist when Dale and Selby was a real hotspot so far as Black-on-Black crime. At a certain establishment brothers were being killed up there, being beat up, shot, stabbed.
My nephew was 15 or 16. A guy threatened one of his friends. They went up there, confronted the guy, and the guy shot him dead on the street. After that, a friend of mine, Leroy Parker, was boxing with a guy. The other brother pulled out a knife and cut him open on the same corner. I was complaining about how this [was] allowed to continue with nobody challenging it.
Politicians, so-called community leaders, said, “Why don’t you stop complaining about it and do something?” So, I called the president of the city council at the time, Ron Maddox. He gave me the runaround. I talked to some of the Black ministers and they said, “If we close that down, they’ll just go somewhere else and kill each other.”
So, I went and got a petition to close the establishment. And got with Kwame McDonald, Bobby Hickman, Katie McWatt and a couple other folks to go down to City Hall with our petition. We told them if this was happening in any other neighborhood they would shut it down, wouldn’t allow it to happen. That’s how I got involved.
MSR: How rewarding has it been to work toward social justice and do it with Victoria right beside you?
NK: Very rewarding, because not only is she my wife and the mother of my children, Vicky is my closest confidant. [She will] always look me in the eye and tell me if I was right or wrong. Always had suggestions on how to move things along. She’s been involved in the educational issues affecting our community while my road took me to deal with other issues such as quality of life, trying to change the negative behavior of brothers, how that impact was affecting us.
I was a knucklehead myself as a young man. Born and raised on Rondo, got involved in a lot of stupid things. I knew it was wrong. Had folks to offer me advice, but got caught up. Even when I came out of the service, hanging out on Selby at a place called the Celebrity Lounge. Meeting my wife helped to raise my consciousness to the point where the same energy I used to do negative things, I turned around and started doing positive.
MSR: You and she ever had different ideas on how to get the job done?
NK: Oh, yeah. But it never got out of hand or ugly. We were able to carry on our lives, raise our kids, enjoy each other and so forth. The biggest challenge was to separate community politics from our personal life.
The passion she dealt with — and, you know, she’s a real smart, smart sister — graduated from Spellman. We had different backgrounds. One of the things that always amazed me about her, she was able to control her emotions and stay on an even keel, keep her eyes on the prize.
A lot of times my emotions would get the best of me. And she would assist me in putting that in check so I didn’t resort to that street mentality in dealing with folks, say things that were inappropriate.
MSR: Providing housing to low- and moderate-income people, you agree that’s a form of activism itself?
NK: Yes. We owned an apartment complex, renamed it from Jamestown to Malcolm Shabazz. We were able to hire Black subcontractors, tradesmen. That was reminiscent in my mind of the old Rondo area I was raised in, which was a self-contained community where a dollar was spent and stayed in the community, kept turning over.
The other thing we were able to do, brothers and sisters coming out of institutions may not have qualified to get in other complexes because of their records. We did that, bringing in folks that were having trouble finding housing. We used our faith in them that they were able to do the right thing. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. But the main thing, we were able to have the resources to give someone a second chance.
MSR: Dick Gregory once said that unlike slave parents, he’d never had to pray for a deformed baby that couldn’t be sold, and that was all the progress he’d give this country. What real progress have you seen?
NK: These are the best of times and the worst of times. I’m 73, and 25 years ago I was thinking by the time I reached my twilight many of the issues we deal with today we wouldn’t have to deal with. We’ve seen a Black mayor, Black police chief. At one time, if you looked in Ebony or Jet Magazine, the Twin Cities was rated one of the top 10 places for Blacks to relocate to for the job opportunities, the housing, environment.
As you know, today we’re at the bottom of the list, one of the worst metropolitan areas in the country for education, job disparity, the gap so far as wealth. I see progress on one hand, but then I see we’ve lost so much on the other hand if we would’ve just continued to build.
I’m encouraged and hopeful about these young folks. Black Lives Matter, I’ve supported them. One thing I’ve always been concerned about, and I’ve told them, “You gotta more be than a moment, you gotta be a movement.” They’re fighting for equality on a regular basis and have been able to inspire others. I’m hoping and praying they can take it to the next level.
Many of the issues confronting us are more than police brutality, more than the criminal justice system. It’s the educational system, a whole list of things.
I’d hope the lesson they learn and we hadn’t learned is that you can’t depend on these other folks to get in there and do things for us. We have to get in there ourselves.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.
Brother Nathaniel is a real man. Willing to get out and do something instead of wait for someone else to do the job. I am so proud to have know him for many years in the Muslim Community. Thank you Brother Nathaniel for all you’ve done to uplift our people. May G-d bless you to continue to be a light of hope in our community.