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Archived Posts from this Category
Excerpt from David Lawrence Grant’s essay, “People Like Us,”
in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in America, edited by Sun Yung Shin
Anyone who has ever been in a difficult, complicated relationship knows that the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. Neglect is indifference’s twin sister. And there is no such thing as benign neglect. Neglect is, in its truest meaning, a verb. And like twin horsemen of the apocalypse, Neglect and Indifference have teamed up to cause a lot of damage.
The evidence of the damage is everywhere to be seen: failing schools; high concentrations of persistent poverty in failing neighborhoods; the egregious over-incarceration of people of color; an alarming number of annual incidents in which people of color are shot by the police or end up dead in police custody. How did things get so bad, even here?
As always, it helps to know the history. Minnesota’s soldiers returned from the Civil War thinking, “Union restored; slavery finished; problem fixed.” The slaves had been freed. Why wasn’t their community exploding with vigor, enthusiasm, and industry, looking to make the most of their newfound liberty? Why were they still having problems? “Why, after all this time, aren’t they becoming more like us?”
Any reader of the fledgling black press during Reconstruction would be mightily impressed at the astonishing degree to which the recently freed slaves were, indeed, deeply grateful . . . were, indeed, working with great vigor, enthusiasm, and industry to build a better life for themselves and their community. But even though two hundred thousand black soldiers had just served bravely and nobly in the cause of Union, they found themselves still excluded from every new opportunity. The promised forty acres and a mule were never delivered. White veterans in the tens of thousands got an opportunity to help this nation-building effort in the underpopulated West—in places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—along with an opportunity to build a personal legacy of prosperity that they could hand down to future generations. Black veterans got . . . lectures about “bootstraps” and hard work—something about which they already knew plenty.
There would be no help forthcoming, no assistance in lifting themselves out of abject poverty and the shadow-world of life on the extreme margins as second-class citizens. Instead, there were Black Codes (spelling out where black people could go and could not go; requiring annual and unbreakable labor contracts; demanding fees from any who worked in any occupation besides farmer and servant) and Jim Crow domestic terrorism. Now that slavery was gone, what black people encountered was the cold reality that the rest of America still seems so completely unready to admit: that America’s real original sin was not slavery, but white supremacy. The law may say Jim Crow is dead . . . but if it is, then it’s having a long and vigorous afterlife.
I was doing some neighborhood organizing work in Chicago during the summer of 1970. When I told a friend there that I was getting ready to come live in Minneapolis for awhile, he said, “Aw, brother, really? Why? Worst cops in the whole world up there, man!”
I used to volunteer at a residential substance abuse program in South Minneapolis. After finishing my last tutoring session one evening, I started walking home about 7:30 pm. Just as I crossed the street, a car came tearing up at high speed, and three plainclothes police officers leaped out with guns in hand. They identified themselves, and then one of them holstered his gun, threw me up against the trunk of the car, and cuffed me.
I asked why. One of the officers pulled a handgun from his boot—a personal, non-regulation weapon—held it against my head, removed the safety, and cocked it. That’s a helluva sound—a gun being cocked while jammed tightly against the dome of your skull. Intimidating. I was intimidated. But more than anything, I was angry. And it occurred to me, even in the heat of the moment, that this was exactly the reaction he wanted . . . like someone who lights a fire and thinks, Now, let me throw a little gasoline on there. Instead of answering my question, the cowboy with the gun to my head told me not to move, then shoved my head hard to one side with the barrel and said, “Wouldn’t even breathe real hard if I was you. This gun’s got a hair trigger.” There was another reason to be wary of that gun. I knew countless stories of weapons like that, produced from a boot or the small of an officer’s back, meant to be placed in a suspect’s hand or close to his body should he somehow end up dead by the time the encounter was over.
One of the other officers finally spoke up: “Liquor store was robbed a couple blocks away about twenty minutes ago by somebody who matches your description.” As they inspected my ID and the other contents of my wallet, I told him as calmly as I could that right across the street, there was a whole building full of people who could vouch for who I was and where I’d been all evening. All three cops heard this, but they ignored it. It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all.
They threw me into the back of their car and radioed that they’d arrested a suspect. As they began to pull away from the curb, a voice on their radio told them to stay put. A lieutenant pulled up in a plain car behind us and talked with the officers while I listened to the police chatter coming over the airwaves.
