The Lee House: Preserving a Relic of Racism

Arthur and Edith Lee house. Photo by Scott Shaffer.

Arthur and Edith Lee house. Photo by Scott Shaffer.

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:

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. 

Locally-designated historic landmarks and districts in Minneapolis.

Locally-designated historic landmarks and districts in Minneapolis.

1930s redlining map by HOLC.

1930s redlining map by HOLC.

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 PaulBohemian Flats, and Swede Hollow? How can historic preservation work without depriving Somali, Hmong, and Latino neighbors of the right to shape their environment?

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

24 thoughts on “The Lee House: Preserving a Relic of Racism

  1. Robert Smith

    Scott: Although we probably agree on most of what you said in this article, you spoiled it by what appears to be deliberate deception, when you put two minority groups together to reach a scary “statistic”, and you did it twice.

    If a position is valid and worth making, it doesn’t call for deception.

    1. A Scartossi

      Race baiting is quite in fashion these days(sweet!!), though well intentioned. I understand, you’re young, out to help make the world a better place…

      “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?”

      Clue: the “poor & white” represent the highest number of the folks to have lived in , settled in this part of the earth.

      Clue #2 : the “POOR” represent the highest number of the folks to have lived in , settled in this part or any of the earth and race doesn’t have a dog in the hunt so much in that regard.

      Good luck! Have fun!

      1. Doug TrummDoug T

        That’s false equivalency. The difference is that a much larger percentage of the poor whites who settled Minneapolis are now relatively well off. Systemic racism prevented poor blacks from benefitting as much as the other city grew and its economy boomed.

        From the recent NYT times article on North Minneapolis: “Median income is similarly disparate, with white residents having earned on average $73,600 while blacks earned 38 percent of that, $27,950, according to 2014 census estimates. That was the sixth-worst ratio among the country’s 260 metropolitan areas with significant black populations, a New York Times analysis of the data shows.”

        Moreover, nobody is saying don’t celebrate the histories of poor white Minnesotans. Black Minnesotans just seem to be the most overlooked historically and are most disadvantaged both currently and historically.

  2. Beth-Ann Bloom

    I drive by it every week on my way to church and remember the family was also excluded from membership in their local Catholic church. Glad to be reminded of past mistakes so we can move ahead with plans to make fewer of them!

  3. Cedar Imboden Phillips

    While I’m admittedly biased – being the director of a museum dedicated to preserving and sharing local history (although this comment is purely personal and not on behalf of HHM) – I think that the answer lies partly in protection of some properties, but also in preserving stories in other ways. I think it’s very important to provide physical evidence that will last for generations, some of it archival or paper-based, some of it physical objects that will help to tell the story of what happened. While it’s not always easy to preserve these materials (space, or lack of it, is one of our most pressing issues), it’s a lot easier to preserve a box of documents and a few well-chosen artifacts than an entire house or building. (And yes, absolutely, we need to preserve and share the stories of our entire community!)

    That said, we need to preserve buildings, too… and to expand our interpretation of others. The big grand buildings, for example, offer a great depth of stories beyond those of their wealthy owners or the architects: who built them? Who worked in them? Who delivered the coal or the milk? Or in some cases, maybe the story is in who didn’t work in them, or who didn’t visit them. Also, how did they evolve over the years? When I worked in DC, our historic house museum was able to talk about slavery, Reconstruction, and then later, Irish immigrants, all through the changing story of the home’s workforce. One house, many eras, lots of stories.

    I would like to see our historic preservation standards evolve to include a greater focus on the lives of the everyday (not that the Lee House fits into that category, as it clearly is the site of significant events); the things that seem the most mundane are often what need the most protection. Museums are filled with wedding gowns or other special event items, while work clothes or other everyday items are used up and thrown away…providing us with a skewed documentation of daily life. We don’t need – and shouldn’t – try to save everything, but the right balance will help us to better understand our past as we try to create a better future.

    1. Janne

      I visited this museum in Norway last summer — it was an apartment building where each unit was preserved in a different era over the 100+ years it was occupied. Each apartment told the story of a different family or resident from that era in that particular unit. Lots of the mundane, and fantastically interesting.

    2. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      I’d like to see our Heritage Preservation Commission do more work with programming and public education, and “expanding the interpretation” of the historic buildings we have. I think that would go a long way to sustain social memory and build connections with our past.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        Also the History Center, and smaller museums. I was on a bike ride with Anthony Taylor a while back when he stopped us and pointed out the old gateway that marked where the segregated community began on Plymouth Avenue. Really interesting bit of history.

    3. Nathanael

      For Native American history, preservation of the landscape is probably more informative than preservation of houses. (Several Native American nations have made very strong efforts to promote environmental restoration as part of their heritage; I don’t know if this happened in Minnesota.)

  4. Rachel Q

    Thanks for digging up this story. I never knew. You are quite right that historic preservation has a long way to go before it is truly inclusive and actually preserve everyone’s histories.

