In May 1946, first graders at William Penn school hosted a party. The students at the elementary school — located at 36th and Penn Avenue North — served bread they had baked themselves, which they spread with butter and peanut butter for their guests.
Besides showcasing the modest culinary talents of the children, this gathering had a higher social purpose. It was part of a city-wide effort to improve race relations. The William Penn students were all white. And their guests — children from the nearby Phyllis Wheatley settlement house — were African American.
A small news brief accompanied the charming photo in the Minneapolis Times. The newspaper reported that this event was part of the “human relations training” given to the children. Their party was part of a broad experiment in Minneapolis, which was determined to shake its reputation for racial intolerance.
Before Historyapolis researcher Rita Yeada found this image, I hadn’t realized that human relations training was offered to children as early as 1946. These children — residents of the racially diverse North side of the city — probably needed less instruction in interracial friendship than the adults who organized the event.
A few months before this picture was taken, newly elected Mayor Hubert Humphrey established a Committee on Human Relations. This new entity brought together community leaders determined to address what had come to be known as the “race problem” during World War II, when the fight against fascism had brought new attention to the dangers of racial and religious bigotry. People rarely aligned on the same side of an issue united around the need to create an anti-racist environment that reflected the highest ideals of American democracy. Labor leaders and business executives; political radicals and liberal anti-communists; Christians and Jews convened every week in the Normandy Room at the Hotel Dyckman. They ate lunch and discussed how to overcome the city’s racial and religious divisions.
With the direction of sociologists from Fisk University — including Dr. Charles S. Johnson— the Committee launched a massive “self-survey” of racial attitudes in the city. Hundreds of volunteer data collectors documented discriminatory practices in the city’s commercial, educational, industrial and religious institutions. Training sessions were conducted to help Minneapolitans overcome their racial prejudices.
This massive effort brought only limited success. Only a few months after this photo was published, Minneapolis was named the “capital of anti-Semitism in America” by liberal journalist Carey McWilliams. Intolerance remained palpable in some sectors of life. But the city was also developing a cadre of citizens with the best of intentions on this issue; their ideals were powerful but often insufficient to overcome the structural racism that shaped access to housing, employment and education in Minneapolis and the rest of the nation.
The campaign in Minneapolis did win the hearts and minds of the national media, which held the city up as a beacon of hope for racial justice. In 1951, the Woman’s Home Companion was one of many publications that exhorted readers interested in civil rights to look to Minneapolis, “the city that lost its shameful reputation — and found its heart.” The community provided a template for grassroots activism, according to journalist Clive Howard. “Prejudice,” he cheerfully told his women readers, “can be wiped out in your town today if you follow the practical plan that worked in Minneapolis.”
(This photo featured here is from the uncatalogued newspaper photos of the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Central Library. My thanks to citizen researcher Rita Yeada for locating the photo.)
Kirsten Delegard is director of the Historyapolis Project, which is part of the history department at Augsburg College. The Historyapolis Project seeks to bring fresh attention to the history of Minneapolis and is working to unearth stories that can explain how the city took shape. During 2014, Delegard is compiling an inventory of historical resources pertinent to Minneapolis with the help of a team of students and citizen-researchers associated with the Historyapolis Lab. For more details visit our website at www.historyapolis.com. This project has been made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society. Find it on FB at www.facebook.com/TheHistoryapolisProject