The suspect was described as a light-skinned black male, about five foot seven, with extremely close-cropped hair and a slight mustache, wearing a knee-length, light tan leather coat. That was the only time I gave them attitude. I smirked a little and asked them, “That supposed to be me?” I stood about five foot ten in my boots, and I’m a medium brown . . . not someone that anybody has ever described as “light-skinned.” I wear glasses and was then sporting a scraggly goatee. And at that time, I had what might have been the biggest, baddest Afro in the entire state of Minnesota—a foot-tall brain-cloud kind of Afro, as far from “close-cropped” as it’s possible for hair to get. And I was wearing a waist-length, almost sepia leather coat, nothing remotely like the one in the description.
The lieutenant heard this, too. He flashed his badge at me and said to them, “Guys . . . really? Cut this guy loose.” Just like that. One of them spit, a couple of them grumbled, they uncuffed me and pulled me back out of their car, returned my wallet, and then tore off back down the street. No, “Oh, well, sorry, sir,” from them. Nothing.
I knew, as I tried to shake it off while walking home, that other scenes like this were playing out that evening in any number of other places in America. What if that non-regulation gun the cowboy cop had pressed against my head really did have a hair trigger? If I had reacted angrily and resisted, I might well have been killed, as have so many others before me and since, in just such an encounter.
There’s a history to encounters like these. And if you understand this history, even a little, you understand that all the hue and cry about “weeding a few bad apples” out of police departments and doing some retraining will not fix our problem. It is important to weed “bad apples” like that cowboy out of our police departments. But the core of the problem is that although undeniable racial progress has been made, the large numbers of African Americans left behind in intractable poverty are still stuck in the same cultural space as our ancestors were when just newly freed from slavery: stuck on the margins as perpetual outsiders in the land of their birth; feared; stigmatized as criminal by nature. This mostly subterranean attitude applies, in general, to other low-income communities of color as well.
So, the hard truth is that police departments deal with communities of color in exactly the way that American society, Minnesota society, has asked them to. There’s a readily observable pattern: people who find themselves routinely locked out of equal opportunity will generally find themselves locked up to roughly that same degree. Racially based restrictive housing covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948, but they have continued in practice. Until 1972, thousands of municipalities had vagrancy laws on the books that were about regulating black people’s lives. Even though those laws have long since been struck down, the racist beliefs that created and sustained them are still very much around—and as a consequence, too many police officers sometimes behave as though they’re still on the books. The result is that simply being young and black or brown is a de facto “status crime.” It’s not necessary to do anything wrong . . . just step outside on the street or get behind the wheel of your car, and you could already be in trouble.
As many black families pulled up stakes and left the communities where they’d been born and raised, searching for a better life, this part of the collective African American story never seemed to be grasped by the communities to which they moved, Minnesota included. Truly welcoming weary strangers into your company means, first, learning something about their story. How else can you possibly begin to divine what assistance or support they might need from you as they begin to build a new life? But Minnesotans, like other Americans, have seldom known or, seemingly, haven’t cared to know much about the stories of the non-European populations with whom they share this land.
Minnesotans evince little knowledge of the history of settler aggression or the widespread and egregious abrogation of treaty rights when it comes to the experiences of Indigenous peoples native to this soil. There is precious little understanding of the diverse histories of our Chicano/Latino populations, many of whom long ago became citizens, not because they crossed international borders to get here, but because the U.S. border crossed over them as a result of the massive amount of land seized from Mexico at the end of the Mexican War. A story that can be told in easily graspable, shorthand form (think Hmong refugees whose men had helped the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, forced to flee their old homeland to escape reprisals) stirs sympathy enough to mobilize an organized resettlement effort. But even that only goes so far. There is little patience here for immigrants from anywhere—Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Latino—or even Americans from much closer to home, like Chicago, who seem slow to assimilate. Ojibwe and Dakota people get the same treatment. And there’s a stark, simple equation at work here: if you fail to value a people’s stories, you fail to value them.
