Category Archives: Minneapolis schools

Opening library archives – from the outside in

The concept of preserving history, collating full archives, making them as usable as possible so the public have access to them, I really feel that it allows the public an ability to engage with their own history. Sarah Harrison, journalist

For the past couple of weeks I have been exploring an endless profusion of photos, letters, yearbooks, and more photos – from the comforts of home!   I have actually been trying to learn enough about the new Digital Collections platform at Hennepin County Library so I could post an informed post for this blog.

Thinking I needed a bit more skill in searching the massive collection – and a better sense of the possibilities I might be missing — I made my way to Special Collections, 4th Floor at the Minneapolis Central Library, just to see if they might have a helpful cheat sheet….

Hearing my query, Librarian Bailey Diers demonstrated some of the tricks of the searching trade. Actually, she offered a brilliant tutorial for my colleague and me.

And yet, that’s not the topic of this blog.

What really came through to me is the premise of this new HCL Digital Collections! It’s akin to thinking of the library’s collection from the outside in.

First of all the content of the archives began with the lives of the people of this region – whether it’s high school yearbooks or photos of famous visitors or the local newspaper, it’s OUR story – a story that the library has forever valued, collected and preserved. Though the library has always played this role, it is seldom the main thrust of a major initiative.

Just as important, it is significant that the library is turning to the community to enhance the collection. The story of matching names of individuals in the Glanton collection is unique and telling. More on this aspect of the current project later.

Third, is the implicit fact that the entire focus of the digital project is on users who are not IN the library. We have long been able to search the catalog from home, but with the current project we have a deep dive into the essence of the recorded history of this community. The relationship between the library, specifically the library staff, is reoriented – and it is healthy for the system and for the user.

Digitization is not a new technique and remote access to library collections is not a revolutionary idea. What seems to me unique in this initiative is the focus on the stories of the local community – a way for us to see ourselves and our history at the core of the library’s role as a unique community resource.

Another intriguing aspect of the project is the story of the library’s turning to the community to augment the existing archives. More later on that project and searching tips in forthcoming posts.

 

 

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Minnesota Superstar Toni Stone Broke BB Records and Barriers

The name and fame of Twin Cities native Toni Stone are well documented in the annals of baseball history. She is an honored member of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and of the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Sudafed International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In fact, St. Paul celebrated “Toni Stone Day” on March 6, 1990, and even named a field after the hometown heroine. The Toni Stone field is part of the Dunning Sports Complex in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. (http://www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=1187)

One wonders, though, if, in this post-Title IX era, young girls in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul or students at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, know the story of this baseball superstar who broke records and shattered barriers for women and girls in sports.

Marcenia Lyle (Toni) Stone was born July 17, 1921, in West Virginia. A decade later she and her family joined the Great Migration to the North. They moved to St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood where Marcenia’s parents opened a small business. Even as a young girl Marcenia showed her talent as a natural athlete. She was the first girl to hold a spot on the high-powered St. Peter Claver boys’ baseball team and played for the girls’ Highlex Softball Club in St. Paul. Later, as a student at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, she lettered in track, high jump and softball.

At age 15 fell in love with baseball when she attended a baseball camp at Lexington Park, home of the St Paul Saints. When former Major Leaguer Gabby Street who ran the camp told Toni that the camp was for only boys, Stone protested and Street finally allowed her to stay. She so impressed Street that he advised her to continue to play the game. In short order she gave up her other athletic interests to focus on her first love – baseball.

Marcenia dropped out of school at 16 to earn money playing for the Twin City Colored Giants, a men’s semi-pro barnstorming team that took her throughout the Midwest and Canada. She moved on from there to play with Al Love’s American Legion championship team.

World War II upset the world order; baseball was no longer a national priority. Marcenia moved to San Francisco where her sister Bunny and her husband had resettled to join the military. Toni settled in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco where she eventually met her future husband, Aurelious Pescia Alaberga, a man forty years her elder. Alaberga had been raised in San Francisco, one of the first black officers in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

With some reluctance, perhaps, Alaberga encouraged his wife to join the previously all-male American Legion Junior League baseball team. It was at that point that Marcenia shaved a decade from age, claiming to be 16 not 26, a birth date she maintained throughout her career. It was also at this point that Marcenia became Toni Stone.

