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Near North African American Community, Minneapolis

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The Wheatley Aires, a men’s singing group, sing in front of an audience at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (809 Aldrich Avenue North) with a pianist accompanying. ca. 1950.

The Wheatley Aires, a men’s singing group, sing in front of an audience at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (809 Aldrich Avenue North) with a pianist accompanying. ca. 1950. Photograph Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul

The Near North community of Minneapolis—made up of the neighborhoods of Harrison, Hawthorne, Jordan, Near North, Sumner-Glenwood, and Willard-Hay—has had a major African American presence since the early 1900s. Distinguished by its own businesses, organizations, and culture, it remains a hub of African American Minnesotan life in the twenty-first century.

Minneapolis’s Near North Side has always been a haven for marginalized communities, mostly for its affordable housing and proximity to downtown. In the early twentieth century, much of the Twin Cities’ Jewish population resided in the Near North neighborhood, especially along Plymouth Avenue and what is now the Olson Memorial Highway.

Restrictive covenants written into real estate deeds limited blacks to certain areas of Minneapolis. During World War I, many began moving from longtime-settled neighborhoods, such as Seven Corners near the University of Minnesota, the South Side, and the North Side. The Sumner Field public housing project, completed at 1101 Olson Memorial Highway in 1938, was segregated, but its white Jewish and black residents generally interacted peacefully.

When blacks arrived in the Twin Cities, they often did not have access to the same community-based agencies as whites, so black churches, social organizations, and barber and beauty shops provided support. One such place, the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, opened in 1924 as a recreation center for African American children. African American activist and writer Ethel Ray Nance also became associated with the Wheatley House.

Black business began to thrive, too. In the 1940s and 1950s, barber Sylvester Young and his five brothers owned several shops in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with some located in Near North. Harry Davis Sr., an activist and former boxer, was one of the first black executives in the state. He helped establish the Minneapolis Urban Coalition and was the first black Minneapolis mayoral candidate in 1971.

By 1960, a large portion of Minneapolis’s African Americans lived in Near North, making it one of the city’s largest black communities. For example, the Glenwood area, excluding the public housing projects, was 55 percent black.The longtime Jewish community began to disperse around this time, mostly to suburbs like St. Louis Park.

In 1966, Syl Davis founded The Way, a community youth center. The Way was one of the few resources of its kind that was organized and used mostly by African Americans. The community center provided a space for black youth to have a sense of community and belonging, and it became The New Way in 1975. The center turned into a hotspot of the so-called Minneapolis Sound of the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1967, racially charged civil unrest broke out along Plymouth Avenue. This unrest was the result of ongoing racial discrimination and frustration about Near North being neglected by the city. The widening of Olson Memorial Highway bisected Near North, affecting the vitality of local businesses on the south side of the street. The arrival of a federal highway, Interstate 94, in the 1970s further cut off the North Side from downtown.

In the 1970s and 1980s, blacks began moving to other parts of the metro area, including nearby suburbs, and Near North’s population decreased. In the 1980s, the neighborhood became known for its rising crime rates. A variety of people migrated into the neighborhood, including young white professionals and Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrants.

In 1995, the class-action lawsuit Hollman v. Cisneros determined that poor, mostly minority families had been concentrated in a seventy-three-acre site within the Near North Community. This led to the demolition of hundreds of public housing units and to the construction of the Heritage Park development in 2000. While many stayed in the area, many more were displaced and moved to nearby neighborhoods or nearby inner-ring suburbs, notably Brooklyn Center.

In November 2015, Minneapolis police, after some conflict, fatally shot black North Minneapolitan Jamar Clark. The event was a continuation of a national trend of police brutality against blacks and sparked a series of protests throughout the region and nation.

In 2018, the Minneapolis African American Heritage Museum and Gallery opened on the corner of Penn Avenue and Plymouth Avenue North. Its goal is to preserve the history of Minnesota African Americans, and to showcase the community’s achievements.

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“Accord Is Reached in I-94 Construction Through North Side.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 26, 1978.

Altrowitz, Abe. “Public Low-Rent Housing Gains Supporters.” Minneapolis Star, February 17, 1967.

Benson, Lorna. “Harry Davis—a Life of Accomplishment.” Minnesota Public Radio News, August 11, 2006.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2006/08/11/harrydavisobit

Bergin, Daniel. Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center. DVD. St. Paul: Twin Cities Public Television, 2011.

Capecchi, Christina. “'Black Lives' Protesters Gather; Mall Is Shut in Response.” New York Times, December 24, 2015.

Cunningham, Dick. “Report Cites Housing Bias in City.” Minneapolis Tribune, October 2, 1966.

Goetz, Edward. Hollman v. Cisneros: Deconcentrating Poverty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, 2002. https://www.housinglink.org/Files/Hollman-Compilation.pdf

Jones, Gwen. “No Barber Like Young Barber.” Minneapolis Star, October 3, 1957.

Kern, Ben. “Community Spirit Unites North Side.” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 13, 1949.

Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. MAAHMG History.
https://sites.google.com/maahmg.org/maahmg/about-us/maahmg-history

Minnesota Compass, Near North Community, 2013–2017.
https://www.mncompass.org/profiles/communities/minneapolis/near-north

Minnesota Compass, Near North Community, October 2011. https://www.mncompass.org/_pdfs/neighborhood-profiles/Minneapolis-NearNorthCommunity-102011.pdf

Near North Side, A Unique Opportunity for Business: Final Workbook. Minneapolis: Midwest Research Institute, October 1979.