In sharp contrast to this, new immigrants are always listening for and trying to make sense of the stories of their adopted land. But here in the North Country, immigrants scramble to figure out for themselves the many unspoken rules about how to live in harmony with Minnesota Nice. And some of these rules are damned hard. They learn that no matter how angry and aggrieved you may feel, given the history of what’s happened to you and your people, you’re still expected to abide by the unspoken mandate to “kwitchurbeliakin.” That’s “Quit Your Belly Achin’,” for the uninitiated. Because life is just not fair. Period. So, whatever’s happened to you, suck it up and move on. It’s not okay to outwardly show anger or resentment in any way. This is evidence of weakness. And it’s not nice.
Being a true Minnesotan also means being self-sufficient. All cultures express this value in some way, but Minnesota’s is the most extreme iteration I’ve ever encountered. My introduction to at least one man’s version of this ideal came from a mechanic named Bud. He owned and ran a car-repair shop in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that, over decades, he’d seen transition from mostly white, mixed middle and working class, to largely working class and poor people of color.
In an area that had become about 60 percent black, and whose population had been steadily getting younger, the only customers ever seen coming or going were white men over forty. In inner-city neighborhoods of color, places like that become unofficially recognized as “no go zones.” Doesn’t look like your business is welcome there, so . . . you simply erase them from your mental map of the neighborhood, to the extent that when you pass by, you literally don’t even see them anymore. But on the day Bud and I met, the family car was giving me big trouble and I happened to be just a block or two from his place, so I figured it was a good day to stop in and take my chances.
Word was that the guy was racist, but after a little conversation, it didn’t feel that way to me. The more we talked, the more it occurred to me that, really, Bud was just generally a grumpy old bastard . . . and that he probably tended to instantly distrust and dismiss anybody who found it hard to deal with this fact. As I look back on our encounter from the perspective of someone who’s become a grumpy old bastard himself, I’m even more convinced of this. I told him what the car was doing, but he cut me off, grunting his diagnosis before I could even finish. “Alternator. Ain’t got time for that today . . . but I got one I could sell ya.” When I told him that I’d never replaced one and wouldn’t know where to begin—told him I’d just go on and walk home if he thought he’d have time to fix it for me the next day—he shot me a searing look of pity mixed with disgust and said, simply, A man ought never pay another man to do something he could do for himself.
This pronouncement felt stunningly sharp and severe, especially coming from the mouth of someone who did, after all, make his living from doing the repairs that his customers didn’t care to do. His words made me wonder what he must think of most of us men walking around his rapidly changing neighborhood, black and brown men, none of whom had come up, as he did, on a hardscrabble farm established by Norwegian immigrant grandparents who made the clothes they wore and who ate, almost entirely, only the food they grew themselves. People for whom life was hard . . . but who never complained. I thought about us black men from the neighborhood who walk around looking sullen and sad, and how men like Bud must look at us and wonder why. They don’t see much, if any, evidence of the discrimination that keeps us angry and on edge. They certainly don’t see how they’ve ever personally been guilty of committing an act of discrimination against us or anyone else. We don’t “get” each other. They don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to us, and we don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to them. So, even though some of the time we share the same space, we avoid talking . . . and when we must, we keep it superficial, allowing ourselves to come tantalizingly close for an instant, but then spiraling past each other like separate galaxies, each on its own axis, into the void.
As Bud’s words sank in, I turned to leave, but then suddenly, something in me wouldn’t let me leave on that note. I felt the need to challenge him, surprise him, through a small, spontaneous gesture, aimed at bridging that yawning, silent gulf between us, if only for a moment. “Okay, then,” I said. “Wanna take a minute or two and show me how to do it myself?” Without needing even a moment to think about it, he surprised me by pulling out the tools I’d need and agreeably talking me through the job while he sipped strong coffee and went back to working on the car he’d been fixing when I walked in.
As we worked side by side in his tiny shop, I eased into a story about my own people—how generations of my folk struggled, always managing to creatively “make a way from no way.” He didn’t say much. But he was listening. My attempt to paint as vivid a picture for him as I could of the people I come from—people who also took what life threw their way and didn’t complain—seemed to resonate with him. Mid-job, I noticed there was a sign on the wall stating that it was illegal for customers to be back there in the shop, an edict he’d apparently decided to ignore in my case. Even though he stepped in to help me replace and tighten the belts, he also decided to completely ignore the sign that said, “Shop Charge, $45 hr.,” because when I pulled out my checkbook to pay for the parts and asked why I shouldn’t pay him at least enough to split the difference on time with him, he said, “Well . . . why? Done it yourself, din’t ya?”
