In 1910 there were over sixty orphanages and homes for the aged operated by and for African Americans in the United States. Minnesota had one of them: St. Paul's Crispus Attucks Home. The home was named for the African American patriot killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770. It served the community for six decades, beginning in 1906 during the Jim Crow era and ending in 1966 at the peak of the civil rights movement.
African Methodist Episcopal (AME) missionaries Will and Fannie King came to St. Paul from Illinois and saw a need for a new social service. Major orphanages would not admit black children and some aged and infirm people were left on their own. The Kings opened a residence for both of these groups in a small house on East Acker Street near Oakland Cemetery. That house quickly filled past capacity, so the Kings looked elsewhere.
In spring 1908 they loaded wagons and made an unlikely journey to the southwest sector of the city-to open country-on Randolph Avenue in what is now the heart of Highland Park. The house they rented there was no bigger than the Acker Street house, but its lot offered more land. The Kings called it "the farm."
An early photograph taken at the house shows five elders and twenty children, toddlers to teens. The children led busy and regimented lives taken up by school, study time, baths on Saturday night, Sunday school and two services on the Sabbath, and labor. The boys worked the farm and made brushes in the shop. The girls cooked, cleaned, drew water from the well, and trained to be domestic workers.
The Kings proved themselves capable leaders and fundraisers. They formed a board of leading black citizens and mobilized the community through church outreach, baseball games, card parties, and annual charity balls. The sole white board member was Joseph Elsinger, a wealthy man and co-owner of the Golden Rule department store. He bought the Highland Park land.
The 1910s brought a series of crises. In 1911 Will King suffered a debilitating stroke. In early 1912, soon after the board launched a major fundraising campaign to build a new building, rumors of corruption appeared in the black press. In November 1912 the Kings resigned, and in early 1913 police arrested Will King for soliciting money for Crispus Attucks and keeping it for himself. He was sent to a workhouse as punishment, but repeated the crime in 1914. When a judge offered him the choice of serving jail time or leaving town, King disappeared.
The organization recovered and soldiered on. St. Paul's leading charity, the Wilder Foundation, got involved. In 1916, needing still more space, Crispus Attucks moved to the former Home for the Friendless building at 469 Collins Street on Railroad Island, near Swede Hollow and just east of downtown. There it stayed for fifty years.
This house was big, airy, and situated on a hilltop site close to the Lincoln School. It was already worn from heavy use. By the early 1920s, however, orphanage services had ended. The Crispus Attucks Home refocused itself as a home for the aged, housing about sixteen people at a time.
Crispus Attucks enjoyed strong community support from charities, churches, clubs, and individuals both black and white. But life inside was always threadbare, the budget always shoestring. A resident from the late 1910s recalled bedbugs, shoes lined with cardboard, and aged inmates scavenging soup bones from the South St. Paul stockyards.
Conditions improved after the Depression. Inspectors in 1946 found food plentiful and residents comfortable but the building itself increasingly run down. In 1952 inspectors declared the house a fire hazard. Board members were caught in a bind. The home still met a need, though a limited one, and finding money to build anew or renovate exceeded their grasp. Still, they made do for another thirteen years.
The end came quietly in 1966 when the state bought the house and the Wilder Foundation took custody of the few remaining residents. The house was razed; its site was later incorporated into Eileen Weida Park. In 1974, the organization regrouped as the Crispus Attucks Social Welfare and Education Association, a scholarship fund for African-American high school students.
Colored Orphanage and Old Peoples Home, State of Minnesota: Biographical Sketch of Rev. J. King and other founders; Attucks Industrial School and Home, Incorporated 1909. [St. Paul: The Orphanage, 1911].
Nelson, Paul D. "Orphans & Old Folks, St. Paul's Crispus Attucks Home." Minnesota History 56, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 102–119.
———, and Lloyd L. Brown. "Orphans and Old Folks Revisited, with a Story by Lloyd Brown." Minnesota History 57, no. 7 (Fall 2001): 368–379.
In 1913, police arrest Will King for fraud just four months after his and Fannie's resignation from the Crispus Attucks board. Though serious blows, these events have the unexpected effect of securing the long-term financial and professional support of the Wilder Foundation.