Migration story of a Black family to Northern Minnesota in the 1920s.
My parents grew up in Kentucky. My father and my mother were married in 1916 and my father went off to war — the first World War. They divorced because my mother thought my father was a playboy — I’ll just say it.
My mother’s sister and her husband had come up from Kentucky to mine coal in Iowa. When that job ended they came up to Minneapolis to work on the railroad. They had one child. Their marriage wasn’t going well. My mother came up to Minneapolis to take her niece back to Kentucky until they settled their differences. When they divorced my mother and cousin came back up to Minneapolis and stayed with my aunt.
My mother joined the AME Church that is now over on Snelling Ave. The minister had a nephew, Mr. Withers, living with him. My mother and the nephew married. Mr. Withers was a delivery man — delivering coal and ice in a horse and buggy. He kept his horse at a transportation station — a forerunner to Greyhound, that ran a bus up to Canada. Mr. Withers like to hunt and fish so he took several bus rides up north. The bus owner convinced him to open up a bus-stop near Virginia, Minnesota in a place that used to be called Albina. It’s called Gheen now.
He bought 40 acres. It had a white frame house on it. They opened the bus-stop at an intersection of Gheen and Highway 53. In the road about a mile was the railroad tracks. Diamond Match Company had an outlet there and the executives from the Duluth area would go back and forth so it was a good corner to have a bus stop. In addition to the bus stop, Mr. Withers opened the Butterfly Inn. There you could buy a half fried chicken, some potatoes, a vegetable in season, and a scoop of ice cream for desert. It became a place for the community. The young people couldn’t wait to come over to get their ice cream cone there. It was the only store around. Mother and Mr. Withers ran it for 4-5 years until Mr. Withers got ill and died. Peritonitis. So my mother was alone, running the place. She wrote to her ex mother-in-law back in Kentucky that her husband died and she wasn’t sure what she would do. My grandma said to her son, “Go up and check on Jenny.”
My parents remarried in 1929. I was a loved child — born in 1932. It was the depression. The store fell on hard times. They sold the business and my father worked on road construction, developing Highway 53. But my father had been a haberdashery in Illinois. He liked being independent. So he became a farmer on the forty acres. We grew everything: corn, peas, green beans, wax beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, lettuce, radishes — a truck garden. There was no refrigeration then. People who went to their lake cottages would buy their food from us for their dinner. They’d say “I’d like some green beans.” We didn’t weigh it — just gave them a handful. My mother raised and sold chickens. We would kill them right there when they came and they would take them home and fry them.
That is the way I grew up as a child. I hated digging for potatoes. It was always after September. Your hands would get so cold digging them out. A lot of times we just bartered the potatoes, a couple bushels for my school shoes or some fabric to make a dress — my school clothes. We butchered with the neighbors. They would come and help you and take some of it. We had a man who would come and de-horn the animals and castrate them. We would pay him in chickens. That’s how people survived.
It was a multiracial community — you name it, we had some. We were the only Black family, but there were Jews, Greeks, Italians, lots of Scandinavians –Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – and everything else in-between. Everybody got along, everybody had their own culture and you learned to share all that culture. I really feel good about that.
We had two Greek families. The men worked on the railroad. In one family the children had long thick black hair. Their mother used to braid it — two long braids and everyone would say — “how do your children have such long black hair?” People didn’t know about different cultures. She’d say “All I do is yank it and it gets that way.” They used to make goulash on a fire outside — people didn’t have ovens. She’d put it on the fire on before church. Often, after church on Sunday, we’d go to her house for goulash. They’d come to our house from something else. Nobody was invited — we just kind of went.
I went to high school six miles north in Orr. There were 17 kids in our class. I was a good student. Not valedictorian, but close. We still own that land. It still enjoy going up there and seeing my old friends.
My junior year I came down to Minneapolis and went to Central high school (now Green elementary). I lived with my aunt and helped her take care of her ailing husband while she worked. I returned home for my senior year and graduated up there.
On her own in Minneapolis, 1949.
After I graduated I came to Mpls. I rented a room. I never heard of anybody living in an apartment then. We had kitchen privileges for an hour a day. I think I got a rash from eating so much tuna fish. An hour is not long enough to make anything. I worked at two family department stores, Jackson Graves and Roy Bjorkman’s. They sold furs and high-end clothes. They displayed their furs on rocks “– the natural habitat for fur.” I wasn’t old enough to sell. You had to be a mature woman. I was a “runner.” I would take their money back to the cashier, bring them change and gift wrap.
