The Urban League and Fighting for Fair Housing
A LOT WAS HAPPENING in the late 1950s that suggested change was on its way. But as the years went on, it became clear that the changes we hoped for would be hard won. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was an effort to settle the question of whether or not Blacks and whites could receive an equal education, either integrated with or separate from each other, by overturning the U.S. Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which had established the separate-but-equal doctrine. The Plessy v. Ferguson case stemmed from an incident in 1892: an African American train passenger named Homer Plessy refused to sit in a Jim Crow car, breaking a Louisiana law, and was brought before Judge John H. Ferguson of the Criminal Court for New Orleans. Judge Ferguson rejected Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated and ruled that a state law that “implies merely a legal distinction between whites and Blacks did not conflict with the 13th and 14th Amendments.” Restrictive legislation based on race continued until the Brown v. Board of Education case.
For me, acceptance of the community organizer position at the Minneapolis Urban League was a way to contribute to the change we hoped for. I have great respect for this organization since my father was a founding member of the Houston Area Urban League. The National Urban League was formed in 1910 to help Black people who were moving from the South to the North to get the services they needed in their new communities—such as employment, housing, health care, and education. The Minneapolis affiliate saw its role as continuing to honor that mission for individuals and families who were moving to Minneapolis, and the community organizer’s responsibility was to help find viable solutions to these problems. There was a pattern of neighborhood segregation in Minneapolis, and schools reflected this pattern. Brown v. Board of Education added a degree of focus to the agency’s work in desegregating Minneapolis schools.
Much of my focus as community organizer would be on the agency’s education mission. In the early 1960s before I was hired, one of my major volunteer missions was education. I volunteered in K–8 schools helping to organize parent advocate programs. I met with teachers and parents to teach them Black history and to help parents become better advocates for their children. We experimented with a variety of strategies to get parents involved; we held the meetings in the evenings and arranged taxi service and offered stipends. Something I learned during that experience was that a lot of the parents had negative experiences in school that deeply contributed to how they viewed teachers and their own children’s educational possibilities. For this and perhaps other reasons, the program was effective and gave participating parents a more positive view of how they could help their children obtain the best possible education in Minneapolis public schools. I believe the concept of parent advocacy still exists in some form.
Once I began my position, one of the first things I learned was that our community had many issues for which help was needed after the office closed. Often, just as I was about to leave for the day, several people would come in seeking help with finding food or shelter for the night, or asking where they could go to get help with a health-related problem. I was very concerned. There had to be a way to respond. I investigated resources that were available in our community for those after-hours emergencies. One method I employed was to keep the office open after our regular hours so that I could receive and welcome people who were in need, tell them where the resources were, and to take them there, if necessary. Chuck was very helpful and understanding, and our children accepted that our dinnertime was 8 p.m.
The people who needed after-hours services represented the population the Urban League was organized to help: African Americans who had been living in this community for a long time as well as those who were moving here from other places, both urban and rural, but all of whom were seeking needed assistance to adjust to their new community. New residents came from Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and cities in Mississippi, Louisiana, as well as other locations. Over time, it was revealed that social workers in cities across the country had learned that Minnesota welcomed newcomers and treated them more humanely than they were treated in other states and were encouraging clients to come here.
I felt it was important to know which places could help with each particular service and to build relationships with directors of those services so we could get the help our clients needed. I spent much time developing relationships with directors of shelters, food shelves, and churches. And because of the needs our people were experiencing and the Urban League’s limited resources, I encouraged Robert to campaign to have us included among the agencies to receive contributions from the United Way. He did apply and we were soon placed on the United Way’s Community Fund, which allowed us to provide more services.
Shortly after my transition to becoming a full-time Urban League employee, I lost my beloved mother. This was the most significant and painful experience in my life up to that point. It was Saturday, May 21, 1960. I was twenty-nine. We were all at home when the call came. I don’t remember if it was my father or one of my brothers who called, but he said Mother had died. Mother had been helping a friend prepare a wedding shower for her daughter when she had a heart attack. Her heart was damaged from her childhood rheumatic fever, but that had never stopped her from being of service to others. She was taken home and died shortly after. I was devastated. I nearly fell apart from the shock and disbelief. I still feel her loss as freshly as I did the day she died.
