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George Floyd's Minneapolis: Multicultural facade hid decades of simmering racial inequality

MINNEAPOLIS – Like many African Americans before him, George Floyd, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and raised in Houston, Texas, migrated north for a chance at a better life.

Whether or not he thought he’d die on the streets of his newly adopted home of Minneapolis at the hands – or the knees – of police officers, the odds were high. According to the city's open data site, blacks account for more than 60% of the 'use of force' victims in the past decade by Minneapolis police, but are only 19% of the city’s population, according to the Census.

That Floyd is yet another statistic joining Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, both also killed by police in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is not surprising to many African Americans who continue to decry the deaths of other black men and women in the U.S. who met a similar fate.

To outsiders, the Twin Cities often are associated with the genius of the late musician Prince, a vibrant theater scene, the massive shopping center Mall of America, or the many corporations that call Minneapolis-St. Paul home. The area boasts a litany of Fortune 500 companies including Target, Best Buy, General Mills, UnitedHealth Group, U.S. Bancorp, Ameriprise Financial and 3M, the maker of Post-it Notes and N95 respirator masks. But even with all of that cultural and economic capital, the region has a troubled history with race, police misconduct and economic inequality now in the world's gaze due to Floyd's death. 

Keith Mayes
Keith Mayes
Courtesy of Keith Mayes

"Minnesota was known to be a white progressive state, but that doesn't mean that racism was absent from the state," says Keith Mayes, a professor in the department of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota. "The white progressivism may not have paid any dividends for black folks (in the '60s and '70s). Same thing as now where you see Minneapolis-St. Paul is promoted on national lists as a great city to live in, but they never have that caveat that (this is a great city) for white people, but not for black people."   

The issues around race in the region may not be well known to the rest of the country but are steeped in the state's history. June 15th marks 100 years since three black men, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, were lynched in Duluth, after being accused of raping a white woman. This happened roughly 160 miles north of where Floyd died.

“Minneapolis, like many cities, has had a long history of racism in education, in policing, in housing. Enough is enough,” DeRay McKesson, the former senior director of human capital with Minneapolis Public Schools who now sits on the planning team for Mapping Police Violence, told USA TODAY.

Following the 1920 lynchings, the number of black people in Minneapolis remained low. Some did migrate to the area including Gordon Parks, the famed filmmaker and first African American photographer for Life magazine, who came from Kansas around 1928. But as African Americans looked north for opportunities their population grew in greater numbers – first in the 1950s to 1970 and again in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Opportunity drove migration; Housing discrimination created challenges

Robin Washington
Robin Washington
Courtesy of Robin Washington

“Minnesota had a healthy Fortune 500 presence that lured African Americans here. They were in technical fields, engineering and sales,” says Robin Washington, the first African American editor of the Duluth News Tribune, who came to the area in the 1980s. And it’s a myth that blacks came to Minnesota mainly for social services – a greater influx were professionals coming for jobs, he says.

But there were obstacles. Homeownership, considered by many as a key to building wealth was often elusive due to racial covenants built into real estate deeds from the early 1900s. Families often chose to live in segregated communities because it was their only choice. 

Racial covenants are “legal clauses embedded in property deeds that were used to bar people who were not white from owning or occupying property,” according to Mapping Prejudice, which studies the legacy of racist housing policies. The first racially-restrictive deed appeared in Minneapolis in 1910, according to Mapping Prejudice, when Henry and Leonora Scott sold to Nels Anderson a property with a clause that said the "premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent." The covenants were meant to last for the life of the property. Henry Scott, who became a prominent real estate developer, added such restrictions to thousands of properties across the city.

One such black family famously embroiled in this was Arthur and Edith Lee who moved into a white neighborhood in South Minneapolis in 1931. White neighbors who wanted them out rioted daily outside the Lee house. They threw rocks and black paint, shouted threats and racial slurs. They even left excrement in their yard. This harassment continued for two years.  Eventually, they moved to a historically black neighborhood in South Minneapolis – not far from where Floyd died. 

The disparities extend to education – like housing, another important key to building wealth. Minnesota schools tend to rank relatively high on standardized tests, graduation rates, and college readiness. But simultaneously, it has some of the largest achievement gaps by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status in the nation, according to an October 2019 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. This is especially true when one examines the educational achievement gaps between blacks and whites in the state. In 2019, Minnesota ranked 50th in regard to racial disparities in high school graduation rates.  At approximately $38,000, the median black family in the Twin Cities area earns less than half of the median white family income of nearly $85,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. This income inequality gap is one of the largest in the nation.

Clashes of culture and excessive police force in a city whose outward face is one of multiculturalism is, in part,  due to the growth of the black community, says Steven Belton, president of Urban League Twin Cities.

Urban League President Steven Belton
Urban League President Steven Belton
Photo courtesy of JCRC/Ethan Roberts Photography

“There seemed to be fewer issues between white culture when we (African Americans) had less than two percent of the population in the 1950s," he says.