Minnesota Nice can be really nice. Interesting and complicated too.
Bridging the gulf between us is hard. It takes courage and effort. And the effort often results in an encounter that can be both unrewarding and unpleasant. But what alternative do we have? The demographic makeup of Minnesota, like the rest of the country is changing rapidly and radically. By 2050, the majority of America’s citizens will be comprised of groups who used to be called “minorities.” The majority here in Minnesota is likely to remain white for some time, but populations of color, especially the Latino population, will see a dramatic increase. The Somali population of the state was already so large by the year 2000 that Islam quietly supplanted Judaism as the state’s second most prominent religious faith.
As we move forward, we can lean on this: that although it tends to happen slowly and only with great, conscious effort, people and cultures do change in response to the changing realities and needs of their times. If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start by talking less and listening more.
We can listen—really listen—to one another’s stories and learn from them. Collectively, we can learn to tell a story that includes all our stories . . . fashion a mosaic-like group portrait from those stories that we all can agree truly does resemble people like us.
David Lawrence Grant has written drama for the stage, film, and television, as well as fiction and memoir. He has written major reports on racial bias in the justice system for the Minnesota Supreme Court and on racial disparities in the health care system for the Minnesota legislature. He teaches screenwriting at Independent Filmmaker Project/Minnesota.
Please join us Thursday February 5, 2015 from 6-9 pm at the Minnesota History Center to celebrate the publication of Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota edited by Alexs Pate with co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell‽.
Blues Vision is a surprising and compelling anthology that reveals complex realities—beautiful, infuriating, painful, and uplifting—as described by African American writers in Minnesota over the past century.
The book is co-published with the Minnesota Humanities Center, sponsor of this anthology, which was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2004.
Book Launch Celebration
Thursday February 5, 2015 from 6-9 pm
Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Ave. W. St. Paul, MN
6-7 pm Refreshments & cash bar
7-8 pm Book Talk and Readings by Contributors
8-9 Book Signing
Share the Facebook invitation
As part of the One Minneapolis One Read program, a new exhibit opens this week at Mill City Museum and Juxtaposition Arts with a panel discussion and opening reception on Oct. 24, 6-9 pm at Mill City Museum.
The panelists will include:
Archie Givens, President, The Givens Foundation for African American Literature
Robin Hickman, Founder, SoulTouch Productions’ In the Footsteps of Gordon Parks Legacy Initiative and a great-niece of Gordon Parks
Wing Young Huie, photographer
Jahliah Holloman, Juxtaposition apprentice
Moderator: Daniel Bergin, TPT
Minneapolis residents will have a unique opportunity to view a collection of photos by Gordon Parks and join in a community conversation around his book A Choice of Weapons, this year’s One Minneapolis One Read selection.
The exhibit will also feature approximately 30 photographs created by Minneapolis high school students alongside images by Parks, on loan from The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Taking inspiration from the book, the students worked with acclaimed photographer Jamel Shabazz at Juxtaposition Arts to create their own photographs. Shabazz will work with the students in early October during a week-long artist residency. (See feature in TC Daily Planet!)
For more information about these and other events visit the One Minneapolis One Read website.
About the Artist-in-Residence
Shabazz is an award winning photographer based in Brooklyn, NY, who has drawn influence from Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Robert Capa, Chester Higgins and Eli Reed. Shabazz is also known for his community based youth work.
About the book A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks
One Read’s goals are to promote through literature and discussion a better understanding of race and the impacts of racism on our communities. A Choice of Weapons is a compelling autobiography, first published in 1966, about how Parks struggled against extreme poverty to find his purpose as a photographer, writer, director and musician.
A Minnesotan who developed an impressive artistic legacy that included an extensive photographic body of work, Parks documented important African-American political, artistic, cultural figures as well as daily life.
A Choice of Weapons is available in paperback at local independent and chain bookstores, online booksellers and MHS Press. It’s also available through the Hennepin County Library.
About One Minneapolis One Read
One Minneapolis One Read is presented by The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County Library and Minneapolis Public Schools to promote literacy and respectful public dialogue. Minneapolis residents can play a positive role in their communities and explore important – sometimes difficult – issues that they face as a community by reading A Choice of Weapons and getting involved.
At its heart, One Minneapolis One Read is a community-driven effort with individuals, neighborhood groups, educators, businesses and nonprofits all coming together to make this a truly citywide read. Read the book. Join the Conversation.
