There is a modest, white house at the corner of 46th Street East and Columbus Avenue South in Minneapolis’s Field neighborhood. The architecture of the 1923 home eludes classification — its low-pitched rooflines hint at the craftsman style, but the white exterior, columns, and pediment seem neoclassical. The house lacks the charming stone work and brick and stucco exteriors of quainter homes in south Minneapolis. Despite its architectural insignificance, the home it has immense value, and can connect us to an important story about our city’s past, which has ramifications for our present and future. In fact, it’s so valuable that in 2014, the National Park Service added the property to the National Register of Historic Places. (Here’s the application.)
The white house was built in what was at the time a predominantly white neighborhood. In 1927, the Field Neighborhood Association, wanting to protect the character of the neighborhood, asked homeowners to sign contracts promising that they would not sell their homes to non-white buyers. In June 1931, Arthur and Edith Lee moved into the home with their six-year-old daughter. Arthur was a World War I veteran and a U.S. Postal Service worker. The Lees were also black.
The neighborhood association pushed back. First, someone offered to buy the house for a small amount more than the Lees had paid for it, but the Lees refused. Then the Lees suffered escalating vandalism. Neighbors littered their property with garbage, excrement, paint, and signs with racial slurs. Arthur Lee called the police, who were unresponsive. The Lees and their friends organized a vigil around the house as intimidation increased. It began with a few neighbors walking by the house in the evenings, shouting taunts and slurs at the family. The intimidation reached a climax on July 17, 1931, about a month after the Lees moved in, when an “unruly mob” of about 4,000 people gathered in front of the house, demanding that the black family leave the white neighborhood. The NAACP and prominent lawyer Lena Olive Smith stood with the Lees, and for two years the Lees bravely fought for their “right to establish a home,” before they moved to another neighborhood.
I took the bus to take a photo of the house, and the current owner was shoveling snow off the front steps. She said she’d been born there, and learned the house’s history along with her mother during the designation process. She sometimes imagines how the Lees had to live in the basement, and were never able to enjoy the front yard.
University of Minnesota professor Greg Donofrio, who (along with Laurel Fritz) organized the campaign to list the Lee house on the National Register, had an exhibit at the University explaining the significance of the house. The exhibit tried to get attendants to reflect on the right to establish a home, and on racism in Minnesota.
And here are some of the facts about current racial disparities in the Twin Cities that people could have chosen to reflect on:
- Minnesota has the largest racial poverty gap in the nation
- Unemployment is three times higher for blacks than for whites
- Black people and American Indians suffer from chronic diseases at a higher rate than whites
- High-income black and Hispanic homebuyers were almost four times as likely to receive subprime mortgage loans than were low-income whites
For a little while, I lived about a mile from the Lee house. I might have passed it once or twice on my way to Lake Harriet, but I was totally ignorant of its story. That’s because the world doesn’t speak for itself, and the past doesn’t have some transcendent power to tell its own stories. We have to do the work of building connections to the past and learning from it. Preserving the Lee house is important, but it’s insufficient to spark this critical reflection. The Lee house itself is just a visual aid. It’s a pile of bricks, concrete, wood, and metal siding. On its own, it doesn’t sustain social memory. To do that, we have to make exhibits, hold tours, and tell stories.
The Lee house is rare among historically designated properties in the Twin Cities in that it is so directly connected to the story of marginalized people. Most of Minneapolis’s “historic” buildings were built by and for white men in another era. These are the people who built the biggest, fanciest, and oldest buildings in the Twin Cities, which makes sense given Minnesota’s pale historical racial composition, and the concentration of wealth among Yankee industrialists. My unscientific survey shows that a lot of the locally-designated properties are downtown and in areas that were deemed “good neighborhoods” on 1930s redlining maps. So if you’re looking to preserve the biggest, fanciest, and oldest buildings in the Twin Cities, you’d mostly designate the architectural legacy of flour and lumber barons. However, if you’re looking to preserve buildings that tell stories about representative and inclusive populations of the Twin Cities, you’d make different choices.
I’m left with a lot of questions. Is there a way to use properties built by the Pillsburys and Daytons to tell stories about the Dakota and Ojibwe? How would the preservation community look if it reflected more diverse perspectives, both at the grassroots level and on decision-making bodies like the Heritage Preservation Commission? And how can we correct for this bias in our historical portfolio, to ensure that our preservation efforts also celebrate the legacies of people who weren’t rich and white? How do we sustain the memory of poor neighborhoods that were demolished, like Near North Minneapolis, Rondo in Saint Paul, Bohemian Flats, and Swede Hollow? How can historic preservation work without depriving Somali, Hmong, and Latino neighbors of the right to shape their environment?