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How Near North came to be one of Minneapolis’ largest black communities

historic photo of singing group
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Wheatley Aires, a men’s singing group, sing in front of an audience at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (809 Aldrich Avenue North) with a pianist accompanying. ca. 1950. Photograph Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul

The Near North community of Minneapolis—made up of the neighborhoods of Harrison, Hawthorne, Jordan, Near North, Sumner-Glenwood, and Willard-Hay—has had a major African American presence since the early 1900s. Distinguished by its own businesses, organizations, and culture, it remains a hub of African American Minnesotan life in the twenty-first century.

Minneapolis’ Near North Side has always been a haven for marginalized communities, mostly for its affordable housing and proximity to downtown. In the early twentieth century, much of the Twin Cities’ Jewish population resided in the Near North neighborhood, especially along Plymouth Avenue and what is now the Olson Memorial Highway.

Restrictive covenants written into real estate deeds limited blacks to certain areas of Minneapolis. During World War I, many began moving from longtime-settled neighborhoods, such as Seven Corners near the University of Minnesota, the South Side, and the North Side. The Sumner Field public housing project, completed at 1101 Olson Memorial Highway in 1938, was segregated, but its white Jewish and black residents generally interacted peacefully.

When blacks arrived in the Twin Cities, they often did not have access to the same community-based agencies as whites, so black churches, social organizations, and barber and beauty shops provided support. One such place, the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, opened in 1924 as a recreation center for African American children. African American activist and writer Ethel Ray Nance also became associated with the Wheatley House.

Black business began to thrive, too. In the 1940s and 1950s, barber Sylvester Young and his five brothers owned several shops in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with some located in Near North. Harry Davis Sr., an activist and former boxer, was one of the first black executives in the state. He helped establish the Minneapolis Urban Coalition and was the first black Minneapolis mayoral candidate in 1971.

By 1960, one third of Minneapolis’ African Americans lived in Near North, making it the city’s largest black community. Blacks accounted for 8 percent of the community’s total population. Near North’s African American population, excluding the various Glenwood-area public housing projects, was 55 percent. The longtime Jewish community began to disperse around this time, mostly to suburbs like St. Louis Park.

In 1966, Syl Davis founded The Way, a community youth center. The Way was one of the few resources of its kind that was organized and used mostly by African Americans. The community center provided a space for black youth to have a sense of community and belonging, and it became The New Way in 1975. The center turned into a hotspot of the so-called Minneapolis Sound of the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1967, racially charged civil unrest broke out along Plymouth Avenue. This unrest was the result of ongoing racial discrimination and frustration about Near North being neglected by the city. The widening of Olson Memorial Highway bisected Near North, affecting the vitality of local businesses on the south side of the street. The arrival of a federal highway, Interstate 94, in the 1970s further cut off the North Side from downtown.

In the 1970s and 1980s, blacks began moving to other parts of the metro area, including nearby suburbs, and Near North’s population decreased. In the 1980s, the neighborhood became known for its rising crime rates. A variety of people migrated into the neighborhood, including young white professionals and Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrants.

In 1995, the class-action lawsuit Hollman v. Cisneros determined that poor, mostly minority families had been concentrated in a seventy-three-acre site within the Near North Community. This led to the demolition of hundreds of public housing units and to the construction of the Heritage Park development in 2000. While many stayed in the area, many more were displaced and moved to nearby neighborhoods or nearby inner-ring suburbs, notably Brooklyn Center.

In November 2015, Minneapolis police fatally shot black North Minneapolitan Jamar Clark, an event that sparked a series of protests throughout the region and nation.

In 2018, the Minneapolis African American Heritage Museum and Gallery opened on the corner of Penn Avenue and Plymouth Avenue North. Its goal is to preserve the history of Minnesota African Americans, and to showcase the community’s achievements.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 01/20/2020 - 11:10 am.

    It would help clarify the issues of historical racial conflict in Minneapolis, and Minnesota, if we dealt with real numbers. This article never gets closer to real numbers than to say that only 8% of Minneapolitans, in 1960, were black, and that about one-third of those back citizens lived on the Near North side.

    At its greatest population, Minneapolis had (in the 1950s) about 500,000 people. Using the author’s unsourced figure of 8% of those as the city’s black population, we gather that Minneapolis’s black community totalled about 40,000. A third of that population, or 13, 335, lived in North Minneapolis by 1960.

    That’s the population of a middling-populated neighborhood today. Not a crowd. Our city was NOT New York or Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit; Minneapolis simply did not have a huge black population in 1960.

    And, that black population was fairly solid middle-class, economically, until much later in the 20th century, when blacks began to migrate here from more troubled cities, in large numbers and with less economic security.

    There is much more to study on this issue, and it would hep if we could get beyond cliches to actual figures and descriptors.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 01/20/2020 - 04:46 pm.

      People often refer to these near north neighborhoods as “black neighborhoods,” as if African-Americans were an overwhelming majority of the residents. I would be curious to know if that has ever been true of any of these neighborhoods.

    • Submitted by Hal Hughes on 01/24/2020 - 06:35 am.

      The north side has several very stately Jewish houses of worship that have been repurposed as Christian Churches. One was in what we called Pilot City near the intersection of Penn and Plymouth Avenue. Then going east there is another astounding shul. I don’t know why there was a exodus to Saint Louis Park for the Jewish folk. Does anyone know? Also a trip east on Plymouth reveals buildings with Moorish decor akin to Jewish residents. I recall an electronics store near Sheridan and Plymouth that had a ton of parts. Can’t recall the name of the two brothers who owned it. But it moved to Washington Avenue two blocks west off of Hennepin Avenue after that. I recall a Larry Atlas, a relative of the two brothers who ran the Washington Avenue store. Last time I look it was a realty company. Alas! Those parts stores are becoming history with Axeman closing.

  2. Submitted by John Adams on 01/20/2020 - 03:44 pm.

    I agree with Connie Sullivan.

    There is more written and available on the history and geography of various ethnic and racial groups, their spatial concentration, and their movements over time in Minneapolis (and in parallel situations in St. Paul) that the author might consult.

  3. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 01/21/2020 - 10:24 am.

    Gordon Parks painted a vibrant picture of north Mpls. in his autobiography. I always wondered where the nightclub Pope’s was.

  4. Submitted by Eric Hankin-Redmon on 01/21/2020 - 06:23 pm.

    Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    I don’t know if you all read that little preamble at the top, but this is a MNopedia article that’s featured here on MinnPost. It’s a (very) general information entry specifically about African American history within the neighborhood. That’s the nature of this genre of writing.

    I have a 1,600 word first draft that is more in-depth and nuanced, but, due to very stringent word count limitations, everything did not make it into the final entry. I could’ve written pages and pages about the black community’s nuanced history within the area! This is where the Related Sources tab can be useful, though there’s much more that can be added there, too.

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