Near North Community: Analysis and Action Recommendations, Publication No. 161, Community Improvement Series No. 17. Minneapolis: Minneapolis City Planning Commission and City Council, Autumn 1965.

Newlund, Sam. “Plymouth Avenue Five Years Later.” Minneapolis Tribune, July 4, 1971.

Ryback, R. T. “Subtle Forces Discourage Blacks from Buying Homes.” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, November 26, 1983.

Swensson, Andrea. Got To Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Williams, Brandt. “Public Housing Study Shows Mixed Results for Residents.” Minnesota Public Radio, June 16, 2002. http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/200207/16_williamsb_housingstudy/?refid=0

Related Images

The Wheatley Aires, a men’s singing group, sing in front of an audience at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (809 Aldrich Avenue North) with a pianist accompanying. ca. 1950.
The Wheatley Aires, a men’s singing group, sing in front of an audience at Phyllis Wheatley Community Center (809 Aldrich Avenue North) with a pianist accompanying. ca. 1950.
Women sewing at Phyllis Wheatly House. ca. 1936. WPA Negative Collection.
Women sewing at Phyllis Wheatly House. ca. 1936. WPA Negative Collection.
View of an apartment building at 2419 Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis. ca. 1957. Photo by Norton & Peel.
View of an apartment building at 2419 Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis. ca. 1957. Photo by Norton & Peel.
Boarded-up commercial building at 1418 Glenwood Avenue, ca. 1958. The image also shows a billboard advertising Wonder Bread. Photo by Norton & Peel.
Boarded-up commercial building at 1418 Glenwood Avenue, ca. 1958. The image also shows a billboard advertising Wonder Bread. Photo by Norton & Peel.
Police standing near a building on Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis during an episode of civil unrest in the neighborhood, ca. 1967. Photo by Twiggs.
Police standing near a building on Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis during an episode of civil unrest in the neighborhood, ca. 1967. Photo by Twiggs.
Singer Maurice McKennies with The Blazers performing in the Cozy Bar club on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, ca. 1968. Photo by Mike Zerby, Minneapolis Tribune.
Singer Maurice McKennies with The Blazers performing in the Cozy Bar club on Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis, ca. 1968. Photo by Mike Zerby, Minneapolis Tribune.
Map showing Minneapolis neighborhoods, before the city split Bryn Mawr from Near North, ca. 1975. Minneapolis Department of Planning and Development.
Map showing Minneapolis neighborhoods, before the city split Bryn Mawr from Near North, ca. 1975. Minneapolis Department of Planning and Development.
The New Way (1913 Plymouth Avenue, Minneapolis), a popular community center for the black community, ca. 1975. At the time this photograph was taken, it had just opened.
The New Way (1913 Plymouth Avenue, Minneapolis), a popular community center for the black community, ca. 1975. At the time this photograph was taken, it had just opened.
Young Brothers Barber Shop and Satin Doll Beauty Salon, 1918 Plymouth Avenue North, Minneapolis, ca. 1970s. The Young brothers owned multiple barber shops on Plymouth Avenue North.
Young Brothers Barber Shop and Satin Doll Beauty Salon, 1918 Plymouth Avenue North, Minneapolis, ca. 1970s. The Young brothers owned multiple barber shops on Plymouth Avenue North.
Crowd of people at a Way event. ca. 1980–1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
Crowd of people at a Way event. ca. 1980–1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
The Way women’s softball team poses for a group portrait in Minneapolis ca. 1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
The Way women’s softball team poses for a group portrait in Minneapolis ca. 1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
People outside of The Way community center. ca. 1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
People outside of The Way community center. ca. 1985. Photo by Charles Chamblis.
Black Lives Matter signs erected to protest the shooting of Jamar Clark on Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis (Fourth Precinct), November 2015. Photo by Rebecca Wright Gillette.
Black Lives Matter signs erected to protest the shooting of Jamar Clark on Plymouth Avenue in Near North Minneapolis (Fourth Precinct), November 2015. Photo by Rebecca Wright Gillette.

Turning Point

In 1967, as a response to building racial tension and frustration with city disinvestment, civil unrest ignites on Plymouth Avenue. This event, the “long hot summer,” ushered in a period of socioeconomic decline for Near North.

Chronology

1924

The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House opens at 808 Bassett Place. It provides services to African American youth and acts as a community center.

1938

Sumner Field Homes housing project opens on North Dupont Avenue. It is a mixed-race project, but the white Jews and black residents are segregated.

1947

lvester Young graduates from Moler Barber School. He opens several barber shops in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.

1958

Prince Rogers Nelson is born in June. Prince grew up on the North Side and achieved international musical fame.

1960

One-third of Minneapolis’s black population lives in one of the six neighborhoods that make up the Near North community.

1963

Olson Memorial Highway is widened, destroying businesses on the south side of the road.

1966

Syl Davis opens The Way, a community center that provides activities and support for the African American community in the Near North area. It becomes a popular music venue as well.

1967

Civil unrest breaks out as a response to racial tension and city neglect of Near North Minneapolis.

1970

African Americans make up 4.4 percent of the total population of Minneapolis.

1975

The New Way opens.

1980

Richard Staten is elected to the Minnesota state legislature.

1990

African Americans make up 13 percent of the total population of Minneapolis.

1995

The ruling in Hollman v. Cisneros determines that Near North housing concentrates minorities in poverty-stricken areas. As a result, the Sumner Field Homes and other Near North public housing projects are demolished.

2000

Construction begins on Heritage Park, which replaces public housing buildings.

2015

Minneapolis police fatally shoot Near North resident Jamar Clark, sparking national outrage and regional protests.

2018

The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery opens at Penn and Plymouth Avenues.