Yesterday's dream today

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February 19, 2007 // UPDATED 11:01 am - April 26, 2007
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

A church refuses to forget past heroes of integration

In 1954, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church posted a sign at the front of the Loring Park church: “Welcome to Persons of All Races.”

The sign went up one year before Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., 11 years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, and 14 years before the national Methodist Church organization ended a segregated Central Jurisdiction for black Americans.

The idealistic lawn sign at Hennepin Church, 511 Groveland Ave., became reality in 1957 when the church invited an all-black congregation called Border to join them. At the time, Border Church was facing the possibility of dissolving because the church site at 4th and Aldrich avenues north was slated to be replaced by a public housing project.

Not all members of the Border congregation joined the all-white Hennepin Church, and the move caused some white members to leave the church and never come back.

Now 50 years later, Hennepin Church is celebrating the merger and looking again to reach out to people of all ethnicities.

“When there are heroes in the community, we want to raise them up and remember them today,” said Rev. Bruce Robbins of Hennepin Church.

According to research by Southwest resident John Carroll, blacks who came to Minneapolis at the turn of the 20th century were not welcome to worship at white congregations. He said schools were segregated so that blacks and whites still attended the same school, but were relegated to different classes in different parts of the building.

Inequality was also evident in employment. Black men who returned home from World War II faced discrimination here when trying to get their old jobs back, and many blacks who had found industrial employment in Minnesota factories during the war were laid off. By the end of the war, 60 percent of African-Americans in the state were unemployed, Carroll said.

He said racism in Minneapolis tended not to take the dangerous turn it did in the South. Carroll said Minneapolis also boasted social programs absent from the South, such as the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House that worked to find black newcomers’ job opportunities to stave off criminal activity.

The Phyllis Wheatley program became the first point of contact for members of Hennepin and Border churches. Hennepin offered Border financial help in a costly 1937 move to 401 Aldrich Ave. N., the first of two displacements Border would face to make way for housing projects. The churches developed joint youth groups together as well.

Roberta Ellis, who attended Border Church as a young girl, clearly remembers her first impressions of Hennepin Church. Border children came to play basketball at Hennepin Church on Saturdays or Sunday evenings, she said. The boys played basketball while the girls sat together and watched the boys.

“I had never been in a building as big as Hennepin was,” Ellis said. “It frightened all of us.”

Border continued to face financial difficulties in the new location on Aldrich.

In 1955, Border learned that a major public housing development called Glenwood-Lyndale would be built on Border’s land. By that time, another move seemed too taxing for Border’s aging congregation. Hennepin invited Border to merge with its church, and the boards of both churches ratified the concept.

That decision did not sit well with everyone. Some church members challenged board procedure in letters to Hennepin’s Reverend.

“If we are to accept the Border church into our church, we will have to accept them socially in all phases of life — in this time, I do not think this is feasible,” wrote J. Robert Collier on Jan. 20, 1957.

Another church member pointed to national events in explaining why the idea was a bad one.

“I am not going into any detail as to our views on the racial problem,” wrote William Fleet in 1957. “They are based upon what we consider scientific and moral facts, further substantiated by the majority report of the Congressional Committee who investigated the results of integration in schools at Washington, D.C. ...”.

When Hennepin invited Border to merge into the Hennepin Church, Ellis was no longer a child and she had two children of her own. She said some Border members did not come to Hennepin, and nobody asked them why.

“I don’t think I was ever as scared as I was in my life when I knew I was going to this church,” Ellis said. “I didn’t know if I was dressed right. I had in my mind that this was going to be a very wealthy church.”

But in time, she said, her children made friends in Sunday school and felt they belonged. Her grandson was even asked to be best man in the wedding of another church member, she said. “We’re members of that church, and they are not looking at the color of my skin,” Ellis said. “You don’t have a black man as your best man if you don’t intend to carry on the friendship.”

The celebration of the Hennepin-Border merger on Jan. 21 brought U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in for a Sunday visit and garnered letters from former President Jimmy Carter and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

Rev. Bruce Robbins said church leadership has not realized the vision of a half-century ago, however. Prior to the merger, Robbins said, Hennepin members launched community projects throughout Minneapolis. But when Border members started coming to Hennepin, the congregation stopped going to the North Side. He said the church, which draws attendees from zip codes throughout the metropolitan area, is again predominately white.

Robbins said he wants to establish a lasting relationship with an African-American congregation. Hennepin is also launching a multicultural committee that will evaluate how the church can be more inclusive.

“We haven’t lived up to their hopes,” Robbins said, referring to the leaders of the Border-Hennepin merger. “God knows this city needs to have more contact between the African-American community and the white community.”

Ellis said she has never heard a derogatory comment at Hennepin, but the idea of an integrated church still seems strange to people she meets who have never been there.

“People say, ‘That’s that white church,’ and I say, ‘No, that’s an integrated church,’” Ellis said.