A community persists

Still, historically black communities like Rondo in St. Paul and South Minneapolis flourished with their own businesses, churches and schools. But that was challenged by the construction of Interstate 94 and Interstate 35W in the late 1960s, which barrelled right through those neighborhoods. 

"The aftermath after the 35W split caused a major decline in the commercial corridor that went through the 8th Ward. Where there had once been very successful businesses that served the neighborhood for places to buy food and goods, this was replaced by a series of pornographic stores and massage parlors," says Sharon Sayles Belton, the first African American and the first woman to be mayor of Minneapolis. She served from 1994 until 2001 after several terms on the city council. She was the first African American to represent the 8th Ward and the Lake Street Corridor, home to the intersection of 38th and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis, where George Floyd died.

But the neighborhoods proved resilient, and South Minneapolis residents and community leaders worked to move adult entertainment and drug dealing out of their neighborhood and to restore its vibrance. 

Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Council President Jackie Cherryhomes discuss the city's affordable housing crunch on June 18, 1999, in Minneapolis. Sayles Belton listened to housing advocates, concerned citizens and members of neighborhood groups at a meeting to discuss the city's affordable housing crunch, an aftermath of a protest which stopped demolition of housing.
Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Council President Jackie Cherryhomes discuss the city's affordable housing crunch on June 18, 1999, in Minneapolis. Sayles Belton listened to... Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Council President Jackie Cherryhomes discuss the city's affordable housing crunch on June 18, 1999, in Minneapolis. Sayles Belton listened to housing advocates, concerned citizens and members of neighborhood groups at a meeting to discuss the city's affordable housing crunch, an aftermath of a protest which stopped demolition of housing.
JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

"That work occurred over a number of years," says Sayles Belton. "It was the resolve of that community to fight for itself – and to restore quality of life – for themselves and for their families."

During her time as an elected official, however, she encountered it all. “I am no stranger to the excessive force (by the police) and I certainly had instances in my time in office to deal with complaints of excessive use of force," says Sayles Belton who is married to Steve Belton. 

The family of St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, who grew up in Rondo and is that city's first black mayor, had its own trouble from within police ranks. His father, Melvin Carter, Jr., was among the first African Americans to integrate the St. Paul police force and he went on to become a sergeant.

“He scored the second-highest on the sergeant’s exam and the chief at the time launched an investigation into how he did it,” Carter says. “They didn’t investigate how the person who scored first got the highest, it was that my father got the second-highest they wanted to investigate.”

St. Paul, Minn. Mayor Mel Carter, his grandfather Melvin Carter, Sr. and father, Melvin Carter, Jr.
St. Paul, Minn. Mayor Mel Carter, his grandfather Melvin Carter, Sr. and father, Melvin Carter, Jr.
Photo provided by Office of Mayor Melvin Carter

That said, his father, overall, had a good experience with the force and he was able to use his position to help other black people, the mayor says. Carter says his dad received the red carpet treatment while with the department. “They would say he could use the badge to help solve problems in our community,” Carter says. "And the (black) community called on him to come."

A history of oppression, but also firsts

George Floyd's death may be sparking a renewed movement toward racial equality in the United States. Similarly, it was another black man who lived in the area nearly two centuries ago whose fight for freedom may have ignited the war that transformed the country. 

Mourners hold private memorial in George Floyd's North Carolina birth town
Hundreds of people held a private memorial in honor of George Floyd in his North Carolina birth town.
Wochit

In the 1830s, Dred Scott an enslaved black man, accompanied his owner to Fort Snelling, in what is now St. Paul and married his wife Harriet Robinson. Since slavery was never legal in this northern territory, the couple in 1846 sued for their freedom in Missouri courts after their owner passed away in St. Louis and his widow refused to grant their request. They argued how having once lived in the free territory should entitle them to freedom.

Eleven years later, the 1857 Dred Scott decision from the U.S. Supreme Court held that no black person had ever been, nor could be, a citizen of the United States and thus didn’t have the right to file a lawsuit under the Constitution. Many northerners were outraged and historians say the decision helped catapult the U.S. into the Civil War only four years later.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. MANDEL NGAN, AFP/Getty Images
U.S Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem.

Efforts toward change are underway. Days after Floyd’s death, U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the first Somali American and first black woman to win her district's seat from Minnesota – the district where Floyd died – joined with other congresswomen to introduce a resolution to the House of Representatives to condemn police brutality, racial profiling and the excessive use of force.

At about 70,000 people, Minnesota has the largest number of Somalis than any other U.S. state. Many of them arrived to escape political violence and unrest in Somalia, only to face a different type here.

“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event," Omar says. "We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem.”

Sheree R. Curry is an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in suburban Minneapolis. You can reach her on Twitter @shereecurry.