South Minneapolis street now honors a pioneer Black firefighter

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Tim Nelson | MPR News Corey Webster, Becki Hardman and Alcindor Holie pose with a photo of their grandmother’s distant uncle, John Cheatham, as the city of Minneapolis renames a street in the Longfellow neighborhood after the city’s first Black fire captain, who worked at a fire station a few blocks away.

It’s been more than a century since John Cheatham last walked out of a Minneapolis firehouse after serving more than 20 years as one of the city’s first Black firefighters and the city’s first Black fire captain.

And the street a block from his old station now bears his name.

Mayor Jacob Frey and current Fire Chief Bryan Tyner marked the redesignation on March 17, changing the name of Dight Avenue to Cheatham Avenue in a ceremony on 38th Street, surrounded by the descendants of one of the city’s first Black families.

“Captain John Cheatham is certainly a big set of shoulders for me to stand on,” said Tyner, who noted that it took more than 75 years for his department to appoint another Black firefighter to be captain. Tyner himself is the city’s first Black fire chief.

“Continuing that tradition, continuing that progress is something I will strive to do,” he said. “Let’s celebrate.” 

He then helped Cheatham’s family pull down a ceremonial cover to unveil the first of many new signs that will designate the new name.

Cheatham was born to an enslaved family in Missouri in 1855. His parents came up the Mississippi and settled in Minneapolis shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation banned slavery during the Civil War in 1863. They were among the first Black families in the city. 

Cheatham worked as a porter and a church sexton, and was hired to work for the Fire Department in 1888. He was thought to be one of the first Black firefighters ever in the city if not the first. He was appointed captain in 1899, and in 1907 was named one of the captains in charge at the station at 45th and Hiawatha, better known recently as the Flair Fountains building. 

Cheatham died in 1918 and lies buried in another nearby landmark: the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery on Lake Street. 

His role in Minneapolis history was largely forgotten, but was revived as critics worked to remove the long-standing name of the street, Dight Avenue, after Charles Dight. Dight was a University professor and City Council member, known for food safety but also for advocating for human eugenics, forced sterilization and his expressed admiration for Adolph Hitler.

“This is recognizing and valuing the contributions of who we are as African American,” said Tracey Gibson, pastor at St. James AME church, which considers itself the oldest African American church in the state and is on the former Dight Avenue. She watched the unveiling Thursday.

“What he stood for, what Cheatham stood for, and what [Dight] stood for are on opposite ends of the spectrum,” Gibson said. 

For more conversations about race and justice, visit North Star Journey from MPR News. North Star Journey is a celebration of communities in Minnesota and the champions who are doing the work that we should be bringing a voice to.

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