For a short time Toni played with the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro League, the league founded by African-American pitcher, Andrew “Rube” Foster. She left the team when she failed to receive the pay she had been promised. Toni moved on to the Black Pelicans. Not long thereafter the League itself faced a crisis when Jackie Robinson broke the color line by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Black fans lost interest in the Negro League, which were soon faced with diminished crowds and financial woes.

At the same time, as Black players moved to the Major Leagues, there were opportunities for unique players, including women. In 1949 Toni joined the New Orleans Creoles, the Negro League’s minor league team.   In 1953 she became the first woman to play in the Negro Major Leagues when she joined the Indianapolis Clowns, replacing 2nd baseman Hank Aaron who had moved up to join the Milwaukee Braves. To some extent, Toni was signed because she was a woman, thus a rarity and an “attraction.”

From all accounts players with the Negro Major Leagues led a rough life. To up the gate they were forced to play long seasons, many in the South where Jim Crow was still the law of the land. Trailblazer that she was, Toni met with opposition and outright scorn. By some accounts, she was proud of the fact “that the male players were out to get her. She would show off the scars on her left wrist and remember the time she had been spiked by a runner trying to take out the woman standing on second base….Even though she was part of the team, she was not allowed in the locker room. If she were lucky, she would be allowed to change in the umpire’s locker room. Once, Stone was asked to wear a skirt while laying for sex appear, but she would not do it.” (Wikipedia)

Still she was a contributor to the team with a lifetime batting average of .243, including a hit off Satchel Paige.  She played one season with the Clowns, and then moved in 1954 to the Kansas City Monarchs; she retired from the Monarchs the following season because of lack of playing time.

After her short career Toni returned to Oakland to care for her ailing husband who died in in 1987 at the age of 103. Toni settled in Alameda where she continued to play semi-pro ball well into her 60’s. She died in 1996 at the age of 75. In October 2000 Toni Stone was honored as the Negro Leaguer of the Month (Pitch Black Baseball), which notes that, although Toni had two strikes against her – she was black and a woman. Still, “Stone made the best of things even though she often ate alone in the team bus and knew that many of her teammates resented her. Stone always took the high road, though, and remembered years later, ‘Some of ‘em used to give me a hard time, but I didn’t pay them no mind. They didn’t mean any harm!’”

Record books reflect Toni Stone’s stats, and there are books, including Martha Ackmann’s biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Baseball in the Negro Leagues and references in Allen Pollock and James A. Riley’s Barnstorming to Heaven: Syd Pollock and his great black teams.

Stone’s life is also depicted in an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center and a number of MHS programs for specific audiences prepared by the MHC staff; details of the MHC offerings are available at http://www.minnesotahistorycenter.org/field-trips/toni-stone-resources

 

Northeasters Love Their Neighborhood – and Their Presidents

In Minneapolis it is a sad fact that most of the street names are logical, but boring.  Still, there are exceptions.  Streets in Southwest Minneapolis, for example, still bear the names of prominent citizens who built the city.  Some neighborhood street names are just plain quirky, often the remnants of the original landowners.  Northeast stands out as the most patriotic of all neighborhoods.  The Presidents’ Streets are legendary, an inspiration to most and a conundrum to those who aren’t up to speed on American history.

Writing in The Northeaster in 1988 Penny Jacobson describes in detail the story of how “many early settlers’ names disappeared from streets for the sake of uniformity.”  It’s a great story of how Northeast streets got their historic names.

Though street names have changed more than once over time, the “permanent” names of today’s Northeast neighborhood streets reflect a burst of Americanism surrounding World War I and welcoming the wave of immigrants coming to the community.  One way to learn the Presidents’ names was to walk the neighborhood itself.

Jacobson reminds residents that Tyler Street Northeast was once known as Clayton; Polk Street was Wilkin; Taylor Street used to be Cummings; Fillmore was known as Eastwood; Pierce was Brott; Buchanan was Wells; Lincoln was Maryland and Johnson was East.  The previous names, with the exception of Maryland and East, were those of property owners in the early era of Northeast development.

