Thursday, July 16, 1931: Race row in Minneapolis

Posted on April 5th, 2006 – 5:53 PM
By Ben Welter

1931 front page

In June 1931, Arthur and Edith Lee bought a two-bedroom bungalow at 4600 Columbus Av. in south Minneapolis. The Lees were black; the neighborhood white. Despite threats from the neighborhood association, they moved into the home in July, along with their 6-year-old daughter. A group of neighbors offered to buy the home back for $300 more than the Lees had paid. The family declined.

“Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country,” Arthur Lee, a World War I veteran, told the Tribune. “I came out here to make this house my home. I have a right to establish a home.”

Lena Olive Smith
Lena Olive Smith

In mid-July, thousands assembled nightly at 46th and Columbus in protest, many hurling taunts and rocks at the home. Friends gathered in the Lee home to show their support. Police stood outside, urging the crowds to disperse as tensions rose. On Friday, July 17, an end to the “race row” appeared near. The Tribune reported “definite progress” in negotiations over the sale of the house, and said it appeared Lee would move soon, perhaps within a week. The protests waned, but neighbors continued to pressure the Lees to move. Years later, they finally sold the house and moved to another part of the city, but only after waiting long enough to prove they could not be forced out.

The “Miss L.O. Smith” mentioned near the end of the Tribune’s dramatic account below is Lena Olive Smith, then president of the Minneapolis branch of NAACP. Smith, the first black woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota, advised the Lees through much of the conflict. Before earning her law degree, she had practiced dermatology, studied embalming, owned a hair salon and sold real estate. Ann Juergens, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, wrote about this fascinating civil rights pioneer for the school’s law review in 2001.

Crowd of 3,000 Renews
Attack on Negroes’ Home

Stones Again Hurled
at House on Colum-
Bus Avenue.

Neighbors Walk Out
of Meeting When
Peace Is Urged.

While city leaders tried desperately to effect a peaceful settlement of the affair, the rising tide of protest against occupancy of a home at 4600 Columbus avenue by a Negro family Wednesday night resulted in another, more violent demonstration outside the home.

More than 3,000 persons assembled outside the home, occupied by A.A. Lee and his family, to hurl defiance at the police and openly threaten Lee and his friends.

4600 Columbus in 2006
Here’s what 4600 Columbus Av. S. looks like now, nearly 75 years after thousands of white people gathered outside to protest the arrival of a black family in the neighborhood. Aside from steel siding and new windows, the bungalow hasn’t been altered much since the Lee family purchased it in 1931. See the end of the story for a brief interview with the current owner.

Every available police gunsquad was rushed to the scene to keep the crowd under control.

Stones Are Thrown.

From the windows of his darkened home, Lee and his friends looked out, as from a barricaded fortress, on a sullen, angry semi-circle of humanity. They heard themselves threatened continually, from all directions. They heard stones strike against the house and heard windows crash as some of the stones took effect. Now and then a firecracker exploded on the lawn.

A mass meeting of white home owners of that vicinity, held early in the evening at the Eugene Field school, was apparently unsuccessful. Half of the more than 100 persons who assembled at the school walked out indignantly as speakers were urging patience in the matter.

Police Guard Home.

“Let’s go over to Forty-sixth and Columbus and settle the matter right now,” shouted some as they left the meeting.

By the time the meeting was over the Lee home was once more surrounded by angry home owners, spectators from all parts of the city and a squad of 25 policemen.

During the early part of the evening the police were successful in keeping the crowd moving. Groups were broken up quickly and effectively. By 10:30 p.m., however, the crowd had grown so large that the police were forced to retreat toward the Lee home where they formed a protecting cordon. Standing 10 feet apart, they waited.

Patrolman Attacked.

Inch by inch the crowd moved closer to the Lee home, muttering threats, and loud in their denunciation of the police. More police reserves were sent for. A squad of motorcycle men mounted their machines. They drove straight at the crowd, turning sharply as they reached the front lines.

This only served to rouse the throng. One motorcycle policeman was pulled from his machine and a squad of patrolmen went charging to his rescue. Word was handed around that someone had struck a woman spectator. There was an ominous roar of disapproval.

Mrs. A. B. Blomberg, 4925 Columbus avenue, was injured in the leg when struck by the machine of a motorcycle patrolman near the scene of the demonstration at the Lee home. She was taken to her home after lacerations were treated by a doctor.

At 11 p.m. a hurry call was sent to police headquarters and every available gunsquad car was sent to the scene.

The crowd also was incensed by a practical joke that brought a fire department hose cart and a hook and ladder truck clanging up to the Lee home. The firemen were greeted with a loud chorus of boos by the crowd which took it for granted that the fire department had been called as an emergency measure.

The firemen, plainly confused by their reception, immediately turned their trucks around and left.