I got to know the families who owned those stores. It was better money than food service or working for newspapers — the other available jobs. I could get a big discount on clothes –25% — and dibs on damaged goods. I was wearing Hanes hosiery before anybody else knew about them. Even Daytons did not sell Hanes hosiery then — I’m talking 1949-50.
From there I went to Northwestern hospital. (Abbot and Northwestern eventually merged). I was really interested in food. I wanted to be a nutritionist, but you couldn’t get in the University to study nutrition at that time. I wanted to work in dietary. I could say the hospital was profiling me way back then. I don’t know. They put me in pediatrics.
As it turned out, I was so good in pediatrics that the doctors said they wanted me to work with them in the treatment room. I didn’t know a darn thing! They trained me –showed me how to open sterile packages and everything. One day Doctor Plato went to the director of nursing and said “I have a potential nursing student.” So they called me down to see if I wanted to go to the school of nursing.
I still wasn’t interested! But I thought — my folks don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. At least I’ll learn something. I should take advantage of this opportunity. So I went into the school of Nursing at Northwestern Hospital. It was a three-year program. By the time my first year was up, the three hospital schools merged and they had enough students so that we went to Macalester for our basic classes. So we were Mac students. We did our chemistry and math foundations there.
A boy from my hometown, who went to high school with me in Orr, was at Macalester. He was two years older than me. He was involved with foreign exchange students and the Young Republican Club on campus. He got me involved in everything. I said “We are not Republicans!” he said “Never mind. It’s a learning experience.”
I got chastised on campus because Eisenhower was running for President and I was going everywhere with the Young Republicans. I even got to go on a whistle stop where Eisenhower was, at that time. One boy came up and said to me: “Don’t you know Eisenhower wants segregated troops?” I didn’t know how to answer him because I didn’t know! My Orr friend said, “Don’t worry about what anyone says to you. If you have any problems just come to me.”
He and his friend were student body president and vice president. They sheltered me. I had a wonderful time and I learned so much about how to be involved in things, how conventions and political delegates worked.
Joan Mondale — she was Joan Adams then — was a student at Macalester. She dated my Republican friend. She went up to Orr and slept there. When Mondale was vice president, my friend was going to put up a plaque “Joan Mondale slept here.”
(The Mondales used to live on 48th and Park Avenue. Walter Mondale used to be President of the Field School PTA. When he became State Attorney General they moved over to Lake of the Isles.)
I graduated from the school of Nursing. When people ask me if I was a nurse I tell them, “Yes. I was a damn good nurse.” I quit while I was still up — 20 years ago. Even to this day when I walk through the halls of the hospital I get cordially asked “Why don’t you come back?” When I was sick, and people came to visit me they said “I feel like I’m in the hospital with a celebrity.” I feel honored.
I worked at Abbott Northwest, in the school system, at Park Nicollet, doing cholesterol screenings for corporations and factories. I’ve also done private duty nursing. I had one client who lived to be 102.
My husband was in the military — the Korean War. I was dating someone else before a whole group of them went off to war. A friend of mine wrote to all the guys and let them know what us girls were doing. When he returned I wasn’t dating anyone. We started dating. We were married a year later.
When we first got married, after the Korean War, there was a housing shortage in Mpls. There was a lady who lived at 40th and 3rd Ave with an apartment on top. We lived in that apartment. It had outdoor stairs. Icy in winter. Terrible with the baby…. and hotter then heck in the summer. We decided we had to move. We moved 4329 4th Avenue — another apartment but with inside stairs.
When we saved enough to buy a house we went to look at one on 46th and Clinton. The realtor told us “Oh, I’m sorry that house was just sold.” We knew it was because we were black. We got a different realtor and a house on the 4500 block of Clinton, contract for deed — couldn’t touch it until you paid it off. We lived there for 17 years, before we bought the house on Oakland and 45th. We bought that house while the owners — a friend of ours — was still in it, directly from him. We had ten years to do financing with him before dealing with a bank. It was a five bedroom house. We had my mother live with us, and our five children. It was good for us.
Having a small business.