One Minneapolis One Read is a collaboration of The City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County Library and Minneapolis Public Schools with support from Clear Channel Outdoor, Comcast, Gray Plant Mooty, Mill City Museum, Minnesota Historical Society Press, Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), Pillsbury House Theatre and The YWCA of Minneapolis.
About Juxtaposition Arts
Juxtaposition Arts is a youth contemporary arts program, teen-staffed design firm and nonprofit cultural development center that anchors a diverse neighborhood in North Minneapolis.
Juxtaposition’s mission is to develop community by engaging and employing young urban artists in hands-on education initiatives that create pathways to self-sufficiency while actualizing creative power. We envision the youth of north Minneapolis entering the creative workforce as dynamic innovators and problem solvers with the confidence, skills, and connections they need to accomplish their goals and contributed to the revitalization of the communities where they live and work.
Juxtaposition believes that the creative genius of youth is an underutilized community asset. Since 1995, the organization has nurtured connections between underserved Twin Cities’ youth and artists and the region’s vibrant art and design communities.
About the Minnesota Historical Society
The Minnesota Historical Society is a non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849. The Society collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota’s past through museum exhibits, libraries and collections, historic sites, educational programs and book publishing. Using the power of history to transform lives, the Society preserves our past, shares our state’s stories and connects people with history.
We are honored to have one of our books selected as the One Minneapolis One Read title for 2013. This year’s selection is A Choice of Weapons by Gordon Parks. (Last year’s was Spirit Car by Diane Wilson, also published by MHS Press.)
For more information on the One Minneapolis One Read program, please visit
About the book:
This compelling autobiography, first published in 1966, tells how Parks managed to escape the poverty and bigotry around him and launch his distinguished career by choosing the weapons given him by “a mother who placed love, dignity, and hard work over hatred.”
In 2010 we re-released the book with a new foreword by Wing Young Huie.
Gordon Parks (1912–2006)-–photographer for Life magazine, writer, composer, artist, and filmmaker-–was only sixteen in 1928 when he moved from Kansas to St. Paul, Minnesota, after his mother’s death. There, homeless and hungry, he began his fight to survive, to educate himself, and to “prove my worth.” Working as a janitor, railroad porter, musician, or basketball player in such places as St. Paul, Chicago, and New York, Parks struggled against poverty and racism. He taught himself photography with a secondhand camera, worked for black newspapers, and began to document the poverty among African Americans on Chicago’s South Side. Then his photographic work brought him to Washington, DC, as first a photographer with the federal Farm Security Administration and later a war correspondent during World War II.
Was there an e-reader under your tree this week? Amazon announced that over 4 million Kindles were sold in December, and analysts predicted high sales of the iPad 2 over the holidays. Whether you’re a brand-new or veteran e-reader, we have a deal to help you load up your device and get reading.
Check out the new Summer issue of Minnesota History, our quarterly magazine. Begin with photo essays on sexy lingerie, a ’50s sock hop, and an old brick schoolhouse reborn as condos. End with book reviews and a photo essay on stunning Dakota ribbonwork. In between, take a leisurely stroll through the articles.
Father Francis Gilligan and the Struggle for Civil Rights: Yes, right here in Minnesota and well before the activist years of the 1960s. He was called to the Twin Cities to teach moral theology at St. Paul Seminary in the early 1930s and got right to work. Inside and out of the classroom, Gilligan argued that racism was a grave sin. He merged Catholic social-justice teachings with sociology to fight discrimination in housing, hiring, and even burial practices.
Frances Densmore Gets the Depression Blues: Suddenly unemployed and no longer young, this self-trained ethnomusicologist from Red Wing struggled to keep working in tough economic times. She wasn’t poor enough to qualify for relief programs, and who needs music collectors when people are starving? Cultural ideals and popular interest in folk culture were changing, too. Densmore did manage to get by, and she amassed a huge archive of recordings, transcriptions, and writings. Modest renown came late to her, yet people today are still assessing her legacy.
From Emission to Pollution: Regulation and Changing Ideas about Smoke in the Twin Cities: It was an uphill battle to convince folks that smoking chimneys didn’t necessarily signal prosperity. Factories, ships, trains, office buildings, and homes belched thick, sooty coal smoke into the air as the industrial era moved into the early 1900s. In the end, St. Paul and Minneapolis took different paths to abating the nuisance, with the capital city in the lead. The secret to success? Regulation, yes, but also enforcement. And it helped to have a charismatic, energetic health commissioner, too.