      1. Alan Muller

        Federal preservation tax credits only apply to commercial property, and aren’t likely to be meaningful to the owners of a single family house unless possibly it is a rental. In any case I didn’t say anything about “property rights.”

        1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author


          About the reactionary elitism: I know several people who would call themselves preservationists, but also care about the wellbeing of all kinds of folks, and think that preservation should be representative of the whole community. Bill Lindeke and Greg Donofrio fit squarely in this camp.

          (But they both happen to have PhDs.)

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            Aw thanks. Yeah I am v interested in preservation, not just of fancy homes but of “ways of life” and urban landscapes that are disappearing (e.g. urban alleys).

  5. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    Minnesota-born author Sinclair Lewis wrote an interesting novel, Kingsblood Royal, in 1947, that echoes some of the themes of this event.

    One other significant property from a marginalized community that’s currently exploring historic preservation is Glendale Townhomes in Prospect Park. Minneapolis Public Housing Authority has been exploring redeveloping the property, current residents and the neighborhood association prefer updating and repair and see historic preservation as a possible tool for doing so.

  6. Andrew Evans

    Thanks for the article and it’s really important to highlight these houses, because as you said, most wouldn’t know about it and those of us who have heard rumors, or maybe that story once will forget without reminders. However, I would like to add that these conversation starters can’t just be on one side of the political correct sphere. The campaign to re-name Calhoun comes to mind – because without those reminders we may forget our past and where we came from, or we get the sense that if the name isn’t there the past didn’t happen.

    In any event I’d like to comment on the following:

    “How can historic preservation work without depriving Somali, Hmong, and Latino neighbors of the right to shape their environment?”

    As I said above we need to be very mindful about where we have been, and also mindful about where we’re going in the future. Just because, in this moment, one group of people may live in a community doesn’t mean they have a permanent claim on that neighborhood. In North for example, the demographics have changed a lot from when it was first developed to today, and it seems to be going through a shift again.

    So going forward we need to be mindful of the past, not really to preserve it in place, but to know the history of where we live. Also going forward we can’t keep grasping to the past and trying hard to keep things as they once were. People move, communities move, migrations happen. We had seen one in the suburb age where people moved out of the city, and now we’re seeing people move back. So those once poor neighborhoods (some of which as in North were thriving before they were poor) you mentioned are going to change, and in 5-10-20 years we’re going to look back and tell stories of what was once there. That’s not a bad thing, it’s not a good thing, it’s just time moving forward.

    I view our time living in a given community as a stewardship of that community. We take care of it as best we can until it’s our time to move on. This is true on a personal level where I own a house and will eventually sell or move out of the house, it’s true on a block to block level, and it’s true on a neighborhood level. We try to take as best care of it as we can, and preserve what we were given and improve on it.

    Another for instance: Years ago who would have seen parts of our city and state having a large Hmong community? More recently who would have thought that we would see a large new Somali community? In the future it could be easy to guess we will welcome more middle eastern migrants/refugees, but past that who knows what our neighborhoods will look like in 10 years or 20 years. Things change, people migrate, and we need to remember the past so that we can provide them with a positive community to move into and be a part of.

    I am a board member of Hawthorne Neighborhood Council, and Housing Committee Chair. These views are my own and do not represent the Committee or HNC.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      “Just because, in this moment, one group of people may live in a community doesn’t mean they have a permanent claim on that neighborhood.”

      I agree completely. Just because it was primarily Swedish immigrants who first built their homes in Cedar-Riverside, doesn’t mean that they have a permanent claim on the neighborhood, but we should preserve evidence of their lives. The city is a palimpsest.

      I think that preservation is about facilitating communication between the present and the past. Past generations built things that represent their values and lives, and we can understand them by studying their buildings. We should leave our mark today, and build things that represent our values and lives, so that future generations can understand us. I think consistency demands it of us.

  7. Alan Muller

    It’s not too hard to see that cultural resources, like natural resources, should be valued and conserved. Sometimes there may be confusion over just what is the resource. A building may have some inherent aesthetic or technical merit, or it may be distinguished merely by what happened there–probable the case with the house being discussed here.

    It’s a matter of understanding, presentation, and interpretation. Why did the leaders of Minneapolis think tearing down the Metropolitan Building was a good idea? I dunno, but expect they had reasons that seemed good to them at the time. Why was it thought good to carve the guts out of cities all over North America to build freeways? Valuation changes with time and circumstances.

  8. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    This house is actually doubly fascinating… Not only for the intense and short lived history of the Lee family in the 1930s, but also for Pearl Lindstrom who lived there for decades and helped sort through this dark legacy that predated her. She passed away about a year ago.

    Our neighborhood group interviewed her about the history of the neighborhood. A fellow board member did audio recordings with a few of the other “old timers” too. I have a bunch of DV tapes of relatives/others relating history first hand. As Cedar notes, the history of the average person with average struggles is fascinating in a completely different way. The elites will always be documented – and there’s nothing wrong with that – but there’s something particularly fascinating about the vernacular life of a particular time and place. So if you know someone with good stories, sit down and take a listen – and bring along a recorder.

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