In 1961 a huge tree in the vacant corner lot on 46th and 4th fell down. Kids in the neighborhood were upset because they liked to play in it. Mobil gas purchased the land the neighborhood had a big protest. They were upset about a service station going in there. They hardly knew us. My husband saw the sign saying they wanted an operator of the station and he applied. Mobil had an office at Midway. He took training there on how to be a Mobil dealer.
I had three small children. I told my husband, “What are you going to do with a service station?” “You are not going last a day — you don’t know where your dip stick is” and that was the honest-to god-truth. He didn’t know how to change his own oil!
The deal was, you operated the station for the company for six months. If you couldn’t make it, they took it back. I knew how to do books. I loved math. So I did his books.
We stuck it out — 46 years! It was hard. If someone came and said they needed a starter, we would order it and then they wouldn’t come back and we would have to absorb the cost. I told Kirk to get some money up-front, but he never would. Now they want $90 to put you on a scope. We never charged to put you on a scope.
Then we had that underground storage tank leak. Mobil went around and pulled all their tanks. We took a vacation. Because we didn’t stay around and watch while they pulled the tanks, the Petrol Fund wouldn’t reimburse us. County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin came to our rescue a little bit, but he never could help us get the money. We spent all our savings on attorneys.
Some neighbors said they could smell oil in their basement. Mobil had to finish the clean up, but we were never able to recover from the cost of that.Then we were told we had to remodel the store at our cost — “do it or you’re out of business.” We upgraded and it put us out of business.
During those 46 years we were honored many times — by Mobil, the neighborhood organization, the Minneapolis City Council — for being good stewards for the neighborhood. You could leave your purse with us and pick it up later. People left packages with us.
It was through the gas station and the schools that I got involved in neighborhood organizing. All my children went to Field except my youngest, Keith. I was on the Field PTA.
Integration/Equity in the Schools
I was involved with the pairing/integration of Bryant, Ramsey and Anthony Junior Highs. I got pinned against the wall and threatened for being involved in that. It was pretty tense. Richard Green — who lived on Portland Avenue — was the superintendent at that time. He was smart. He knew if you paired just two schools, parents would be calling you day and night. Do three or four schools at once, no-one would be able to get on the line. Do it all at once and you are done.
When they had the riot at Washburn in 1971, it was really something. Raleigh Delapp was the principal then. There were very few Black children at Washburn. Those who were there excelled.There were White children who were not excelling who were the trouble makers of the school. They had inferiority complexes and it came out racial. Their attitude toward the black kids was “You think you are so smart….”My kids took Latin at Washburn. One daughter had one lower grade and they said she didn’t qualify. I said “You are excluding people who were not good in one subject, but might excel in another.”
They created a task force after the riot. Superintendent Richard Green was in charge of it. Grace Harkeness – who lived over by Lynhurst — and I and some other ladies were part of this task force. Grace and I conducted a mandatory workshop for the teachers at Washburn. It was downtown at the North Star hotel. We explained how they were profiling kids and not understanding what they needed, how they were catering to the kids on the other side of the Creek — the elite who wanted ski clubs and such. We showed them that they were partial in sports, practicing favoritism.
We got some good reactions, some bad. Mr. Beck, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Potter who was math department, all welcomed us. They needed our outside intervention. They couldn’t change the system from the inside. The social workers were also glad we intervened.
I got WISE — Women in Service for Education — into the high schools. We got 60 women to read the required books on tape and we put a lab together where kids who were slower readers could listen to the books.
Some people got into neighborhood activism, to solve their own personal problems. Let me give you an example. There was a man who did some work on his house and ended up with a pile of bricks outside his house he wanted hauled away. He organized a neighborhood clean up and made sure it started at his house. He was done once the work was finished at his house.
I started those neighborhood clean ups. We hauled out tons of stuff. We’d have hamburgers at our house for all the volunteers after we were done. When I was president of the neighborhood group there wasn’t a business in the area I didn’t know. Everyone from 42nd to 48th.
We had two neighbors who turned 100 –about 25 years ago. We made their birthdays the theme of the annual parade, with a horse and buggy and birthday cake float.
I volunteered at the Southside Clinic as an unpaid nurse. We served people on a sliding scale. We depended on in-kind service, — like gifts from the hospitals of extra bandages, syringes, or office chairs. We got a lot of stuff like that. At one point they were going to pull those gifts because they thought we weren’t doing enough. I went to petition the hospital administration and pulled strings. I said “if we have to go out of business, you people are going to have more on your emergency doorsteps.”