The Summer 2011 issue (volume 62, number 6) is available for sale in the MHS museum store, 651-259-3010. Or subscribe–four issues a year delivered to your door!
Guest blog post by Minnesota History editor Anne Kaplan
The 8th Annual Somali American Independence Day Tournament began this past weekend at St. Paul Central High School and will come to a close when a champion is crowned on July 4th. The tournament celebrates both the Independence Day of Somalia, which is July 1st, and the Independence Day of the United States, the Somali community’s new home.
“We are not coming here to play the best players in the world or the best in the United States, we are coming here to play with people that have a common identity with us. We are Somalia, and we are American now,” says Guled Dalmar, 27, of Dallas, TX, in an interview by Andy Gerder in the Pioneer Press. The tournament not only unites Somali refugees from all over the country to share the sport they all love, but it also creates an open forum for the players and spectators to share their stories of hardship and triumph with their fellow countrymen.
As Guled Dalmar mentions, a shared Somali American identity unites the participants. But as we discover through Minnesota Historical Society’s Becoming Minnesotan: Minnesota Immigrant Oral Histories Project, the topic of identity is difficult for all recent immigrants, including the Somali population.
Throughout this series of wonderful interviews, the issues of cultural preservation and identity, assimilation into American culture, and the difficulties navigating the transition are especially difficult given the deep traditions within Somali culture. For example, Maryan Del, a participant in the oral histories project, discusses the importance of the Hijab, the traditional headscarf worn by devout Muslim women for the sake of modesty, and tells how women make a decision whether or not to wear it.
To hear more Somali oral histories and learn more about the Somali community in the Twin Cities, follow this link and click “Somali Stories.”
Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities, by Jay Goetting with a foreword by Leigh Kamman, is the story of jazz music, musicians, and venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul from the early days through Prohibition and the Swing Era, then to bebop and beyond.
Jay and Leigh will be at the Artists’ Quarter this Saturday, May 7, from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. to discuss and sign their book. Books will be available for sale courtesy of Common Good Books. After the event, stay at the club to enjoy the music of Atlantis Quartet. (Book event is free; $10 cover for the show.)
Listen to Jay on Minnesota Public Radio
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter titled “The Clubs”
Finding live jazz in the Twin Cities today requires some planning. Gone are the days when nightspots clustered in the two downtowns or in neighborhoods like the Near Northside. The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul have regular offerings, but what else? Rossi’s, Jazzmines, and the Times are past tense. Occasional venues include the Riverview Cafe, the West Bank School of Music, O’Gara’s Garage, Famous Dave’s, and the Capri and Old Log Theaters. There are others, to be sure, but most spots feature jazz interspersed with an eclectic mix of R&B, pop, rock, and hip-hop, sometimes to the confusion of would-be patrons who are not sure what to expect or who arrive expecting jazz and get something else. But there was a time when listeners knew what they wanted and where to get it, and they returned again and again to hear first-rate talent at well-known local clubs and large venues.
For a long time, the tiny community of Mendota on the river bluff was a locus for jazz. Jax Lucas, a professor and a stringer for DownBeat magazine, once dubbed Mitch’s “the Nick’s of the Midwest,” after the famous Dixieland house in Greenwich Village. Herman Mitch first opened the club in 1939, having previously run the Silver Stripe at Dale and Selby in St. Paul. Pianist Red Dougherty served as mayor of the hamlet in the late thirties and early forties. He also owned the popular Parker House restaurant, an upscale eatery that became Axel’s River Grille.
In 1949 Leigh Kamman’s Dixieland Caravan emanated from the reopened Mitch’s, run by Herman’s son, Bob. The program featured the Mendota Buzzards, Harry Blons’s band with Eddie Tolck on drums and vibes. Tolck said, “Those were fun days. Anybody that meant anything who was in town would be there. Bob Eberle, [Jack] Teagarden, [Lawrence] Welk’s sidemen. The program was somewhat scripted but informal.” Also in Blons’s new band were several players from the first Mitch’s, Hal Runyon, bassist Willie Sutton, and saxophonist Dick Pendleton. The newcomers included Lyle Smith, Russ Moore, and Warren Thewis, successively, on drums, Jerry Mayeron followed by Hod Russell on piano, and Bob Greunenfelder on trumpet. Shortly after, however, highway construction closed the club for good in October 1950.