And so the street names of Northeast continue, Ulysses (as in Grant)  through McKinley,  until  it comes to Stinson Parkway.   James Stinson donated the land for Stinson Boulevard in 1885; naming rights for the Parkway are the responsibility of Minneapolis Parks and Recreation.

Sometime in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s the city fathers continued the re-naming of Northeast streets.  The Committee on Roads and Bridges recommended and the City Council approved, changing the name of “L” Street to Harding, “M” street to Coolidge, “O” Street to Hoover Street, and “P” Street to Delano.  Delano slipped in because there was already a Roosevelt Street and a Franklin Avenue.  (Delano, by the way, is just North of Hennepin and in proper historic sequence.)

All this comes to mind as Northeasters prepare for the fifth annual We Love Our President’s Walk scheduled for Saturday, February 16.   It’s a tradition!

Participants, walkers, bikers, even pets will gather at 10:00 a.m. at Edison High School (between Washington and Monroe).  The Northeast Urban 4-H Club will lead walkers up Central;  along the way they will stop at designated points to share trivia about the presidents.

After a stop for hoc chocolate at the Eastside Food Coop walkers will head East on 29th for a hot lunch and program featuring a trivia contest, drawing, prizes and a brief presentation.

What’s new this year at the President’s Walk will be some intrepid bikers and a focus on presidential pets.  There will also be presentation of the coveted 2013 Northeast Presidential Seal to the group with the most participants.  A shuttle bus will transport talkers back to the start of the Walk.

For more information or to volunteer to help with the Walk, contact David Warnest with Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education.  Reach him at 612 668 1515 or David.warnest@mpls.k12.mn.us.

Judge Edward Foote Waite Remembered in Northeast Minneapolis

Children who play and swim in Waite Park, learn at Waite Park School, and live in the Waite Park neighborhood might be interested in know more about Judge Edward Foote Waite (whose name is honored throughout their quiet residential community.  They might wonder about the man whose name is everywhere – and why, when Judge Waite was a elderly man, children from Waite Park School would collect pennies to purchase flowers to take to him on his birthday.

The story of Edward Foote Waite is that of a distinguished Minneapolis leader whose involvement in public affairs covers most of the 20th Century.  Though he lived almost all of his long life in Minneapolis, his roots were distinctly New England.  An editorial in the Minneapolis Tribute described the Judge as “a Yankee intellectual in the great tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes…stern and uncompromising with willful evil…compassionate with the weak and suffering…a man devoted to his duty and to his community…the very best type of the old New England tradition.”   (Jay Edgerton, Minneapolis Tribune, 1-15-50).

Born in 1860 in Norwich, NY Waite migrated to Minnesota in 1888 as a traveling examiner for the pension office, processing applications for pensions from Civil war veterans.  As an examiner Waite gained a reputation for his keen eye in spotting fraudulent claims, a characteristic that did not sit well with the miscreants.

After a brief tenure in private practice Waite was named assistant Hennepin county attorney.  Based on his background as a tenacious fraud-spotter he was appointed to serve as Minneapolis Chief of Police.    The short -term assignment to clean up the department ignited in him a lifetime interest in and commitment to juvenile justice.

Waite was appointed to the city bench in 1904; in 1911 he began his lengthy career as a member of the district court, responsible for juvenile court which remained his first love throughout his judicial career. A proponent of what would be known today as “tough love” he was a strict enforcer of the law who was credited with having helped hundreds of young people.  He once dismissed his detractors by observing that “the better the home surroundings of the boy, the greater the prospects of his being dealt with in a way he and his friends may consider severe.”

The Judge earned a reputation as The Children”s Friend.  A story was told of a boy who had been before him who was quoted as saying “he’s been a bully good friend to me, and there’s a lotta guys would say the same thing. He ain’t one of those stiffies that sets up there and looks at a kid like he was a worm; he comes right where we live.”  (Minneapolis Tribune, 4-28-58)

Judge Waite served on the juvenile bench for twenty years (1911-1921 and 1931-1941)  For over a half century after his 1941 retirement from the bench Judge Waite remained an active community leader.  Working long hours in his office on the 23rd Floor of the Rand Tower Judge Waite explored a range of legal issues in his voluminous publications and speeches. He served as special assistant to the U.S. attorney general to hear the cases of conscientious objects.  Later he was appointed by Governor Luther Youngdahl to the state commission on reform of the state’s divorce laws.  In a significant study of children of divorce he wrote “the child in every divorce case has…ipso facto a status of disadvantage which challenges the judge, and opens to him the duty to reduce it so far as possible.”

