Puppet show about racism makes history’s lessons come alive

Students holding puppets (Photos courtesy of Greg Poferl)

“When students are involved with real people, and read [historical] documents, that story becomes real and transforms the students. It’s something you will never…get out of a book,” said Greg Poferl explaining the idea behind an upcoming multi-media puppet show tackling the issue of racism and housing discrimination.

The show, “Racism in our Hometown: The Story of the Arthur and Edith Lee Family” is part of the Untold Stories series coordinated by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.  It tells the story of Arthur, wife Ethel, and daughter Mary Lee, who in 1931 were met with angry mobs as an African American family integrating an all-White neighborhood.

Arthur Lee was a WWI veteran and also a postal worker. His co-workers, a majority of whom were White, protected his family when police failed to defend the family against the racist mobs.

The house the Lee family lived in on 4600 Columbus Avenue South in Minneapolis gained national attention when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 11, 2014. The puppet show aims to highlight the courage and perseverance of the Lee family.

Poferl is a teacher at Cretin Derham Hall High, a community activist volunteer at Eastside Freedom Library and founder of the Solidarity Kids’ Theater Group. He was previously a postal worker and became interested in the plight of Arthur Lee, a fellow postal worker. Poferl would eventually connect with Emily Zimmer who was chronicling African American history as an intern at Macalester College. She is now the director at Pillsbury Theatre’s Chicago Avenue Project.

Puppets were made using the Korean “Bunruku” method (newspaper, duct tape, and paper mache), according to Greg Poferl (Photos courtesy of Greg Poferl)

Poferl and Zimmer started programs and plays based on immigration, child labor, gangs in schools, and other issues interesting to kids that also take place in everyday life. “We would show it at education seminars at Macalester as well as state and national conventions,” Poferl said.

“As an educator, I brought the Lee family story into the classroom,” Poferl said. “The students were interested in it. I would ask the students if they wanted a final exam or puppet show. I had them redesign, find all the primary sources, and take over the library. This, in turn, got students involved into discussions about race.”

(Photos courtesy of Greg Poferl)

The students were challenged to research the Lee family for a History Day project, which eventually led to an interview with Robert Foreman, Arthur Lee’s grandson. Poferl stated that the students learned that racism and housing discrimination still exists, although it might surface in less blatant ways than picketing mobs of 3,000 people — like the Lee family endured. Poferl said the puppet show “challenges students to look at racism and how the Lee family situation is relevant to today.”

“Racism in our Hometown: The Story of the Arthur and Edith Lee Family” puppet show takes place Monday, May 15 at 7 pm at the Eastside Freedom Library 1105 Green Brier Library. Admission is free. For more information, visit https://thefriends.org/events/ongoing-series/untold-stories.


Ivan B. Phifer welcomes reader comments to iphifer@spokesman-recorder.com.