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Up South
By Brandt Williams
Minnesota Public Radio
February 12, 2002
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For more than half of the 20th century, racial segregation was legal across the American South. From the late 1800s up until to the 1960s, blacks and whites were separated from one another in every important aspect of their lives. They attended different schools, rode in separate train cars, lived in different neighborhoods and couldn't marry each other. In the South there were brutal consequences for violating this color-line. These laws and rules went by a name: Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws didn't extend to the North, but blacks migrating here found a culture deeply embedded with racist attitudes. MPR's Brandt Williams talked with a number of older African Americans in Minnesota about their memories of segregation.

Two girls riding on a donkey on 31st Avenue South in Minneapolis. Though African Americans tended to concentrate in pockets around North and South Minneapolis, black and white children attended public school together and played together. See more images.

Historically, Minnesota has been known as a liberal and tolerant state. At least on the surface. After the Civil War, it was one of only few states to voluntarily grant voting rights to African Americans and Indians.

During the Jim Crow era, when southern schools were racially segregated , Minnesota schools were integrated. Blacks generally didn't have to ride at the back of the bus or drink from separate drinking fountains as they did down South.

But African Americans who migrated to Minnesota hoping to escape the grip of Jim Crow were disappointed.

"I was told before I left there, that I was going to a better place than the south. But as I got here I found out it wasn't that much different," says Essie Pastel, a slight woman with short grey hair.

A homemade broom sits next to the fireplace in her Minneapolis home. She brought the broom with her from Mississippi, where she was born. Pastel says it reminds her of her southern roots. She moved to Minnesota in the mid 1940s to find a job.

"Every place I went, I even went to get a dishwashing job and they found out I was black and they didn't accept me. I went to one place, they sent me there. They went into a room and this lady came out and wanted to know who I was and what color I was, I said, 'black' and they said 'no.'"

Pastel wasn't the only African American having trouble finding work in Minnesota.

In 1930 the Urban League estimated that 75 percent of African Americans with jobs in Minnesota did domestic work.

In 1943 Gov. Edward J. Thye's Interracial Commission sent out more than 2,000 surveys to Minnesota employers. The idea was to find out why so many blacks were unemployed. Only a fraction of the companies responding said they had any experience employing blacks.

Those that didn't hire blacks tried to justify their discrimination. Some said their customers wouldn't accept being served by blacks. Others predicted that white co-workers wouldn't want to work with African Americans.

•Harry Davis talks about famous black musicians who came through town. (Listen)

•Janabelle Taylor talks about an experience she had which taught her that the color of her skin set her apart from her white friends. (Listen)

Willard Jones talks about the treatment he got at a lunch counter when he went to buy a sandwich for someone else. (Listen)

•Bernadette Anderson tells a story about her first visit to Fergus Falls. (Listen)

•Melvin Carter mentions he is a black Catholic and tells a story about being at a summer camp for black Catholic boys. (Listen)

At the time of the survey, thousands of young American men were fighting the Germans and the Japanese in World War II. Many companies were in need of workers. But some employers, like this survey respondent, wrote that blacks wouldn't make good employees because they were too lazy.

Although we have never had any experience with Negroes in our plant, our feeling has always been that the fact they were black would make absolutely no difference with us, but the regrettable fact is that from an ambition standpoint, the Negro is definitely quite a different person from the white person. This is his heritage and to change it means to remake a race. This appears to be as tough a job as making a white person out of a Jap.
Minnesota law prohibited job and housing discrimination against blacks. But St. Paul native Arthur McWatt, 75, says many employers found ways around the law.

"They would accept you, your application, but they'd throw it in the waste basket after they'd taken it, or else they'd never call you. It was just done in a more subtle way, rather than in the south, just saying 'get out of here, we don't hire your kind,'" McWatt says.

McWatt is a retired social studies teacher who writes about the history of the civil rights movement in Minnesota. He says black Minnesotans learned that racist white people often had smiling faces and polite voices.

And McWatt says blacks eventually learned to read between the lines when talking to white people. "When you're a person who is being discriminated against, you kind of have an antenna, you kind of sense when people are insincere or are not. Or are basically being negative against you. And somehow or another, you get used to being able to tell which people are the ones that are genuine or which people are the ones that are just giving you a facade."

