Home to Minneapolis
I BRIEFLY CONSIDERED staying in Houston after my brothers and I settled our father’s affairs, but I think I always knew I would eventually return to Minneapolis. Even before Chuck and I had left for Denver in 1974, I was aware how I had become anchored there. I had spent so much time working in service to the Minneapolis community with so many wonderful and caring people, especially those who had been responsible for inviting me into this work when I had first arrived: Robert Williams, director of the Minneapolis Urban League; Matthew Little, president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP; Alpha Smaby, who served two terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives; Florence Gray, who as president of the Minneapolis League of Women Voters engaged me in the organization; and Celia Logan, a colleague of Chuck’s at Honeywell. All of these politically savvy women and men had helped me understand the politicaland social climate in Minnesota, which was deeply important to me.
I recognized that Minneapolis had become my home and that during the twelve years since Chuck and I left for Denver my deepest desire was to return to Minneapolis and revive the strong connections I had developed there. In fact, while I was in Amherst, I hung a note on my bedroom mirror that my dearest friend Mahmoud El-Kati had written, reassuring me that my friends would always welcome me back and that my study at Amherst was important to our community and our history. I read it daily.
After Daddy’s affairs were settled, I left Houston and returned to Minneapolis. I stayed with my friend Pete Williams and his daughter Jennifer for a few days while my best friend, Katie McWatt, drove me around to find housing. We were dismayed yet slightly amused to see that we faced the same obstacles we had fought so hard against during our struggle to pass the Fair Housing Bill in 1961. Twenty-five years had passed, but time after time the properties that landlords had told me on the phone were available somehow weren’t any longer when I arrived. Today as I write this book, I often find myself shaking my head in frustration because of the truth of the adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” More and more, I realize that the lesson history has taught me is that the views the majority culture holds are so deeply etched into their fabric that no law we can pass will change them.
Thankfully, within only a few days after I began my search, I found apartments in two buildings in the Loring Park neighborhood. One of the apartments was on Groveland Avenue and the other was a block away on Groveland Terrace. When I went to sign the lease the next day, I discovered that for some reason I had mixed up the building on Groveland Terrace with Summit House, the building on Groveland Avenue. But I had already scheduled my flight back to Houston to begin the moving process and time was short—I needed to get to the airport. So I signed the lease at Summit House and thought I could move later if I needed to. I’m so glad I signed that lease. It turned out to be one of those times when you say, “God works in strange and mysterious ways.” Summit House was where I was meant to be. I moved in 1985 and have been there ever since.
I remember visiting St. Peter Claver School when we moved to Minnesota in 1956. St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, a Roman Catholic parish in St. Paul, was founded in 1892 with the purpose and continuing mission to be a church for African American Catholics. The church welcomes all people of different backgrounds but draws a particular sense of connectedness to our African tradition, which has taught us resilience, faith in God, perseverance, and full participation in our worship and faith as Catholics. My memory includes a school with a few Black nuns; they were preparing to shut down the building because the school was closing and would not reopen. When I returned to Minneapolis, Father Kevin M. McDonough was the parish priest. I will always remember his greeting “Welcome home” as I entered the front door of the church my first time back in Minneapolis. Since that greeting, I have become more deeply involved in service to my church.
I also soon began reconnecting with friends and former colleagues in community organizations, foundations, and at the University of Minnesota to explore career opportunities that might be available to me, and to determine which opportunities stood out as something I would want to pursue long term. I have a vivid memory of discussing a job opportunity at lunch with a friend from one of the foundations that supported the work I was doing in the community before I left. I remember breaking out in a sweat while we were talking and feeling nervous and terribly embarrassed. All I could think was, “Oh my goodness, I’m sweating.” I am sure he didn’t realize what was happening; he probably didn’t even notice. I’m equally sure that if I had been having lunch with a woman in my age group, we both would have understood and would probably have laughed, since in all probability we would both be experiencing what all women go through when we pass our childbearing years.
