CHUCK WAS THE THIRD BLACK PROFESSIONAL ever hired at Honeywell. The first was nuclear physicist Woodfin Lewis and the second was Luther Prince, an electrical engineer. Chuck had met Luther when they were graduate students at MIT. Woody Lewis and his wife, Virginia, we knew, were Fisk alumni.
When Chuck came to Minneapolis for his interview with Honeywell, he also met Oscar and Ora Newman—Ora worked at Honeywell and Oscar worked at the nuclear plant in Anoka. Oscar’s father was Cecil E. Newman, the founder and publisher of the Minneapolis Spokesman and the St. Paul Recorder, the first Black newspapers in Minnesota, and he was the first president of the Minneapolis Urban League. Cecil was a prominent leader among Black Minnesotans. He was active on corporate boards and in political circles and was close friends with Hubert H. Humphrey. We were also very close with two other prominent journalists, Carl T. Rowan and his wife, Vivien. At the time, Carl was a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, one of a very few Black journalists to hold such a position for a major newspaper. Another friend was Mary Kyle, founder and publisher of the St. Paul Courier. She later became publisher of the St. Paul Recorder and would later travel with me to Jackson, Mississippi, during the Wednesdays in Mississippi movement in Freedom Summer in 1964.
The Newmans became our Minneapolis family. They helped us get settled and oriented to our new home. They were well connected in the Twin Cities community, including its politics and social life, and introduced us to a large group of Black professionals. And when our youngest daughter, Josie Irene, was born two years after we moved to Minneapolis, the Newmans and Katie McWatt became her godparents.
It was exciting, as we settled into our new community, to meet so many young, professionally trained, and interesting Black families: doctors who practiced at the University of Minnesota Hospital and taught at the University Medical School; teachers and social workers who introduced creative strategies for developing a curriculum and effective methods for teaching Black children their history in the Minneapolis Public Schools; and individuals who would make significant political and social contributions to the community. One of the doctors we became friends with was Cassius Ellis and his wife, Phyllis. Cassius delivered Josie. What a day that was. Chuck was in Wilmington, Delaware, for Honeywell when I went into labor. I called Dr. Ellis and then the Newmans. Oscar came right away and took Patrice and Norrene to stay with him and Ora, and Cassius took me to the University of Minnesota Hospital. He must have called Honeywell and left a message for Chuck to catch the next plane home. The plane didn’t arrive until after Josie was born, so when Oscar met Chuck at the airport, he said, “You have a beautiful, healthy baby girl.”
Some of our other new friends were Archie Givens Sr., the first Black millionaire in Minnesota, and his wife, Phebe; and architect Lorenzo “Pete” Williams and his wife, Lillian, who would later become the founding director of the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Richard and Jean Fox and their daughters also became like family to us. When we met them, Richard was working for the Minnesota State Commission against Discrimination. He later became U.S. Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago under the Carter Administration.
We also became great friends with St. Paul activists Katie McWatt, her husband, Arthur, known as Chan, and their children. Chan was an author and a history teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools and Katie became like a sister to me. Our community interests merged in many ways. We frequently saw parallels in our strategies in our community efforts and often collaborated together to address them. We became known as counterparts—she was often called “St. Paul’s Josie Johnson” whereas I was “Minneapolis’s Katie McWatt.”
Katie became director of the St. Paul Urban League and was the first Black candidate to run for St. Paul City Council. After retiring from the Urban League, she became adviser to African American students at St. Paul Central High. She exposed the students to African American history and escorted them on trips to historic Black colleges when they were deciding where to apply upon graduation.
Many of the women in our group of friends met monthly to play bridge. I very much enjoyed their company even though I didn’t think I was smart enough to learn to play bridge. We talked about many things as they too were aware of issues that needed to be addressed in our communities, both in Minnesota and nationwide. For instance, when Chuck and I moved to Minneapolis, Black people were less than 3 percent of the population and lived in limited sections on the North and South Sides and in St. Paul. The women helped me become grounded in the observations I was making about housing and other issues that affected us. For instance, Black Minneapolitans were deeply aware that we would be in danger if we dared to go to Northeast Minneapolis.
In turn, I shared with them the results of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that I witnessed while living with my family in Houston when Chuck was in the Army. Before Brown v. Board of Education, schools in Houston were named after Black historical figures such as Booker T. Washington and Houston educator Ernest Ollington Smith, and skilled Black teachers taught our children in those schools. But after the decision, many of our schools were renamed and those great teachers were moved to white schools or demoted to administrative positions. They were replaced by young, white, newly graduated teachers who were assigned to Black schools. The white female teachers were intimidated by Black male high school students; having no understanding of the young men’s ways of being, they allowed them to behave in ways that the Black teachers would never have allowed. They didn’t encourage the boys to listen to their instruction but instead allowed them to get up from their seats and move around the classroom and sometimes accused the boys of flirting with them. That was the beginning of a terrible decline in the education of our children that exists to this day. On a more positive note, my new friends and I shared the pride we felt about the Montgomery bus boycott that had ended shortly before Chuck and I moved to Minneapolis.