We did fundraising for the clinic: garage sales, bake sales, barbecues on the lawn. Paid the electric bill. Then we started getting donations. When I was “Nurse of the Year” at Abbott, they honored me by giving a donation to the clinic. I was asked to join the board of the Southside Clinic 30 years ago. One day it was snowing. The doorway was clogged with snow. I went out there with a shovel.” The doctor saw me out there and said “if I ever see you shoveling snow again you are off the board! I became president of the board. I spent the most time trying to convince people who had never been on boards to join. I had never served on a board. None in my family had ever served on a board. I never heard of a board meeting in Gheen Minnesota. I didn’t know how to do it. I learned a lot. It was a labor of love.
Running for City Council.
“I ran for city council against Brian Herron. There were several Black candidates running for the position. We were all friends. Someone at the DFL said — “Why are Black people running against each other?” I told him that was racist. There are many wards where White people run against each other!
When Elizabeth Glidden became the councilwoman, she was told to go find me and learn about the neighborhood. She had started to have town meetings which I thought was smart. I told her she should have meetings somewhere above 42nd as well as below. It’s really two wards.
People look at the little picture. They don’t look at the big picture. They want government out of their business until they have a flood or something, then it’s “Where is the government? We want our aid!” I always try to look at the big picture so that, hopefully, I don’t close my mind in.
There was a riot on Portland and 43rd when Black families started moving in. They egged their cars. We never had anything like that happen to us in the neighborhood.
For my volunteer work I was honored by the University Women as a “Beautiful Activist.” My picture hung down in the window of Daytons. Some guy saw my picture and name and wrote the Star Tribune saying they were upset with my husband for marrying a Black women. People expected Alice Anderson to be White. At the hospital, patients would ask: “How did you get a name like Anderson?” I’d say “Best way I could figure out was to marry one.” This is the kind of subtle racism I experienced all the time.
Once I was clipped in the intersection right in front of our house. My husband [who is Black] came out. The police were really nasty to both of us. I had just gotten my license renewed and I had the paper they give you before they send you the new license. He gave me a ticket for “driving without license.” I went down and got it cleared, and told the Police Chief what happened to me. I said “This kind of behavior is what is precipitating these police/community issues. Three weeks later I was going across Lake Street and Chicago, I had another fender bender. The police started to shame me: ” Its bad enough you had to hit someone — but you removed their fender! ” I said “You gave me a hard time a few weeks ago. I am going to run you in.”
The police were inciting trouble.
I went to a meeting over here when we first opened our business. We had a break in. We knew who broke in. We tried to tell the police who it was. They told my husband to “keep his mouth shut and mind his own business.” Ten years later the police came to the neighborhood group to get us to help with some local crime. I said “You are ten years too late. Some of these crimes could have been stopped long ago if you had listened to us.”
Becoming an elder.
When my mom got old, she was still living in Gheen. I brought her down here. Her friends cried when she left. She lived with me for ten years — died when she was 92 years old.
When my husband was sick, I sold the house and bought a condo downtown. It got too expensive. When he died, I went up North to my land to see I could find a place up there to live. I got an apartment and lived there for a year. My daughter Kathy said, “You know mother, if you get sick up there, I don’t know what we will do.” I didn’t want to have them quit their jobs to take care of me. So I moved to be close to them. I have a daughter in Salem, North Carolina and two sons in Charlotte. I was going to live in Charlotte, but it was too busy for me, too mentally challenging, so I went up to Roanoke, Virginia. I heard on the radio that they were renovating an old hotel, not condos, but apartments. That sounded good to me. A historic hotel with brand new renovations. I’ve been there four years.
For Kirk’s funeral, Fred Steele did the music. He asked me what he should play. I said “You pick. Kirk was not that religious.” He decided to sing “Charity.” Fred said “I remember when I was just starting out and I didn’t have any money. Kirk would say, ‘You can’t get back and forth from North Minneapolis without a working car.’ He would fix my car for free, saying, ‘When you get some money, bring me some.’ I never forgot that.”
My Church is gone — St. Thomas Episcopal on 44th and 4th Ave — sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Two summers ago, I went to see Joe Minjares. I made my arrangements with him. When I die — if my kids are willing and can afford to come back here — I’m having my service in the Parkway Theater. I don’t know any place I feel closer to than there. When the service is over, I don’t want anybody crying. They will walk over to Pepitos restaurant and have a joyful repast.