More to the point, however, as I talked with my foundation friend at lunch that day, I remembered being on committees that reviewed grant proposals and being troubled that funders did not seem to review what applicant groups stated in their mission; I recalled that funders did not always seem to care whether recipients were successful in meeting their stated goals with the funds they received. But nobody ever asked if the grantees met their objectives, at least not in the reviews that I had an opportunity to participate in. So I would wonder why those questions were not being asked, and whether the money awarded was really making a difference. I knew that my principal objective was to share the research and knowledge I had gained during my doctoral studies with my community, and I needed time to figure out where I would go in order to accomplish this. In the end, I didn’t think working for a foundation would be the way to achieve my goal.
Meanwhile, I began spending more time with Pete and his family. Our families had been very close for many years. He and his wife, Lillian, were one of the couples in the group of friends Chuck and I got to know shortly after our arrival in Minneapolis. We spent lots of time together while our children were growing up, and Pete was one of the men in the group who worked with Chuck, Luther Prince, and several others to form the Monitors club, which provided African American men with financial investment skills and civic opportunities. Lillian was the first director of the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. I had been able to vote for her and for the position when I was on the Board of Regents.
Now Lillian had passed away, and Chuck and I were divorced. Convinced that it would be both natural and good for us to see more of each other, his daughter Pam began to arrange that. She convinced him to come to Amherst during my last months of study, to visit me on the pretense of a business trip. We had dinner together and reviewed our family and friendship history. I toured him around my campus and showed him homes and buildings that I knew would be of interest to him. Pete was an architect and had a great interest in seeing architectural structures wherever he traveled. In the Twin Cities, he was known as an architect for social justice and became the first Black president of the national American Institute of Architects (AIA). He was co-owner of Williams/O’Brien Associates, an architectural firm whose primary focus was urban renewal, developing properties that served lower-income residents. But Pete and his firm did not stop there: they involved community members who lived in the neighborhoods where they were planning to build housing developments. Pete was always concerned about people’s living environment and made sure to include things that would make the residents’ area pleasant, adding features such as gardens and parking spaces.
Pam was right. Pete and I were very compatible and ended up being close companions for the next twenty years. When we started dating, it was difficult for me to consider a new relationship—it felt unnatural. However, remembering Margaret Mead’s article was as helpful to me then as it had been when I was trying to understand my divorce from Chuck. Considering her explanation of life’s changes made it easier, and I was able to see that I was now experiencing a different phase of my life.
Our shared family and community experiences were there, and having known Pete and Lillian and their family for such a long time felt natural. However, the environment I shared with him was different. I had never experienced the social part of life that he and his family had. As a girl growing up, my family had never taken vacations or road trips. Galveston and the surrounding beaches were our greatest experience of vacation. Visits to see my grandmother in San Antonio were our happiest moments. Therefore, I rarely thought about vacation. Pete’s family loved camping out and going on skiing trips. He owned a boat and an airplane and his children enjoyed flying to Kentucky, the home state of Pete’s mother, and they took other short trips here and there. These were all new experiences to me. In fact, I had never thought of those activities as anything I would consider as vacations. But when Pete and I began to date, or whatever my generation called it at that time, I found that I became interested in travel and vacation. Pete and I went to Hawaii five times during our years together. We continued going to social events with our mutual friends and seeing our children and grandchildren for birthday parties and Christmas celebrations.
Another interesting part of my relationship with Pete was that even though his work was very community oriented, his politics were conservative. We frequently went on long walks along the Mississippi River near his home on West River Parkway and often engaged in heated arguments about political matters. This proved to me that one could have a fulfilling personal relationship with someone whose political views are different from yours.
Sadly, Pete developed Alzheimer’s. Pam moved him to her home in California so she could be with him during that stage of his life, and Pete lived with her until his death in 2011. Pam became interested in Alzheimer’s patients during her time of caring for her father, taking courses in the care of dementia patients. She converted her home into a small, very nice facility for five to six patients. She named it Pete’s Place and kept the facility for several years after Pete died.
After meeting with friends and colleagues in several fields, I decided that I could best share the learnings from my doctoral program at Amherst with the community through the University of Minnesota, expanding on the role I had played with Black parents before I left Minneapolis. My experience with the children in Massachusetts solidified the need I saw for us to do something to combat the stereotyping of our children, which was causing them to lose the bright light in their eyes before they even completed elementary school.
