The University of Minnesota has joined a growing list of schools and colleges that are confronting their history of institutional racism. At the U of M, that history is now on display (through Nov. 30) at an exhibit at the Andersen Library entitled “A Campus Divided: Progressives, Anti-Communists, Racism and Anti-Semitism at the University of Minnesota, 1930-41.” As a follow-up to the exhibit, the university has established an advisory committee that will dig deeper into the school’s record of racism and prejudice.
That record includes a troubling incident involving a pleasant South Minneapolis neighborhood whose curving streets are named for university presidents. The neighborhood, now known as the Luella Anderson Addition, was developed on a 38-acre plot of land that the university received as a donation from a wealthy civic leader, William Henry Eustis, in the 1920s. Thirty years later, in the late 1950s, the university decided to sell the undeveloped Eustis site to a suburban homebuilder, Marvin H. Anderson, for $551,500. Anderson later named the property for his wife, Luella.
As the final sales documents were being prepared in January 1959, three local NAACP organizations urged university Vice President W.T. Middlebrook to insert an anti-discrimination clause in the sales contract with Anderson. In a Jan. 12 telegram to Middlebrook, the civil rights organizations asked for a meeting with university officials to discuss their proposal for a covenant that would prevent discrimination in the resale or use of the Eustis property because of race, color, creed or national origin of the prospective users. The wire was signed by the Rev. Denzil Carty, chair of the Minnesota Conference of the NAACP; Leonard Carter, president of the NAACP’s St. Paul branch; and Douglas Hall, head of the Minneapolis branch.
In their telegram, the three local civil rights leaders noted that the university had declined to insert an anti-discrimination covenant in the sale of an earlier piece of property to a local homebuilder. “One of the first prospective buyers was a Negro member of the University faculty who was rejected because of race. (We) feel strongly that the University has the responsibility to exercise leadership in the movement to end discrimination,” the NAACP leaders declared.
In a reply to Carty, Carter and Hall, Middlebrook cited the history of the South Minneapolis property. He explained that Eustis had given the university the land and a fund to support a hospital for crippled children he hoped would be built on the site. When the university decided to sell the Eustis property, it did so in order to generate sales proceeds that could be used to aid crippled children, Middlebrook explained. “In the judgment of our real estate representatives and in our own judgment, the introduction of any restrictive clause would affect the salability and even the sales price. To the extent that it did, it would be contrary to the trust responsibility placed on the University by Mr. Eustis,” Middlebrook said.
The three NAACP leaders reacted angrily to Middlebrook’s effort to use the Eustis trust as an excuse for not complying with their request. “We are appalled by your letter of Jan. 13,” Carter, Carty and Hall wrote. “You plainly say that a covenant on the Eustis property preventing discrimination would affect the salability and even the sales price of the land. This is a myth originated and promulgated by bigots to frighten people into opposing equal opportunity in housing. Evidence in other communities has disproven this myth. Land values drop only where panic selling is promulgated by the unscrupulous in order to make a quick profit by playing on people’s fears. “
Later in the month, the NAACP leaders sent a more conciliatory message to Middlebrook, saying that by inserting an anti-discrimination provision in the contract with Anderson, the university “would exhibit moral leadership worthy of its great position in the community.” But Middlebrook rebuffed their request again. In a terse Jan. 23 letter, he reported that the Eustis property had already been sold, and “an additional encumbrance could not be placed on the property after the sale.”
While this exchange of letters was occurring, Anderson stated publicly that he would not discriminate in the resale of lots at the Eustis site. “I have built for Negroes in the past and I will continue to do so,” he told a Minneapolis Tribune reporter.
While there is no evidence that Anderson went back on his word, he later led the lobbying effort by certain real estate interests to defeat a statewide fair housing bill at the Minnesota Legislature. Despite Anderson’s best efforts, the bill was enacted in 1961.
As the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the late 1950s, the U of M chose to resist that movement when it sold the Eustis property. By making a conscious decision to reject a fair housing covenant, Middlebrook and others in the university leadership placed a black mark in the school’s history that cannot be removed.