Not long before we moved to Minneapolis, a group of nineteen Southern Senators and seventy-seven members of the House of Representatives signed what they called the Southern Manifesto, a resolution condemning Brown v. Board of Education. The resolution called the decision “a clear abuse of judicial power” and encouraged states to resist implementing its mandates. Over the following year, I had many conversations with family and friends, including the women in the bridge group, about the Supreme Court’s decision as well as the negative reactions to it. The day when the students whom history would dub the Little Rock Nine were scheduled to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, is still as fresh in my mind as the day it happened. It was September 4, 1957, and I was at home with Norrene, who was almost a year old. I sat in front of the television holding little Norrene on my lap and watched in astonishment as a white mob gathered in front of the school and Governor Orval Faubus stood at the front door to block the way so those young people couldn’t enter. Women spat on the teens and threatened them. How, I wondered, could those women, many of whom were mothers, treat those children that way?
Through our many new connections, we learned that Minnesota had quite an interesting political history regarding African Americans. As I became more knowledgeable about Minnesota’s history of denying Blacks the right to vote, hold political office, and serve on juries, it became increasingly clear that we had a lot of work ahead of us. Discrimination was not limited to the Southern states. I learned about the Minnesota legend, scholar, lawyer, and legislator J. Francis Wheaton. During his one term in office, Representative Wheaton introduced fifteen bills. Chief among them was an amendment to an 1885 civil rights bill that prevented businesses from refusing service to anyone on the basis of race or color. Wheaton proposed an addition that made the list of pertinent businesses exhaustive. The bill passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor John Lind on March 6, 1899.
Nearly eighty more years passed before another Black would be elected to a Minnesota state office. That man was our veterinarian and dear friend Dr. B. Robert Lewis, the first Black man to be elected to the Minnesota State Senate. Bob was elected in 1972 but unfortunately passed away in 1979 during his second term in office. In 1983, the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine named its hospital for companion animals in his name. It was the first time the university had named a facility after a Black person. Also, because of legislation he authored to aid women in abusive relationships and stem domestic violence, two battered women’s shelters in Minnesota (in Eagan and Hastings) bear his name. In 1973, Ray Pleasant was the second Black person elected to the State Legislature. In 2001, Neva Walker became the first Black woman and Muslim to be elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.
In our early days in Minnesota, we also learned that as mayor of Minneapolis from 1945–48, Hubert H. Humphrey had worked hard to eliminate discrimination and bigotry in all of its forms. Chuck and I were quite shocked to learn that in addition to deep-seated racism Minneapolis was widely known as the anti-Semitic capital of America. Before coming here, we had no idea that there was such bigotry in Minnesota: its reputation was that it was a friendly, liberal environment.
Humphrey was well known for his public speaking style and his liberal philosophy. In 1948, he attracted national attention with an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he argued that the party’s presidential platform should include a civil rights plank. In the race for a U.S. Senate seat that fall, Humphrey’s populist-style coalition of Democrats, farmers, and labor unions propelled him to victory in Minnesota, a state that had not elected a Democratic senator since 1901. He continued his battle throughout his long career, establishing Human Rights Commissions and encouraging participation to eliminate discrimination in the city of Minneapolis.
Among the many people who became our close friends shortly after our arrival to Minneapolis was William Matthew Little. Matthew grew up in Washington, D.C., and following military service in World War II he earned a degree in biological science from North Carolina A&T, a historic Black university located in Greensboro. But he learned the limitations of fairness and justice in Minneapolis soon after he came here on a fluke in 1948. After graduating from college, he had moved to Milwaukee to work in an auto body plant. But he didn’t like Milwaukee, so one day he packed his bags and went to the railroad station. He wasn’t sure where he would end up; when the clerk asked where he wanted to go, two places came to mind. He flipped a coin—heads for Minneapolis, tails for Denver. The coin came up heads and he boarded the next train headed for Minneapolis.
Apparently, the bills that J. Frank Wheaton introduced back in 1899 hadn’t lasted, because when Matt Little arrived in Minneapolis, he was surprised to find that, much like the Jim Crow South, Blacks were not allowed to stay in major hotels and unwritten rules among employers kept them from many jobs. He had long desired to be a fire fighter, but his application to the all-white Minneapolis Fire Department fell flat even though he scored top grades on the exams. When he asked why he wasn’t hired, he was told that firefighters live in close quarters. “I don’t think that’s going to work,” said one of the men who interviewed him. He became disillusioned and very angry because he thought Minnesota would be a place where this kind of discrimination did not exist.