By that time the crowd extended along Forty-sixth street from Park to Chicago avenues and for a block along Columbus avenue. Refusing to obey the policemen’s orders to stay out of the street they advanced almost to the sidewalks in front of the Lee home, standing almost face to face with the line of policemen. The shrill piping voices of small children were heard over the lower, more deliberate tones of adults.

Fire Hose Asked.

Traffic was blocked completely on Columbus avenue and on Forty-sixth street. Cars were parked for several miles along adjoining streets.

From time to time during the evening groups of Negroes appeared and entered the Lee home. It was estimated that more than 20 friends of the Lee family were assembled in the house at the time the demonstration was at its height.

Toward midnight Captain William Walsh at police headquarters received a call from a man who said he was at the Lee home.

“Send out the fire department and turn a hose on the crowd,” the man suggested.

Captain Walsh replied that he had no authority to do that.

By 11:30 p.m. the crowd was in a dangerous mood, ready for any excuse to jeer at the police. When a detective, seeing a youth about to hurl a stone, arrested him, there was a movement toward the detective which was frustrated by the prompt arrival of motorcycle policemen. The youth was hustled into a gunsquad car and taken to a precinct station.

The appearance of several Negroes in the crowd also caused a commotion. Police immediately rushed the Negroes to police cars and hurried them away, fearing a racial riot independent of the difficulty regarding the Lee home.

Urban President Speaks.

Mayor Anderson
Minneapolis Mayor William Anderson, July 1931. (mnhs.org photo)

At the meeting of the Eugene Field school, H.W. Rubins, president of the Urban league, representing Mayor Anderson, pleaded with the assembled home owners to be patient in the affair and to respect as much as possible the principle of property rights.

“This is a time for sanity and patience, not hasty action,” he told the assembly. “This government has been founded on certain principles of human and property rights. We must respect those rights.”

Rubins had addressed the home owners for a scant 10 minutes when a decided unrest began to evidence itself. Several rose and left the room. Then there was a massed departure which interrupted Rubins. Muttering angrily, those who left their seats hurried from the school to join the crowd outside the Lee home.

Let Committees Work.

To those who remained Rubins continued his address. He pointed out that he was present as an impartial, unbiased observer, in the interest of a satisfactory settlement of the problem. He asked that the committees which have been appointed be given a fair chance to work out a solution to the problem.

Albin J. Lindgren, 4621 Park avenue, chairman of a committee of home owners which has been meeting with a committee appointed by Mayor Anderson and Lee’s attorney, presided over the meeting and also urged that residents of the district be patient.

“Let’s give the committees a chance,” Lindgren suggested, “to see if we can’t reach a satisfactory settlement. I suggest that everyone stay away from the corener of Forty-sixth and Columbus tonight.”

Lee Won’t Move.

Lee himself, in a statement issued through his attorney, H.E. Maag, made it known Wednesday that he has no intention of moving as long as his neighbors continue their demonstrations. He said he is willing to meet with a committee of residents and his attorney and settle the matter in a peaceful manner. Then, he said, after the attention of the city had been diverted from the house he would move quietly to some other part of the city.

Efforts to settle the controversy over Lee’s purchase of the home were made Wednesday by interested groups on Mayor Anderson’s office. A definite decision was not arrived at.

The Minneapolis Urban league, an organization devoted to the advancement of amicable relations between whites and Negroes, also held a meeting in an effort to mediate the trouble and influence the parties concerned into a settlement.

The National Association For the Advancement of Colored People Wednesday charged the police department with laxity in dispersing what it termed an “unlawful gathering” at the Lee home.

Smith hair salon
Before she earned her law degree, Miss L.O. Smith owned and operated the Olive Hair Store, a salon on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. She is at right in this 1913 photo. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

Miss L.O. Smith, president of the Minneapolis branch of the organization, called on Chief of Police William Meehan and charged that the police department had been wilfully negligent in its duty in permitting the crowd to form. She said that if the demonstrations continue she will appeal to Governor Olson for aid.

Mayor Anderson, after conferring with representatives of the Negroes and white property owners in the district, asked the latter to “be patient.” He asked that some sort of truce be effected pending settlement of the affair.

April 2006 update: 4600 Columbus Av. is now owned by Pearl Lindstrom Ratzlaff, 84. She is white. I stopped by to photograph the house and spotted her holding the front storm door open, peering out at the intersection where I stood, camera in hand. I climbed the steps to the house and introduced myself. She said she had learned about the 1931 protests only a few years ago when another man stopped by to take pictures.

Ratzlaff and her first husband bought the house from a white family for about $12,800 in 1958. Were there any black families in the neighborhood when she moved in? “None whatsoever,” she said. How about now? “Probably about four,” she said. How about race relations? “There’s no problem,” she said, with a surprised tone that suggested that such a thing would be an impossibility in 2006.

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