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Blacks in the St. Paul Police and Fire Department 1885 - 1976


Summary of Economic and Social Status

Economic Status

On November 1, 1854, St. Paul, formerly known as Pig's Eye, was formally organized as a City. It was not until 1890, however, that a detailed census was taken.

St. Paul's Black population since the 1890 census has remained rather static percentage-wise. The total population at that time was 133,156 with the Blacks comprising 1,524, a little over 1½ percent. In 1970, the total population was 309,823, with the Blacks comprising 10,930, approximately 3½ percent. So, over an eighty year period, the Black population rose only two percent.

From 1890 to 1910 the economic and employment factors that affected the Black community were many. Population wise, Blacks were not considered a problem, especially during the early part of the century. Thus, the employment situation was fairly stable. The Blacks who migrated here had limited educations as did the majority groups, mostly from Europe, who also had a language barrier. Blacks were employed in menial jobs such as laborers, bootblacks, coachmen, waiters and porters. St. Paul was a large railroad center which was a great source of employment for Blacks in this field, but only as waiters and porters.

There were also a few Black businesses around 1910. Probably the best known were Curly Campbell's restaurant and Owen Howell's Uptown Sanitary Shop, a dry cleaning and pressing business. Both of these were located downtown. Jim Williams' bar, located in the ghetto after the repeal of prohibition, was probably the most successful Black business in the history of St. Paul to date. During the period of 1890 to 1930, the majority of barbershops in St. Paul were owned and operated by Blacks. Henry Shepherd, successful photographer, and George Lowe operated a picture framing establishment around this time.

There was a scattering of token white collar jobs for Blacks in government and industry. John Q. Adams was appointed bailiff and assistant city clerk by Mayor F. B. Doran in 1896. This was certainly one of the first such types of appointments for Blacks at that time. In addition to these offices, Mr. Adams was the editor of the WESTERN APPEAL, St. Paul's Black newspaper. His daughter, Edith Ella Adams, became one of St. Paul's Black school teachers. Bessie Farr, around 1890 as far as can be ascertained, was the first Black teacher. She was followed by her sister, Minnie Farr, a short time later. There were a few other token white collar jobs for Blacks in the government and in industry. A few professional Blacks were on the scene during this period. Among them were Dr. Valdo Turner, St. Paul's first Black physician and Mr. Frederick McGhee, the first Black attorney in St. Paul, and later Mr. W. T. Francis, another attorney. Several other professionals came and went around the turn of the century.

When the state capitol was built many skilled tradesmen were imported to work on the job. Within the next twenty years, these Black skilled workers were slowly eliminated. The greatest single impact on the labor market was the importation of Black laborers to work in the packing house industry. Armours' packing plant was built by the federal government during World War I. Operation began in 1919 and in that first year the plant suffered one of the worst strikes in the history of Minnesota. Black laborers, brought here in box cars like cattle, were used as strike breakers. The state militia was stationed at the plant during the strike and for three months machine guns were mounted on the buildings and grounds of the plant. This strike breaking had long range ramifications for St. Paul Blacks, not only on the labor front but in other areas such as housing patterns and hard core discrimination in public accommodations. The strike breaking image resulted in many whites thinking that Blacks were a threat to their jobs and their very existence.

In spite of the fact that, percentage-wise, the Black community sent more than its share of men to serve in World War I, the employment and economic picture for Blacks following the War began to worsen. The token jobs remained so there were always some positions to be looked upon as real accomplishments for Blacks. Some of these were city architects William Godette and C. W. Wigington and school teachers Edith Ella Adams and Grace Lealtad. Billy Williams and George Hoyt held administrative positions at the state capitol. The employment picture for Blacks hit an all time low in the thirties, with the depression in full swing and the scarcity of jobs. Blacks were the last hired and the first fired. The worst blow was the discharging of all Black waiters from the hotels except for room service waiters. Blacks were able to keep the few token jobs but had to fight desperately to hold on to the others and to get new opportunities.

Black employment began to take an upward swing in 1941 with the advent of the defense plants and World War II. With a continuing struggle, the trend is still upward. The riots, locally and on the national scene, the writer thinks, had a tremendous effect on Black employment everywhere. More progress was made in the sixties than any other time, but for Blacks the struggle must continue.

Social Status

One of the social problems faced by Blacks around 1900 was the lack of freedom of movement in public places which was a frustrating experience. Most cafes and saloons would serve Blacks, but hotels and barbershops practiced bias. The Pan African Council held a convention in St. Paul in 1902 and many owners of public accommodations objected on the grounds that it would bring too many Blacks to the city and create problems. The convention, however, was held in the Senate Chambers of the old State Capitol and the cafe and restaurant owners who were willing to serve the convention went on record by placing a certain colored card in the windows of their establishments. After World War I, public accommodations for Blacks worsened despite the existence of an Equal Accommodations Law. The law was introduced by Frank Wheaton and passed by the state legislature. (Mr. Wheaton was the only Black person to serve in the legislature until 1972 when Robert Lewis was elected state senator and Ray Pleasant was named to the state house of representatives.) Despite the subtle biases, ever present, Minnesota had no "jim crow" on street cars, buses or trains, no segregated schools, also Black males had the right to vote, (females, both Black and white, did not enjoy this right until 1921) so, by comparison, was considered a liberal community in which to live.

From 1890 to 1920, most of the Black population lived in and near the downtown area where the Black churches were located. The churches started a move to the Summit-University area in the twenties with the Blacks following in large numbers. However, once established in this area, they found their freedom of movement systematically denied.

An example of early housing discrimination was the W. T. Francis case. Mr. Francis, a Black lawyer, bought a home on Sargent Avenue, West of Snelling Avenue. (1) It became necessary for the police to put a twenty-four hour watch on his home in order for him to live in it. (It should be noted here that Mr. Francis had been chosen a presidential elector of the Republican party in 1920. Years later, during the Franklin D. Roosevelt era, Frank Boyd, a union business agent for the pullman porters, was chosen a Democratic presidential elector.)

1 This will correct an error made in March 1969 report of a special committee appointed by the St. Paul Urban Coalition entitled The 1968 Labor Day Week-End in St. Paul: The Events and Their Causes. The report stated that Francis lived in Maplewood and that the incident took place in that community.

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