Revisiting one of the ugliest chapters in Minneapolis history

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July 31, 2014
By: Kirsten Delegard
Kirsten Delegard

Minneapolis usually imagines itself at play in July, when long, warm days invite us to enjoy our beloved parks and lakes. Yet throughout the 20th century, July was a time of bitter conflict. In 1967, it brought urban unrest on Plymouth Avenue; in 1934, the Truckers' Strike; and in 1931, the siege of the Lee family home.

This mob attack in July 1931 was the ugliest racial clash in the city's history. Edith and Arthur Lee bought a small bungalow on the corner of 46th and Columbus Avenue South. The neighborhood exploded in rage.

The new property owners were African American. The neighborhood was all white.

Before the Lee family bought their home, neighborhood activism had purged the blocks around 46th and Columbus of non-white denizens. In 1927, residents had formed the Eugene Field Neighborhood Association. Under the auspices of this group, 100 residents had signed a voluntary "gentleman's agreement" that barred them from selling or renting their property to anyone who was "not of the Caucasian race." Starting in 1930, members of this group had bought homes owned by African Americans in the hopes of making this corner of the city an all-white "restricted district."

Residents mobilized at the news that a homeowner had decided to settle a grudge with his neighbors by selling his property to an African American. First they offered to buy the property from the Lees, promising ever-larger sums to the postal clerk and his wife in exchange for their departure from the neighborhood. When these offers were rebuffed, they threw garbage and "refuse of a more unpleasant form" on the lawn. They hurled black paint on the house and garage. They staked threatening signs in front of the house: "We don't want niggers here" and "No niggers allowed in this neighborhood — this means you." After dark the family was visited by roving gangs, which yelled epithets and threw stones, bricks and firecrackers. One night, someone killed the family dog.

Neighborhood activists had been using these tactics for years in Minneapolis to keep African-American property owners out of white sections of the city. But this new homeowner had more resources than most to withstand this pressure. Thanks to his job at the U.S. Post Office, Lee had economic security at a time when the Great Depression had thrown one third of the city out of work. Moreover, his service in the American military during World War I had left him with the belief that he should enjoy the rights of full citizenship, regardless of race. "Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country," he declared. "I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home!"

Yet the opposition of Lee's new neighbors proved hard to overcome. On July 9 they declared their determination to restore the racial purity of the neighborhood, phoning Lee to give notice that 500 people would storm his house. Lee summoned the police, which ignored his plea for help. He then turned to fellow veterans at his American Legion post, who organized an armed vigil to protect the family.

The veterans held the crowd at bay. But over the days that followed, the mob outside the house continued to grow, doubling in size after news of the conflict was reported in the Minneapolis Tribune on July 15 and 16. One eyewitness recalled how spectators traveled from around the state to witness the siege:  

I have never seen anything like it. Here were literally five or six thousand people, men, women and children, both on the curbs and sidewalks, just standing and waiting as near as they could get to this little, dark house. . .Six thousand white people, waiting to see that house burned.

After a speaker at nearby Field School called on the crowd to exhibit "sanity and patience" as well as respect for "principles of human and property rights," listeners walked out in protest. They swelled the mob outside of the house, where pushcart vendors were reaping the profits of prejudice, supplying refreshments to the horde. Some of the rowdies practiced marching in military formation, in preparation to storm the house; others threw stones; still others demanded immediate action, shouting "Let's rush the door" and "Let's drag the niggers out."  This scene was captured in this 1931 photo from the NAACP publication "The Crisis," which showed a small portion of what it called the "Minneapolis mob."

"Inch by inch, the crowd moved close to the home, muttering threats," according to one of the witnesses. Their encroachment was watched from inside the darkened house. Behind the barricaded door and windows sat a phalanx of African American veterans and an arsenal of weapons. The Legionnaires had Lugers, Colts, rifles and shotguns at the ready; they had already declared their intention to use their military training to protect the little family.

With the backing of the NAACP, led by a militant lawyer named Lena Olive Smith, the Lee family remained in their little bungalow until 1933. But they were never accepted into the community they had sought to open up for African Americans.

In the aftermath of the crisis, some white residents were bitter about what they saw as their mistreatment at the hands of the mayor and police, blaming the Lees for the violence. "You know if there was any legal way of keeping a negro out of a white district and ruining the value of everybody's property for miles around, this disturbance would never have arisen," a disgruntled Minneapolitan declared in an anonymous letter to a public official. "You know when you hurt a man's pocket-book, that is something that is never forgotten. . .They talk about justice for the negro, how about a little justice for the white man who has put his life savings into a home."

In recent years, a new generation of neighborhood activists have grappled with this ugly legacy, commemorating the disturbing events of July 1931 and placed a plaque outside the Lee family home. The house was recently put on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to a group of activist-researchers who have worked to recover the details of this episode in the hopes of helping our community understand the full scope of our collective history.

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