Making Our Way
BY THE MID-1960S, cities across the nation were in turmoil, reacting to the events of the decade. We had accomplished the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, but those victories were not without severe repercussions. Jobs were still scarce, and civil rights workers were still being harassed and murdered for their efforts to help Blacks in the South to register to vote. Stokely Carmichael had become chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and its members were losing faith in the strategy of nonviolence. The Black Panther Party had become organized and was offering a different method in the struggle for justice.
Here in Minneapolis, things were also changing. The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, which had once been a major gathering place on the North Side, was becoming less important to some in the community. Since the 1920s, Wheatley House had provided a variety of programs for our children including after-school programs and piano and dance lessons. Training for young men who boxed with the Golden Gloves was offered under the direction of W. Harry Davis, who would later become a leading Minneapolis civil rights activist, businessman, and mayoral candidate. He and his wife and children had become dear friends of ours. Wheatley House had also been the social center for Black college students, who, unwelcome in University of Minnesota dormitories, were given lodging. Fraternity and sorority dances and basketball tournaments were held there as well as dances and plays for neighborhood youth and families. Wheatley also provided rehearsal space and lodging for famous artists and musicians such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday because Minneapolis hotels refused to accommodate them when they performed here.
North Minneapolis was a close-knit community before the problems of the ’60s broke out. Just like the families of my childhood in Houston, North Side families knew and looked out for one another. Neighbors knew the names of the children, whether they lived in the projects or in modest or middle-to-upper-class homes. North Minneapolis was diverse. African American, Jewish, Mexican, Native American, and white families lived on the Near North Side but were segregated in specific areas around Sumner Field, the center of the community located behind Wheatley House. Children from all the groups that made up the community played together, even though parents, especially the white parents, often did not approve.
Black-owned businesses like barber shops and beauty salons, restaurants, bars and cafés, dry cleaners, grocery stores, and clothing stores thrived. The Givens Ice Cream Bar was also a mainstay of the community, owned by Archie Givens Sr. and his wife, Phebe. Archie and Phebe grew up in North Minneapolis and remained there with their children while he grew his career as a real estate developer building new homes for Black families. He would later become known for integrating nursing homes in and around the Twin Cities and later, along with Phebe, for establishing the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. The Givenses were one of the families who welcomed Chuck and me to the Twin Cities in 1956.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, urban renewal policies and white flight to the suburbs destroyed stable and historic Black communities in North and South Minneapolis and Saint Paul with the construction of I-94 and 35W highways. Homes were torn down, and the promises made to residents that new housing would be built were not kept. The majority of Black businesses were forced to close. Families who could afford to move relocated to other communities. As a result, the neighborhoods have never fully recovered.
Even following passage of the 1955 Minnesota State Act for Fair Employment Practices, a majority of employed Blacks in the Twin Cities still held only menial or service jobs, and most believed that the cause had more to do with racism and white supremacy than lack of education. North Side residents argued that there was little opportunity available to them and that equality had only been achieved on paper, not in reality. In addition, most of the businesses on Plymouth Avenue, the major business hub in North Minneapolis, were now Jewish-owned rather than being owned by Black residents, who had stayed after Jewish people moved out of the neighborhood. Blacks felt a lack of control over the economy in their own neighborhood. This eventually led to confrontation between Blacks and Jewish business owners, which came in the form of two rebellions, characterized by mainstream media as “riots”—one in 1966 and the other in 1967. Those events were not simply random acts of violence. Residents were striking back at the origin of violence: oppression.
Shortly after our return from the March on Washington back in 1963, Mayor Naftalin had publicly asserted his belief that there was a need to enforce equality in the city. In his 1963 inaugural speech for his reelection to a third term as mayor of Minneapolis, he predicted that “a fire of protest against indignity and denial is burning here as it is elsewhere. It will not be extinguished by promises or pledges that are not translated into action.” Also in that year, he made a request to Robert Williams that I be granted a leave of absence from the Urban League to serve as an adviser to him. For the next few years, we continued working on jobs, education, and housing here in Minneapolis. Mayor Naftalin was the first Minneapolis mayor to actually visit the North Side and have meaningful conversations with community members.
After the rebellions broke out in 1966 and 1967, the mayor’s office and I worked with North Minneapolis citizens to find ways to resolve the problems that had been identified. We worked very quickly to make several important resolutions: to provide jobs for young people and to bring together a coalition of leaders from the Black and Jewish communities. Those meetings resulted in the formation of the Commission on Human Development. The commission, composed of public officials, was given a year to complete the tasks of determining the causes of the recent violence and making recommendations to prevent its recurrence.