She was only fifty-three years old, and we were very close. Mother was my very best friend: our spirits were so in tune that I usually knew when she was not feeling well. How could she be gone? And my poor father—he too was in disbelief and seemed so helpless. I remember Chuck saying to the girls, “Let’s let Mother have time to herself,” taking them into another room, which allowed me to grieve for as long as I needed to. Then he made preparations for the girls and me to take a train to Houston for Mother’s arrangements and her funeral.
My daughters would never get to know their grandmother, as her poor health limited her from traveling very far from Houston, San Antonio, or Crockett, Texas, where she could visit my grandmother and other family members. The girls’ only memory of her is the one time my parents came to visit us in Minnesota. They traveled by train because Mother was unable to fly. The trip was exhausting for her. The restrictions she had to live with caused her much sadness. While they were here, I took her to the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital to find out if they could repair the hole in her heart. Unfortunately, they were not able to.
Baby Josie Irene was only a few months old when my parents visited. I remember that we drove up to Duluth and took them to a park. Mother and Dad were impressed by the beauty in Minnesota but were surprised that it was so cold in the month of August. Dad was also surprised that there were so few Black people in our South Minneapolis neighborhood. Coming from Houston, Dad was used to seeing Blacks everywhere. One day he went for a walk. He was gone so long that we began to worry. When he returned he said, “I found them.” He was delighted to have seen more Black people. We got a big charge out of his expression.
I missed my mother’s daily calls—our conversations had helped ground me in my work. I was glad to get back to my community work with the Urban League after we returned from her funeral. In some small ways, being able to resume my focus on community organizing was helpful because I was continuing her legacy of working with our community. I had also become deeply involved with the Democratic–Farmer–Labor (DFL) Party by then. I was elected precinct chair and was busy attending the State Central Committee meetings as well as League of Women Voters’ meetings. I remember sitting with Walter “Fritz” Mondale one day in 1960 when he was called to Governor Orville Freeman’s office. Miles Lord had resigned his position of Attorney General in order to accept an appointment as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. Governor Freeman called Fritz to his office to offer him the position of Attorney General. Those political activities helped soften the blow of not being able to talk with Mother every day as we had done since I left home for college thirteen years before.
As we entered the 1960s, issues of equality for Black people in Minnesota became more and more apparent and began to take on a stronger sense of urgency. We began drawing parallels between the issues facing our people in the South and in Minnesota—in terms of employment, education, and housing. Hubert H. Humphrey and Orville Freeman, his successor, had made progress in their efforts toward fair employment but fair housing proved to be a more difficult and personal issue.
I became involved in the efforts to pass a Fair Housing Bill in Minnesota in 1959. I had had an opportunity to be engaged with various groups working to gather evidence of discrimination in the showing and selling of properties; in the practice of redlining by lending institutions; and in false claims regarding a fair housing law in Minnesota. I had been an active member of groups that had been testing patterns of housing discrimination by sending Blacks and whites to lending institutions and rental agencies to see who would be accepted and rejected for housing loans and rental units. Time and time again, Black families were either rejected for rental units and loans or offered inflated loans higher than those offered to whites.
During the 1961 legislative session, once again the history of efforts by politicians, religious and spiritual organizations, and social and community groups was reviewed and groups reassembled to get a Fair Housing Bill passed in the Minnesota State Legislature. The history of the effort was reported and supported by the press—every angle, including correcting misinformation, was publically reported. The Minneapolis and St. Paul Urban League directors, Robert Williams and Ernest Cooper, testified in a joint statement before the House Committee regarding the status of housing opportunities for Black citizens in the Twin Cities. They presented statistics on where Black citizens lived in the two cities and identified the effect of the construction of I-94 and the need to relocate the Black Rondo community. They reported the fact that Minneapolis had two Black residential communities, one each on the south and north sides of the city, and that adequate rental housing was “almost nonexistent.” Their report added urgency to the need for fairness in housing opportunities for Blacks in Minnesota.