Mendota had more than its per capita share of clubs over the years. There was Doc Evans’s Rampart Street Club (1958–61), which had been the Bow and Arrow and later morphed to become a rock club, Ragin’ Cajun. There was also the Colonial, Gay Paree, and the Hollywood. Listeners found the nearby River Road Club—known for its unruly clientele and the music of Cornbread Harris and Augie Garcia—by taking a shortcut through the Emporium’s parking lot. Prior to the club’s closing, several people misjudged the road and ended up in the river.
. . .
St. Paul also had its live-music clubs. It hosted the Dakota beginning in the 1980s before the club left Bandana Square for its posh digs on the Nicollet Mall. The city is still home to one of the Twin Cities’ premier listening rooms, the Artists’ Quarter, now in its second downtown location since leaving Twenty-sixth and Lake Street in Minneapolis. Drummer Kenny Horst, who runs the Artists’ Quarter, quipped during the recent economic downturn, “The good thing about jazz is you don’t notice the recession. It’s never great, but the audience is steady.” Horst also noted changes in the jazz-club scene: “You used to get Bill Evans or Dizzy Gillespie for two weeks. Now, you’re lucky if you can book someone for a couple of nights.” Horst adds that musicians call him from New York and elsewhere offering to play for a percentage of the door: “In our day, we wanted a guarantee. Now, club owners want a guarantee. There are not a lot of people out there that can draw.”
Jazz historian Kent Hazen says that Horst has had a keen sense for programming: “Kenny was very entrepreneurial in his ability to seek out a backer or talk some club owner into having a jazz quality. He was very persistent and has kept the public awareness of jazz at as high a level as it could be with little or no help.” Horst now co-owns the Artists’ Quarter along with musicians Billy and Ricky Peterson and Hod Boyen, plus Jerry Kennelly.
The Artists’ Quarter has managed to bring in some big names in jazz as well as some familiar visitors who were once a part of the local jazz fabric.
From Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities by Jay Goetting
In 1928, sixteen-year-old Gordon Parks arrived alone on a train in St. Paul with plans to live with his sister after his mother’s untimely death. In St. Paul, homeless and hungry, he began his fight to survive, to educate himself, and to fulfill his dreams.
In his compelling autobiography, A Choice of Weapons, Parks, who went on to fame as the first African American to work at Life magazine and the first to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film, reported that he told an interviewer in 1999, “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
In a new foreword to the book, contemporary photographer Wing Young Huie writes, “St. Paul served as an incubator for us [Parks and Huie] both. I had dreamed of becoming a photographer in my early twenties, but it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I finally committed to the idea and set about doing it. I made many excuses along the way, but none of my barriers–real or self-imposed–were even as remotely challenging as the obstacles Gordon faced. His spectacular rise from poverty, personal hardships, and outright racism is astounding and inspiring.”
The MHS Press is proud to publish Parks’s poignant coming-of-age memoir, which has been embraced by many throughout the United States, from high schools in Los Angeles to community centers in New York City. As part of our celebration of Black History Month, we’re offering a free copy to the first person who e-mails us with the answer to this question:
What Hollywood movie is director/producer Gordon Parks best remembered for?
E-mail your answer to email@example.com.
And enjoy this excerpt from an early chapter in the book, set during Parks’s first months in St. Paul.
In honor of Black History Month, we bring you an amazing story of early Minnesota told by historian William Green in his book, A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota.
In 1827 a military officer brought Jim Thompson, born a slave on the Virginia plantation of James Monroe, to Fort Snelling. There the young Thompson became fluent in French and Dakota. Methodists in Ohio purchased his liberty in 1837 so he could work as a translator for a missionary at Little Crow’s village of Kaposia. The mission lasted just two years. Thompson married a daughter of the Dakota leader Cloud Man, was briefly one of the whiskey sellers in what would become St. Paul, ran the first ferry across the Mississippi, and was a major donor to the construction of the city’s First Methodist Church. But his efforts to protect a girl from rape and his testimony at her assailant’s trial left the best clues to his character and his position in the community.