I remember, with a sense of accomplishment, a very good discussion and understanding by the mayor of a strategy I thought was different—and had the possibility of being more effective than those previously tried in the struggle for civil rights. I had created a spreadsheet on the wall of the mayor’s office that (1) identified all the programs that had been offered over time to achieve civil rights; (2) spelled out the objectives and mission we wanted to accomplish; (3) identified what needed to be done to achieve our goals; and (4) identified the roadblocks to the goals. Our public report would include our findings, resources needed, financial support, legislation, personnel, time, and so on. We studied it and began considering how and with whom to discuss this new process both locally and nationally.
When the rebellions broke out, the staff at the Urban League and an ad hoc group of community members were aptly prepared to work on the challenges identified by the Black community. A new organization, The Way Opportunities Unlimited, Inc., was formed with a focus on education and service to Black youth on the North Side. Phyllis Wheatley House was still important to the community, but it was a settlement house, and the generation that was coming of age in the 1960s was confronted with discrimination and prejudice on a level they hadn’t experienced before. According to Spike Moss, “At Wheatley, all that was required was for us to have fun. Now we needed something to fit today’s thing—it couldn’t fit yesterday.” The Way was the organization designed and managed to address the issues of the day.
An impressive and significant cross-section of Minneapolis communities came together to support The Way. Well-known public leaders in the legal, financial, cultural, and religious communities were able to see the value of this new agency, and confirmed its value by offering financial and legal support as well as much needed moral support. I participated as a supporter, representing the Urban League, the mayor’s Office, and other outreach connections with whom I had associations.
The Way was a voice heard throughout the community. Its mission included strengthening family life, protecting African American children, and developing pride in the history of our people in America. One of the programs Mahmoud El-Kati developed through The Way was a Black history class for inmates at Stillwater Prison. I worked with the education team to develop the curriculum and was one of the instructors who visited the facility once a month with the education team where we taught the inmates—men who were enthusiastic about learning their history. We also worked with Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, to develop a campus here that was connected with The Way.
As the Minneapolis Urban League’s community organizer, I was accepted and welcomed and began to participate in many of The Way’s activities and programs. I was involved in meetings with community members, and Chuck and I were very much engaged in the development of this positive endeavor, often taking our daughters with us to meetings and other activities. I recall a particular meeting in the basement of The Way, where community activists and those associated with the organization determined that the Black community should form an independent nation; we discussed taking this plan to the United Nations. Chuck, always a practical voice in discussions, asked about some specific requirements for a nation. “Did we have a military, a national budget, or a governmental structure that would support the needs of citizens?” he asked. We did not, and as a result the idea to secede from the United States was not raised again within our group.
I developed close relationships with The Way’s cofounders, Syl and Gwen Davis; Verlena Matey-Keke, coordinator of the education department; Vusumuzi Zulu, editor of the organization’s newsletter; youth leader Spike Moss; and Mahmoud El-Kati, director of the education department, who would become a lifelong friend. He recently told me when recalling The Way: “Let it be said that The Way Opportunities Unlimited, Inc., was part and parcel of the spirit of awareness and the movement of ideas to address long-standing inequities, which seem to ebb and flow with the ideals of a democratic American society.”
The Way became a center for information on the National Black Liberation Movement and was embraced by young activists who saw it as a source of Black pride and engagement in community. The Way represented a source of Black Power, self-determination, and hope. In addition, it became a must-stop visit on their travel agenda for some of the nation’s most prominent Black figures, including soul singer James Brown, boxer Muhammad Ali, and Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes. Just like my father when he came to visit, people would ask where the Black community was. They were led to The Way.
The Way closed in 1970 as a result of financial struggles and increased competition for resources within the Black community. Ironically, a police station was built on The Way’s historical and once-hopeful location. But the community has not forgotten it. In fact, when a young Black man named Jamar Clark was killed by police in November 2015, one of the demands made by the protestors from Black Lives Matter was that The Way be reinstated, to its original site.
On August 6, 2016, The Way celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of its founding. At the event, my dear friend Rolland Robinson, a white man who is a retired minister of Calvary Methodist Church, and was president of The Way’s board, released his book For a Moment We Had The Way. It is a wonderful book of his reflections on the organization, which he begins by saying, “Older souls, no matter their age, have made my soul wiser, spoke of what we thought, told us of what we knew, that gave us each leave to be what we are, truly.”