Melvin Whitfield Carter, Jr. went from heading down a dead-end path in his youth to becoming a 28-year St. Paul police veteran. He also built a rich family legacy challenging racism and segregation within the police department and becoming the father of St. Paul’s first Black mayor.
His memoir, Diesel Heart (Minnesota Historical Society Press), captures how the former wayward hellraiser transitioned to a leader serving his community.
Native to St. Paul’s historic Rondo district, during the 1950s and ‘60s he witnessed the destruction of his neighborhood and family home with the construction of the I-94 freeway corridor. The spirited teenager — who lived under the shadow of his father, famed Twin Cities jazz musician Melvin Carter — was good with his fists and ran the streets with abandon.
Then he found himself in the middle of a home robbery that did not go well. It proved to be his crossroad. He joined the Navy, where he boxed. Later, the St. Paul police force provided more than a job. It was his chance to do some good for himself and others. He also founded Save Our Sons, a nonprofit which mentors and supports at-risk African American youngsters.
Carter’s frank, fluidly articulate, refreshingly down-to-earth, shoot-from-the-hip mainfesto not only chronciles his reformation, but also a different perspective on racism as an affirmative action hire: “policing while Black.”
“As a one-man squad, I could only count on backup when about three White officers were on the same shift,” he writes in the book. “Some guys called for backup at parking meter violations. But I’d get dispatched to violent domestics-in-progress, some of the most dangerous calls we had, and be all alone.”
Carter spoke with the MSR, reflecting on the life and times of a Rondo son.
MSR: Of course, it’s significant that you’re the father of St. Paul’s first Black mayor. But, what inspired you to document your own history?
Melvin Whitfield Carter, Jr.: I’m in my twilight and want to leave the kids with at least one message: There is great value in not self-destructing. I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and we’ve seen some of us who’re brilliant fall by the side, who aren’t here anymore.
I have what I call survivor’s bewilderment, survivor’s astonishment. The reason I needed to write this story is because I’m allowed to. I’ve been allowed to live it.
MSR: What kind of trouble did you get in early on and what moved you to turn your life around?
MWC: A lot of fighting. It was a process. One day, I broke into a house on Central Avenue in broad daylight and was going to take this great big piece of furniture — one of those old combination television, record player, radio. We were trying to take it out the door at 3 in the afternoon. And didn’t have transportation. No ride. Suddenly, I had to ask how I was going to explain this to my parents. How could I explain it to myself?
MSR: You had an attack of common sense.
MWC: Yes. I put that [stuff] down and left. It was the turning point, because a lot of my peers went on to commit more serious acts. I was trying to imitate my father, who reminded me of [Star Trek’s] Mr. Spock. He was always logical. I wished I could be like him. He was a true-North Star that I wanted to follow.
MSR: Speaking of following in a father’s footsteps, how do you feel that story impacted your son?
MWC: Before we go there, I can’t single out one child. I have two beautiful daughters, Anika Ward and Alanna Galloway. They’re every bit as dynamic. Anika is a branch director at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Alanna is a union rep at AT&T. I peeped America and saw what it had in store for my children, so I had a sense of how they needed to be prepared.
Beyond that, I kind of married up. I’m pretty street. My wife, Toni Carter, attended Carleton College on a full scholarship and was the first Black county commissioner in Minnesota. She’s an actor as well, was at Penumbra Theatre in the original plays. She’s very conscious of culture. I think our opposites blended well with our children.
And as a cop, I’d take [my son] to court. I took him to the gym and taught him how to box, taught him gun safety. He’d pretty much learned everything I had to teach him by the time he was 14.
MSR: You faced and prevailed against discrimination on the force. How have things changed?
MWC: I’ve seen it go from having almost no Black officers at all — we had to sue the St. Paul Police Department just to hire them — to having a couple of Black chiefs of police. That’s phenomenal. They could only do so much because of issues that are planted in the core of law enforcement. They’ve done what they could. It isn’t enough unless you change the whole culture. Now, [the department] is really reaching out to African Americans, being engaged in the communities.
The biggest difference is the influence of [former St. Paul Police] Chief [William] Finney. Responding to the community means a lot to him. The current chief, Todd Axtell, is a mentee of his. I always had a sense that Finney was grooming Todd, who does things much in the same spirit, which is great.
Diesel Heart is available at mnhs.org/mnhspress/books/diesel-heart.