Juvenile justice was not Judge Waite’s only interest.  In an important legal treatise  published in 1949 in the Minnesota Law Review Waite wrote eloquently of “Jefferson’s ‘Wall of Separation’, What and Where”. In that article he raises the hypothetical question:  “In what sense, if at all, is this ‘a Christian nation’?  Is there ‘a wall of separation between church and state’ and if so, where is it, and what really does it separate?”  He poses and ponders the paradox without overtly answering his own question.

Tbroughout Judge Waite’s long life one of his greatest concerns was the condition of minorities in Minneapolis.  Well into his 90’s he wrote an article for the Minnesota Law Review on racial segregation in the public schools.  He stressed that the “fundamental crying need is for people to put out of their minds prejudices growing out of such accidents as race, religion and creed.”

After Waite’s death the name of the Elliot Park House at 2215 Park Avenue was changed to the Edward Foote Waite House, a move the Judge had halted during his life, admitting to the Elliot Park Board that  “After I’m dead, of course, I’ll have no control over what you do.”  (Minneapolis Star 10-22-56)

Apparently Judge Waite did not protest, or his protests fell on deaf ears,  when, in 1949, the Park Board designated the land referred to as the “Cary-Cavell site as Waite Park.   Waite School opened in September 1950, a unique collaborative project between the Minneapolis School and Park Boards.

The years did not slow the activities of Judge Waite.  After the death of his wife in 1935 Waite lived alone until his last years when a niece came to help him.  For his entire adult life he lived at 2009 Queen Avenue in South Minneapolis., conveniently close to downtown for an energetic jurist who never owned a car.

At his 95th birthday party he mused that, if he had his life to live over again, he “should hope’” he would make some changes…. Apparently one thing he would do different was to keep up his membership in the American Bar Association – at age 96 re-upped his membership, becoming the oldest applicant in the history to the ABA

Judge Waite died in 1958 at age 98.  Judges from Minneapolis municipal and Hennepin county district courts were honorary pall-bearers at the memorial services held at Plymouth Congregational Church where the Judge was a lifetime member and leader.

Northeasters can be proud that , though Judge Edward Foote Waite did not live in Northeast, his name, his wisdom and his progressive ideas life on in the neighborhood that bears his name.

 

 

 

Journalist, Lincoln Biographer Josiah Gilbert Holland Remembered in Northeast Minneapolis

Holland Neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis is unique in many ways, starting with the name itself.  The neighborhood is named for the late great Holland School, which had roots dating back the original Holland, a one-room schoolhouse where Northeast children learned their ABC’s and good citizenship until construction in 1886 of a handsome three-story school at 17th and Washington was replaced in 1969, only to be closed in 2000.  Though the proud story of Holland School needs to be told, the connection is here is that the Neighborhood still bears the name.

About the name “Holland.”  Forget the images of Dutch settlers, wooden shoes and tulips.  Holland School and Holland Neighborhood share as a namesake one Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881), American novelist, editor, essayist, biographer and poet. Though lost in the dust of the nation’s literary history today, Holland was famous in his day and a logical choice for founders of Holland School eager to embrace this nation’s literary accomplishments, particularly Holland’s infamous biography of Abraham Lincoln.

A New Englander by birth, Josiah Gilbert Holland grew up in a family that both poor and pious.  After an unsuccessful attempt to establish a medical practice in Springfield, Massachusetts, he took a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia and later Vicksburg Mississippi.    In 1850 he returned to Massachusetts where he become an editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper.  His literary career began with publication in book form of a collection of essays he had written during the 1850’s and early 1860’s.   He proceeded to write well-received historic novels and essays which he published under the pseudonym Timothy Titcomb.

Holland’s name and fame went viral after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It is said that Holland arrived in Springfield, Illinois, within days of Lincoln’s assassination.   For reasons that are not clear he was selected to deliver the eulogy for Lincoln in the President’s home state.  In that eulogy Holland brilliantly captured the essence of the President in these words:  “From the first moment of his (Lincoln’s) introduction to national notice, he assumed nothing but duty…I do not think that it ever occurred to Mr. Lincoln that he was a ruler.  More emphatically than any of his predecessors did he regard himself as the servant of the people.”