While it was important to be attuned to these racist attitudes, McWatt makes clear blacks generally felt much safer in Minnesota than they did in the South. "In the north you'd get away with things...I remember another friend of mine, Lloyd Hogan, was working at 7th and Wabasha at Walgreen's over there and someone called him a nigger and he reached over and picked the guy out of his stool and lifted him over the counter and dropped him on his head. I don't think blacks were afraid of whites," he said.

Assaulting a white man in the Jim Crow South could mean death for a black man.

Why was Minnesota so relatively tolerant?

McWatt says one reason is that white Minnesotans didn't see blacks as competition for jobs and housing. There just weren't many blacks living here.

The 1940 census shows that African Americans made up less than one percent of Minneapolis and one and a half percent of St. Paul's population. For the most part, African Americans were grouped together in parts of urban Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Some of those areas became fertile ground for black-owned businesses. On streets like old Sixth Avenue in North Minneapolis, blacks could get goods and services from groceries to legal defense.

Doris Slaughter remembers old Sixth Avenue. She sits in a plush arm chair, in the living room of her south Minneapolis home. Slaughter throws her head back and smiles as she recalls her childhood. But not all of her memories are happy.

She remembers being told to stay away from Northeast Minneapolis.

In the '40s when Slaughter was a teenager, that part of the city was known for its white immigrant population which didn't like blacks.

So she says she and her friends went to clubs and restaurants where they knew they'd be welcome.

"We had our own places, like Cash's, it used to be Bell's then Cash's. When we socialized there was 6th Avenue North. And we just never, at least I never, thought about going down into the white areas or going to the bars when we wanted to socialize, 'cause we had our own and we had a good time," she says.

"Nobody ever told me not to go anywhere, but you knew you weren't safe in certain places," she says.

Melvin Carter was born in St. Paul in 1923. Carter sits in his living room surrounded by pictures of his children and grandchildren. His caramel-brown face is creased with age.

In St. Paul, many African Americans lived in the Rondo neighborhood which was located about a mile southwest of the State Capitol. Carter says if you lived in Rondo, it was best to stay in Rondo.

"There was a rivalry between the black neighborhood and now what's called Frogtown, north of University Avenue. It was an old German neighborhood I guess you could say. And there was friction. The young kids who were - at the time - who were looking for trouble could certainly find it quick. So when we had to go through the neighborhood we'd always go through in gangs, you know. On the way to go swimming or fishing or somewhere cause we'd always walk or ride our bicycles. You never travelled alone."

Bernadette Anderson grew up in South Minneapolis in an area that had a concentration of black families. Anderson's face is smooth and broad. It seems to expand everytime she smiles. But she doesn't smile when she recalls some of her childhood experiences with racism in Minneapolis.

As a black child in the 1930s, any given day could bring humiliation. For example, she says white and black students often played together at school.

"We were all having fun, there were black and white kids together, we were going to practice one evening and this one white girl invited us to her house to practice and I think I was the only black one in the play. We went and she was happy about, but when we got to the door, her grandmother come to the door and stopped me and said, 'I don't allow niggers in my house.' And that was my first taste of really hitting strong racism," Anderson says.

Employment and housing have generally improved for black Minnesotans since the days of Jim Crow. But, African American unemployment in Minnesota is still nearly twice as high as the statewide rate. And black Minnesotans are still far more likely than whites to live in substandard housing.

Anderson says these days racism in Minnesota is more subtle than in the past, but it's still there.

"I don't have a real trust in white people - just don't have a real trust. There are some of them that are very sincere and they can continue to be sincere and hopefully one day we'll all get along. I don't know when that's gonna be, but it's not happening now," Anderson says.

During the Jim Crow years, black Minnesotans didn't have to defend their homes against hooded night-riders like blacks in the South. They didn't have to avoid looking white people in the eye for fear of offending them.

But some blacks say that didn't make racism in Minnesota any easier to deal with. Whether in Mississippi, or in Minnesota, overt or subtle, racism had the same purpose and same result. It put limits on black Minnesotans freedom to live and work the way they wanted to. Minnesota's elder black generation hasn't forgotten Jim Crow.

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