School Days. Minneapolis Project interviewees in conversation.

img_1656-2Excerpts from the first 22 interviews of the Minneapolis Project, contemplating  school experiences. The interviewees are ages 17- 85.  Click on the first words in each paragraph to see who said what and read the whole interview.

Kindergarten

In 1969 my mother walked me to the corner before kindergarten and said (using the terminology of the time) “You are a Negro. Hold your head high and remember not to let anyone tell you they are better than you.” Who would know I would remember those words and gather strength from them my entire life?”

In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.

Elementary  and middle school

In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience. I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage. Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom. I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

High school

West high school — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners. Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox. We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English. I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec. The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’ When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….My parents were sharecroppers…. I was drafted into the military out of high school.

I was born in Decalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades. I was fortunate that I was not in his classes. My dad had a reputation for being mean. He wasn’t mean, just strict. He wanted the students to learn, not play. It was kind of hard on my social life when I was a teenager, having him as a teacher. I remember once when there was a church revival. The whole community came out. When they started passing the platter me and my friends left together. When my dad came out of the church tent, my friends said ‘I don’t want the teacher catching me around his daughter’ and they left me.

I live in Southwest Minneapolis and go to South High School which isn’t in my school zone. I disagreed with my parents decision to send me to South and I still do. My parents thought I would have better Special Ed. supports. I have ADHD, depression, anxiety. Teachers always say I m great, I’m smart but I don’t finish assignments. In Middle School I had a tough time and hopped school. .. All of them were White schools except for Folwell. So it was pretty amazing at South to see people who looked like me. We have a Native American program that is incredible. Beautiful. I have friends in it. I grew up in a very different neighborhood than where South is. My neighborhood is 95% Caucasian. 95% two parents, two kids, a dog and a cat. I feel really safe. So it is interesting to go to South. I see people on the streets. There is a bus line that people actually use. Going to South has made me realize that people don’t all live in the fantasy world I live in. I think it has made me a better person. Being at South has broadened my perspective but it has also isolated me socio-economically. It’s hard to switch over

I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially. We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything. But I liked it because I was with other kids of color. I went to Kennedy High School. I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

I started drinking and taking drugs around the time my sister entered the household — 12 or 13. I still did OK in school so I got away with it for a while, and I was a wrestler. That allowed me to pass. Even though I was using drugs and smoking a pack of cigarettes, I was still a good athlete. But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine…

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved. I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios.

I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school. The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers. I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

 

Post secondary

Coming out of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. I took advanced classes, but no AP classes. They had prep tutorials for those courses, but you had to pay. I had nine other siblings and limited means. That wasn’t going to happen. My foster parents were not supportive of me going to college. Neither of them had ever gone. They wanted me to get a job. ‘Degrees are for snobby people.’ they said. ‘Work hard and you will move up.’

Hundreds of students were killed that day. After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no student movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you…. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.” They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw as many as 200 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you. When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now 30 years later very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are getting college degrees —60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

After my stint in the army I got a degree from the U of M and then landed a job as a bilingual case worker in Stearns County, while completing a Masters at St. Cloud State. Through a confluence of circumstances I became homeless after my job ended. It sucked. I had been working with homeless clients for 8 years, so I understood the system very well. Now I saw it from the other side.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

Julius Lee, Age 84. Born in Alabama. Wanted to Go as Far North As Possible To Escape Jim Crow.

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Julius and Effee Lee have been my neighbors for 23 years. They saw my daughter grow up and never fail to ask how she’s doing and share the joy of her accomplishments. I watched their little grandchild take his first steps. Julius loved to walk the baby up and down the block, showing him off. He’s 16 now. They have a large photo of him sporting a mohawk in their dining room. He got a bad grade in math and his parents made him shave the mohawk.

We live in South Minneapolis on a block of stucco houses built in 1932. Going into their home felt familiar — the same little cubbies built into the walls, the same arches between living room and dining room, the same crack in the living room wall. Their cubbies were filled with books. Volumes of stories. A collection of Negro Poetry. Black History.

Julius says: I’ll be 85 if I live to July.  Effie is a few years younger. Effie worked up until recently. She had a stroke in February. Julius is blind now, but he still walks up and down the block most days and I feel lucky when I happen to see him. On Sunday June 5, 2016 he was out in his yard dressed in a suit. Members of Zion Baptist church had just left after conducting a private service and communion for him. I was unshowered and on my bike, headed to the farmers’ market, but I stopped anyway and asked if I could interview him and Effie. We agreed I would call at 10 AM the next morning.

We started with Julius. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the names of his grandchildren on them and a Mason’s crown. He gave me the 2016 Spring Bulletin of the Mason’s to educate me. The Black Masons are a Fraternal organization with roots going back to the 18th century. Today chapters engage in school supply drives and Black History programs. The Minnesota chapter just initiated a “Take the Kids Fishing” program and a “Healthy Lives” event that included private HIV/STP screening.

Julius was born in 1931 in Demopolis, Alabama, the oldest of nine children.

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….

My parents were sharecroppers. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have anything to show for it. They encouraged us to get out of the place, get moving. Most of my siblings went out east. A brother went to Chicago.

I was drafted into the military out of high school. Served in the Korean War. I fought for my country and put my life on the line. Afterward I said I’m going to get my freedom one way or another. It wasn’t right being treated like that – being an American citizen — I couldn’t live with those (Jim Crow) conditions.

I went to Tuskegee. Afterward I was offered jobs in Miami, Washington D.C, Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t want nothing to do with those places. I didn’t want Chicago. Shoot me up, drug me up, too much violence too much poverty, too much suffering. People stacked on top of each other. Not for me.

I wanted go farther North. They said ‘How far North?’ I said ‘As far as I could go.’ They said ‘How about Minnesota?’ I said ‘I’ll take a shot at that’. They said, ‘Well you know, not many Blacks live up there’. I said ‘I’m not looking for Blacks, I’m looking for equal opportunity.’ I wanted my children to live in a better environment. I wanted the best education they could get.

There was a man who graduated Tuskegee before me and had set up his own catering company in Minnesota. He was looking for Tuskegee graduates to work for him.

When I came to Minneapolis I lived in the YMC downtown. The old building, you know? They had place for single men to live. They kept it nice and clean. Economical. It was like a dormitory, had a nice restaurant and coffee shop. That is where I stayed until I became engaged and married.

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof . My boss stopped to throw me up a lunch. I saw her in the car and I almost jumped off the building. My boss said,

‘Man don’t jump off that roof! Man, you might hurt yourself! You’ll get to meet the young lady.’

Julius laughed. In that laugh you could hear the young Julius, seeing the lady of his dreams.

__________

The story of Julius and Effie Lee continues. This is the first in a three-part series.