I cannot imagine taking this life journey or persisting in this work without the support and companionship of my family and friends. Throughout the process of writing this book, I have felt their spirits. I have been inspired by their commitments to our struggle and to our community, and I have remembered our collective obligation to our ancestors and children.
My daughters, Josie Johnson Thomas and Norrene Johnson Duffy, have been right here at my hip with love and support in every way that I could expect (even after the many late dinners of their childhood). I rely on their honest counsel and lean on their understanding. They make me feel useful and worthy of anything that I receive. That my daughters have encouraged their own children—my granddaughters, Lauren Noelle, Josie Helen, and Rosa Patrice—to live their lives in commitment to community gives me deep satisfaction. Part of my hope for this book is that my grandchildren and my three great-grandchildren will not have to fight against the humiliation, pain, and lack of fulfillment that have been the struggle of my generation, and that Black children in all future generations experience the dignity and respect due every human being.
I am happy that my daughter Norrene Elaine married Eugene Jones Duffy. Eugene comes from a family of pioneers in the struggle for freedom and justice; his parents, Frank and Helen, taught him and his siblings to be proud of their ancestry and to be workers for justice. The Duffys have become my other family and helped to make the past thirty-plus years very rewarding and fulfilling. Frank and Helen’s children and grandchildren have been a source of immense joy and an extraordinary blessing. Crowned Grandma Josie, I have been embraced by generations and loved with reverence, affection, and tenderness. Our gatherings renew my spirit and cause me to celebrate the special nature of family in our community and provoke me to count my blessings.
Mahmoud El-Kati, my dearest friend and brother, has been my thought-partner and teacher in our struggle for justice and equality for more than fifty years. In our African tradition and culture, Mahmoud and his wife, TiTi, gave me the gift of being the godmother of their daughter Kamali and celebrated this gift in a community naming ceremony. His example in writing about and studying the history of Black people, his commitment to addressing issues of justice with adults and young people, and his enthusiasm and support have given me the courage to write this book. His love, respect, and belief in me have motivated me to tell this story of struggle and hope.
I will always feel lucky and blessed to have had Matthew Little, Katie McWatt, and Max Fallek in my life. The deaths of my dear friends—my sister Katie in 2009 and Matt in 2016—brought me pain and loneliness that I still feel today. Katie modeled the struggle and capacity of Black women through her political activities, her counsel to youth, and her example of courage to her family. Matt never forgot the legal and political issues of our time even as he tirelessly continued the mission of the NAACP. Max Fallek has been and continues to be a dear friend and companion over a lifetime of work, especially at the Urban League, The Way, and the March on Washington.
In 1948, when I was a sophomore at Fisk University, we had the privilege of hearing many lectures about the civil rights movement, the second Reconstruction, and Blacks who served in the U.S. Congress from 1929 and beyond. We also knew the history of our Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” composed by James Weldon Johnson who taught at Fisk, my alma mater.
In addition to the many Black luminaries who taught and lectured at Fisk, we also learned about Hubert H. Humphrey, who as mayor of Minneapolis and a member of the Platform Committee for that year’s National Democratic Convention held in Philadelphia had delivered a powerful address in support of civil rights, which established Minnesota as a state where racial equality was taken seriously, causing thirty-five delegates from Mississippi and Alabama to walk out of the convention. To hear a national leader reflect what Black leaders had been preaching throughout the history of Black people in America was an impressive and historical moment. Refreshing, hopeful, profound.
Humphrey had not yet become the thirty-eighth Vice President of the United States when Charles and I moved to Minneapolis in 1956. At that time, he was serving as a U.S. senator from Minnesota. I learned much more of his history when I served as assistant to Minneapolis mayor Art Naftalin when I was on leave from the Urban League in the 1960s. Art had worked as Humphrey’s assistant when he was a senator and, like Humphrey, was deeply involved in civil rights issues. The development of the Minneapolis Human Rights Department was modeled after the department created by Hubert Humphrey when he was our mayor. I received the Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award in 2007 from the University of Minnesota and the Hubert H. Humphrey award for Dedication and Leadership to the Minnesota DFL Party on March 15, 2008. I have served and participated in many Humphrey School of Public Affairs events, speaking to international student classes and gatherings at public community affairs. I have felt deeply honored to be associated with the history of Hubert H. Humphrey.
I was also blessed to know Norman Sherman, a very important mentee of Vice President Humphrey, and to read his book From Nowhere to Somewhere, which gives a great understanding of the influence Humphrey had on the civil rights efforts in both Minnesota and the nation.
My proudest honor with regard to the vice president came when I was invited to speak at the unveiling of the Hubert H. Humphrey Memorial on the State Capitol Grounds on August 4, 2012. President Bill Clinton, Senator Al Franken, Arne Carlson, and Senator Amy Klobuchar were also on the program.
Former Republican governor and lifelong friend Elmer Andersen contributed to my belief that politicians can make a difference when they are committed to the issues of justice and equality. Another lifelong friend, former mayor Art Naftalin, was a champion for justice throughout our many years of community service. My colleague in work for fair housing in Minnesota, Zetta Feder, was a close personal friend. Our families shared many holidays and enjoyed many leisure events and activities together. I will always deeply appreciate her commitment to legislative success.