Something else we learned was that in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as in much of the rest of the country, Blacks were contending with the vestiges of the racial covenants written into the deeds for many residential properties, which often stated that the property could not be rented or sold to any member of the “Negro race.” While the Supreme Court had declared in the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer that the covenants were no longer enforceable, they had created informal patterns of discrimination in the Twin Cities that continued well into the 1960s.
Williams and my dear friend Richard “Dick” Fox encouraged me to lobby for passage of the Fair Housing Bill. Somehow Dick was always able to find space for me to work in his office at the MN Fair Employment Practices Commission. I remember joking that he pulled a desk and chair from the ceiling whenever I came to work. I accepted the role of chief lobbyist for this effort and was able to convince my friends Katie McWatt, Matt Little, and Zetta Feder to join me. We became full-time, unpaid lobbyists during the 1961 legislative session. We spent long hours at the State Capitol meeting with legislators, answering their questions, and lobbying on behalf of the bill. Our interactions with them made it clear to us that many legislators had very limited exposure to Black or Jewish people. The legislators soon learned that we knew the details of the housing bill before they did and that we knew, from personal experience, the issues at the heart of the legislation.
Many years later, in conversation with my friend and colleague Geri Joseph, I was reminded that in the early days of the 1960s, the DFL—in its conscious awareness and its efforts to address diversity and justice issues—was open to newcomers. I myself was a newcomer then, and it was observed that I appeared to be friendly yet straightforward, committed, and unafraid to suggest strategies and ideas without being hostile or overly demanding. Perhaps those attributes were what made the legislators listen to me, even if they disagreed with fair housing.
In the spring of 1961, as this legislative battle was reaching a climax, the bill was held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Donald Fraser, who would later serve two terms as mayor of Minneapolis, was convinced that the bill would die there. However, I thought that Governor Elmer Andersen might be able to help. I had met him and knew his attitude about justice and fairness. He was a Republican and was newly elected and had already offered clear support for fair housing. I knew that he was not a newcomer to civil rights issues: when he had been a senator representing a St. Paul district, he had been a staunch advocate for the state law banning job discrimination, enacted in 1955.
I went to Governor Andersen and told him that the bill was in danger. As I expected, he was indeed concerned. He offered me a seat in his office and wrote this note to the Judiciary Committee:
To: Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee
May I respectfully request your favorable consideration of S.F. 750, the Fair Housing bill. I write so you will be informed of my unqualified support of this legislation if that should be a factor in your final decision.
The opposition involves the same arguments as were used against FEPC [Fair Employment Practice Committee], none of which materialized.
The great plus in supporting legislation to eliminate discrimination is that it shows our willingness to implement with legislation our belief in equality. I know we cannot legislate attitudes into people’s minds, but we can legislate against injustice. I am not sure we always realize the significance to all the world of our actions as individuals and state legislatures in matters of this kind.
I hope you will vote for the bill.
Elmer L. Andersen
I took the note to Senator Fraser and, with the help and direct engagement of Governor Andersen, got the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It passed by one vote and then went to the full Senate. Senator Fraser and Representative Robert Latz were convinced that without the help of the governor it would not have passed. Minnesota was the first state in the nation to pass a fair housing bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and, four years later, in 1968, the Fair Housing Act.
The year after the Civil Rights Act was passed, author Sam Greenlee released a novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, about the first Black CIA agent whose role was to sit quietly in full view of anyone who passed by the office. Although the book is highly charged because of its premise of Black people taking matters into their own hands following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, I couldn’t help remembering with amusement the day I sat in Governor Andersen’s office while he composed that amazingly effective note that caused the Fair Housing Bill to be passed.