I was introduced to Dr. Sally McKee. Her husband, Dr. Michael McKee, had been a member of the Health Science Committee that I chaired during my tenure on the Board of Regents. Sally reconnected me with old and new College of Education faculty and administrators, and I was soon offered a senior fellow position in the College of Education.
I was eager to discuss my dissertation work with my colleagues and to continue making new discoveries. My dissertation had focused on the years 1865–1954, when Black parents clearly maintained the view of our ancestors that education was emancipation. I was eager to test what I thought was the continued cultural behavior of Black parents and community members in educating their children. Slaves were denied any form of education; in fact, they were punished if they tried to learn. However, they were determined to learn and were willing to suffer for that goal. I wanted our children to know this history of being committed to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. Thankfully, I was given permission to develop Minneapolis Public School connections with parents and students in order to test methods of encouraging parent engagement to stimulate a stronger desire in our children to study and learn.
I created a community group that met weekly with hopes of gaining insight into whether Black parents, and Black adults in general, placed the same value on education in 1987 as Black parents did in the slave, emancipation, and Reconstruction eras. My colleagues and college administrators were also interested in learning. I recruited parents, teachers, and representatives from a broad cross-section of our community and designed questions for discussion that would lead us to these insights. I was blessed to have as my assistant a student scholar, Carol McGee Johnson, who was working on her doctorate. Carol was from a prominent St. Paul family—her father was the first Black engineer at IBM’s Rochester plant. Our committee met for a year, and I was convinced that parents in our community needed to be better equipped to be actively engaged in their children’s schools and educations.
As we were completing the project, we learned that a foundation in New York was accepting proposals that would stimulate learning strategies in public schools. The name of the project was the Beacons. I had for several years thought about possible opportunities for creating a partnership between classroom teachers and directors of after-school programs. I thought they could collaborate on ways that after-school activities could reinforce classroom lessons. Unfortunately, teachers and other professionals felt that the academic training curriculum would be too difficult to implement. I couldn’t accept the idea that something that could be so helpful to our children was deemed “too difficult,” so I reached out and found a different partner. The Minneapolis YMCA was interested and believed along with me in the concept I was proposing, and so we applied for the grant explaining that the YMCA would be an ideal partner in lieu of the Minneapolis Public Schools. Fortunately, we were awarded the funding and Minneapolis YMCA was the grant recipient. I served on the staff selection committee and shared my thoughts with Doris Baylor, the creative director we hired. She was very interested in designing after-school programs that would encourage children to learn through play, for example, a program that used the math at grade level would be reinforced with play. Her determination allowed her to find ways to expand the concept; she was able to create a relationship with teachers and other school professionals. Over time, the program received many awards and positive modeling of teaching beyond the classroom.
Something else I wanted to do as a fellow in the College of Education was to find other ways to recruit more Black educators to teach in Minnesota’s public schools. I designed a program that invited graduate students from historically Black colleges and universities to do advanced work at the University of Minnesota and to invite faculty from those institutions to be mentors to white faculty at the university, with the goal of teaching them better ways of working with students of color. We did enjoy some success with this project, and a few of the students we recruited began teaching in the Minneapolis and St. Paul schools after graduation. Unfortunately, the culture in Minnesota can be very closed and unwelcoming, which made it difficult for most of the teachers to stay here.
While my career was growing and thriving, so were my daughters in their varying fields of work and expertise. Josie graduated cum laude from Harvard and received her J.D. from Berkeley, became a member of the New York State Bar, and became senior executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at CBS. Norrene graduated with a dual degree from Spelman and Georgia Tech in engineering, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. She started her own business, Red Bridge Organizational Change Management Consulting, and worked as a consultant to Delta Airlines; she continues to advise high-profile companies. Patrice rose to chief of staff for Texas Congressman Mickey Leland, chair of the U.S. Subcommittee on Hunger. I have great pride that my children are following in the tradition of our African American ancestors.