I will always feel blessed to have been introduced to Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, when I returned to Minnesota. From that moment on, he became a close friend and adviser, and I felt very privileged to be among those he invited to be engaged in his thought process. I was devastated at the news of his death. In my judgment, he was a voice of justice, fairness, courage, and love of the people. Sheila was his companion, his supporter, and his strength. They will always have a special place in my belief in the struggle for justice.
Several dear friends and fellow educators have been important to my work. Gisela Konopka was an inspirational educator and champion for troubled children. Gisa and I team-taught an experimental course in the mid-1960s at the University of Minnesota on racism and troubled African American youth. She always had her calendar and small pencil ready to make another appointment to discuss strategies for saving children who needed their voices heard. Sara Roberson and I have known each other and been friends since 1957; we carpooled our children to the University of Minnesota early childhood and elementary school program. Sara became an elementary school teacher in the Minneapolis public schools and courageously introduced the history of Native Americans to public school students in and beyond Minnesota. Barbara Shin and Rosilyn Carroll taught public school teachers methods and curricula for educating children of diverse backgrounds. I want to recognize singer and songwriter Larry Long for his efforts celebrating everyday heroes and elders—especially his work with the students at Emerson Immersion School and their program honoring me and sharing the values of justice and advice from our ancestors transferring across generations.
I have known Gary Cunningham since he was a University of Minnesota student, and I have always felt free and safe to share my ideas about community issues with him. I am so appreciative of his contributions to the establishment of the Leland–Johnson Common Vision Program and for his support and savvy insights in our discussions of the issues of justice and equality for our community.
Vernon H. Wilson was a trustee and anchor at St. Peter Claver. He had keys to the church and deposited the Sunday collections. He was an usher and kept record of candles and sacrament supplies. Vernon was the trusted, dependable, and deeply spiritual leader in the church. He had been a member for many years and worked as a chemist at 3M Corporation. I got to know Vernon in 2005, and we have been friends ever since. I know his children and assisted in the wedding of his son. As Vernon’s health declines, I am blessed to be the person here to serve him and thank him for all he has done for me in the years we have known each other. I feel like a member of his family.
As I have gotten older, I rely on the support of many people for the business of living. The love, care, and technical assistance of Rhonda Franklin have been special blessings in the many years we have known each other. I have depended on Rhonda in so many ways, and she never tires of my asking for help—from her trust in me and honoring me as the godmother of her only child to my late-hours, long-distance calls to ask, “What do I do? What is wrong with this computer?” she has been there for me. The loving care, the transportation, the regular assurance that I have food, and the daily assurance that I am okay come from my dear Martha Arradondo. My longtime friend Tyrone Tyrell is always available to come to my aid, acknowledge my special needs, and assure me nothing is too much to ask. Frank Perkins regularly checks in on my needs and offers untiring assistance of any type. Bill and Frances Woodson are always there for me, and Julius Dixon provides a reminder of the care we, as a people, learned from our ancestors—the care of our elders.
Writing this book has not been an easy task for me, and it would not have happened without the help and contributions of a village of people.
Bill Davis, Anura and Rekhet Si-Asar, and Ellen Benavides were clear and convincing in articulating the necessity of this book and its value for young people. Kapria White, the granddaughter of Luther and Evelyn Prince, whom we knew from MIT and later Honeywell, became like one of my children: she is very close to me and looks to me as a grandmother, and I love her as a granddaughter. RoseAnn Zimbro, Harry “Spike” Moss, Leland Carriger, Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, and many others supplemented my memory by providing details of experiences and events discussed in this book. Maryama Dahir, Rekhet Si-Asar, Trisha Anderson, Cecily Marcus, Lisa Vecoli, and the exceedingly competent staff at the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Archives helped to organize the many boxes of papers that were the reference materials for the writing of this book. Hadiya Shire and Aria Gilliam supported our writing with valuable transcription services. I deeply appreciate former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, Dr. John Wright, Dr. Samuel Myers Jr., Kathleen O’Brien, Dr. Carol McGee Johnson, and Mahmoud El-Kati, who shared their insights through interviews that framed and affirmed the rationale for telling my story.
I feel blessed to publish with the University of Minnesota Press and in particular to work with Erik Anderson. Erik’s deep listening, patience, careful editorial attention, and guidance have been essential for preparing and sharing my story with the community. I am also very grateful to Louisa Castner, who understood my story and helped my team and me in the editing of this book. Thank you.
Last but not least, this book would not have happened without the diligent and loving toil of Arleta Little and Carolyn Holbrook. Throughout our work and many discussions, our team has shared a commitment to preserving African American culture, sharing African American stories, and advancing justice for African American people. Over the journey of this book, I have felt joy and blessing that these women chose to exercise their talents in documenting my story. Arleta has been my thought-partner, trusted adviser, support, and confidant from the beginning of this eight-year project. She skillfully outlined the orienting framework and values that have been our guide over many years and ultimately assisted in the writing of the book. I also relied on her to manage the project’s financial and human resources. As a writer, Carolyn remained steadfastly committed (even through hundreds of pages, drafts, and transcripts) to capturing and articulating my thoughts in a coherent and comprehensive way. With careful observation and determined effort over many hours, we bridged generational differences and had a meeting of the minds. Carolyn’s diligent research and sensitivity to detail have indelibly enriched the telling of my story.
Only limitations in space have prevented me from specifically mentioning the many other members of my community who generously contributed to the completion of this work. To all, I offer my gratitude for your many gifts and for your confidence in the enduring culture of our people.