South Mpls street renamed for city’s first Black fire captain

Community members celebrated the renaming of a street in South Minneapolis on the morning of March 17. The former Dight Avenue, now the new John Cheatham Ave., runs between 34th and 43rd parallel to Minnehaha. Cheatham became Minneapolis’ first Black firefighter captain in 1899. 

Minneapolis City Councilmember Andrew Johnson represents Ward 12, which contains the full 10 blocks of Cheatham Ave. He was one of the local officials leading the charge to rename the street.

Johnson said community members originally brought the history of the avenue’s namesake—Charles Fremont Dight, a Minneapolis eugenicist—to his attention. “We need to consider our choices of whether individuals like [Dight] should be honored in such a clearly public way, and he’s not deserving of that honor,” Johnson said.

Dight was a Minneapolis physician who founded the Minnesota Eugenics Society in the 1920s. His lobbying efforts got the Minnesota Legislature to pass a law allowing for forced sterilization.

The street was originally named after Dight in honor of his work to improve food safety when he was a Minneapolis city council member in the 1910s, but activists have pushed to have the name changed in light of Dight’s full legacy—including his praise for Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.                    

“It’s a good day because [Dight’s] name is going down, but an even better day because of the name going up: John Cheatham,” Johnson said.

Cheatham was born into slavery in Missouri in 1855 and was freed after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. He was appointed as a captain in the fire department in 1899, the first Black person in Minneapolis to reach that rank.

There was an attempt from some community members to have Cheatham and two other Black firefighters replaced with White firefighters, but Cheatham had a distinguished record and retained his job.

The ceremony saw attendance from several City officials, including Mayor Jacob Frey, Councilmembers Johnson and Andrea Jenkins of Ward 8, and some of the staff from Public Works.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Bryan Tyner and the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association also attended, as did Judge LaJune Lange and descendants of Cheatham.

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“This was a pioneer for Black firefighters and the Fire Services, especially here in Minneapolis,” Tyner said. “Without his efforts and without him really taking the brunt of a lot of the racism that he took on; we never would have never been able to be here.”

Captain Leonard Crawford, a Black firefighter in Minneapolis, shared the chief’s sentiments. “It’s important because it’s an acknowledgment that we contributed to the safety and wellness of our community since the inception of the fire department,” Crawford said. “It’s just nice to be recognized as that.”

Chief Tyner helped Corey Webster, who is the great, great, great-nephew of Cheatham, pull down the old sign.

“It’s so important to be recognized,” Webster said. “For a family that has been in Minnesota since about the 1850s, and all the strife and trials and tribulations that we’ve been through, it’s finally good to see something that we are proud of and something that means a lot to the city.”

Chief Tyner affirmed his commitment to continue providing opportunities for Black firefighters. “It is our duty to lift up those who are coming behind us, to create an environment that is better than the environment that Captain Cheatham worked under, that is better than the environment that we work under today,” Tyner said.

“And [it’s our duty] to provide opportunities to people coming up behind us, to have the opportunities that I have had. Before Captain Cheatham, there were no Black captains. Now, as the mayor said, we have a Black chief.”