The fiasco with the Minneapolis Fire Department was the final straw in a series of events that spurred what would become Matthew’s lifelong commitment to civil rights. He created a successful lawn care service to earn a living for himself and his family and devoted his life to civil rights issues. He was president of the Minneapolis NAACP when we moved to Minneapolis. He invited me to join the board and accept the role of treasurer. He also gave me the history of his efforts in the fight against housing and other inequities practiced in the Twin Cities. Deep patterns of injustice were well established by the time we arrived. Being deeply involved in the struggles of our people, I always found myself drawn in the direction of service to my community, no matter where I lived. I gladly accepted Matt’s invitation to join the board of the Minneapolis NAACP. I was eager to begin serving the Twin Cities community.
When I became active in Minneapolis, I learned so much about the work that had been accomplished for civil rights long before our arrival. For instance, the work that Hubert H. Humphrey had done as mayor, followed by his successor, Orville Freeman, to create a local fair employment practices ordinance that paved the way for the law that was later adopted nationally. I felt incredibly blessed to find that the Twin Cities was a community where things could be done. I also joined the Urban League. Chuck joined as well and later became a member of its board of directors. Along with several other men among our group of friends, he and Pete Williams helped form the Monitors, a club whose purpose was to provide African American men with financial investment skills and civic opportunities.
At the same time we became very good friends with Celia Logan, a white woman who was one of Chuck’s colleagues at Honeywell. Celia loved nature and viewed it as part of her spiritual life. We spent much time with her learning about birds, flowers, rocks, and trees. After living in South Minneapolis for seven years, Chuck and I purchased a home in Bloomington in 1962. Our new home was near a pond with a stream that ran at the end of our property. I looked out my window one day and saw a strange and beautiful bird, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was large and graceful and was perched on a rock. I called Celia and described it to her. She wasn’t busy so she drove to our home to see if she could identify it for me. I was afraid it would leave before she arrived, but it was still there, sitting very still on the same rock. “It’s a great blue heron,” she said and proceeded to tell me everything she knew about the majestic bird.
Celia also introduced me to the League of Women Voters and to Alpha Smaby, who was a very strong political personality at the time. Alpha was a farsighted woman and a strong outspoken person for women’s rights and social justice. Later, she would serve two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Florence Gray was president of the Minneapolis League at the time, and she immediately engaged me. I was soon appointed to the Minneapolis board; Florence and I developed a very close friendship. We traveled together and shared much about our African American and Jewish cultural histories. One trip I remember well was to the offices of Ebony magazine in Chicago where we had a wonderfully engaging meeting with John H. Johnson, its founder and publisher. I also became close friends with Barbara Stuhler, an author, historian, civic leader, and professor at the University of Minnesota who also served on the National Board of the League of Women Voters. Several years after I joined the Minneapolis League, Barbara nominated me for a position on the national board. I was the first Black woman to hold an office on the Minneapolis board of the League of Women Voters and the first to serve on its national board.
The League of Women Voters was my source for nonpartisan and scholarly studies of government. I learned the structure and processes of city, state, and federal government and Minnesota politics. Their research, reporting, and balanced approach to issues provided me with the basis for understanding the process I needed when I became a lobbyist for the issues I would work on later in the 1960s.
My three daughters were very young when I began volunteering for the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. In order to be effective with my family and my community, I planned meals carefully and only shopped twice a month. And I took my children to meetings with me, where they sat under tables and read books or played with their toys while I engaged in important discussions and planning. I still smile when I think of little Norrene asking for “juice without fishes,” which is what she called orange juice without pulp. Chuck was very supportive of my volunteer activities and, like my own father, he gave our children his full attention, helping with their homework and engaging them in conversation. We didn’t go on many vacations. The only one I recall was when we took a road trip to Texas and Massachusetts to show our girls where we came from and what our lives were like before they were born. We did however go on day trips to nearby places such as the Wisconsin Dells, and we always went to the State Fair.
It could be said that my relationship with the University of Minnesota began at this same time because Chuck and I enrolled Patrice and Norrene in the University of Minnesota preschool. There, our circle of friends expanded and I met my dear friend Sarah Roberson. Sarah and I carpooled to the nursery school, and my daughters became friends with her daughter and son. My girls made many other friends there as well. Little did I know at the time that the university would become the center of my social, academic, and professional life many years later.
Shortly after I became involved with the Minneapolis NAACP and the League of Women Voters, Robert Williams, then executive director of the Urban League, invited me to accept the position of community organizer for the League. Things were pretty formal in the 1950s and 1960s, and married women still used their husbands’ names. In fact, the Minneapolis Star Tribune referred to me as Mrs. Charles Johnson in an article they published about my community activities and family life. The formality of those times caused Williams to suggest having a formal meeting with my husband to discuss the possibility of hiring me. The meeting was quite positive, but Chuck made it very clear to Mr. Williams that he could afford to support his family and I didn’t need that job. His mother didn’t work and he wanted to be sure that it was known that if his wife worked, it wasn’t because her income was needed. And I accepted the position.