Based on the public endorsement of Holland’s eulogy, the journalist was soon selected to write a biography of the President.  In short order Holland produced a monumental biography of the beloved leader.  He hailed Lincoln’s military expertise and named him “ the liberator of a race”.  He also described Lincoln as “unattractive in person, awkward in deportment, unrestrained in conversation, a story-lover and story-teller, much of the society around him held him in ill-disguised contempt.”  The greatness of Lincoln, he said, “lay in how the contempt never seemed to generate in him a feeling of revenge, or stir him to thoughts of bitterness.”

Holland’s work was – and in some circles is – recognized as a “landmark” work, “the first of any substantial length as a biography, the first with any aspirations to comprehensiveness, and a best seller of 100,000 copies that was published in several languages.”  In fact, Holland had never met Lincoln, a fact he turned into a positive, suggesting that he created the first life of the “inner Lincoln.”

The biography of Lincoln stirred a mighty controversy when the fact checkers of the 1860’s discounted Holland’s depiction of Lincoln as a deeply devout Christian whose ethics were based on Christian principles.  Some observers of the era also suggest that the mid-Westerners of Lincoln’s home area were not enthused about a writer from the East presuming to analyze the forces that influenced the President.  In the long-term Holland’s research into Lincoln’s ancestry and early life, based in large part by first-hand accounts of relatives who knew the Lincoln family, add a unique perspective to the public’s understanding of the assassinated president.

In spite of the critics, Holland’s biography of Lincoln sold 100,000 copies to readers around the globe.  Those who enjoy stories of Lincoln’s life, particularly those who know something of the Holland connection, will enjoy a scholarly article entitled “Holland’s Informants: The construction of Josiah Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln.”  The text of this intriguing story is available online.  The first chapter of Holland’s The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1866) is also available online through Wikisource.

In 1868, while his biography of Lincoln was still selling well in spite of the critics, Holland traveled to Europe.  The tour proved life changing when on that trip he met and established a working relationship with Russell Smith.  Together they conceived the idea of starting a magazine, the nucleus of a plan they eventually shared with established publisher Charles Scribner.  The result was the 1870 publication of Scribner’s Monthly (later Century Magazine), edited by Josiah Gilbert Holland.

An interesting story about Holland’s personal life concerns the friendship he and his wife Elizabeth Luna Chapin Holland formed with the poet Emily Dickinson.   The couple visited Dickinson’s home at Amherst many times; the record of their frequent correspondence suggests a close friendship.  It is said that “what Emily Dickinson most admired in Holland was that he was ‘so simple, so believing’ and made God seem ‘so sunshiny.’”

Though during his lifetime Holland’s books sold more than a half million volumes, Holland the writer is lost in the annals of 19th Century literati.  Still, in the late 1880’s, when Holland School was the educational hope of Northeast families, Holland’s was a household word.  His works were on library shelves and in countless homes.  No doubt the educators and political leaders who had the privilege of naming public buildings deliberated at length the challenge to select just the right namesake for the new school building in Northeast.  Who better than a renowned journalist and historian whose major work honored the beloved President?

Little did they know in 1866 that, though Holland School, known for preparing generations of Northeasters, would be no more – but that the name of Holland would be honored in the vitality of the 21st Century Holland Neighborhood, thriving as it is today at the epicenter of the Northeast Arts community.

Holland would likely enjoy the timeliness of the message, if not the chauvinism, of this quoted from his poem Wanted:

God give us men.  The time demands

Strong minds, great hearts, true faith, and willing hands;

Men whom the lust of office does not kill;

Men whom the oils of office cannot buy;

Men who possess opinions and a will;

Men who have honor; men who will not lie;

Men who can stand before a demagogue

And dam his treacherous flatteries without winking;

Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog

In public duty and in private thinking.

 

     

 

 

 

For many Northeasters, the ones that call themselves Tommies, the 90th Anniversary of the opening of Edison High School evokes memories at classmates, football games, pranks, teachers, a collapsed roof and countless legends that will be rehashed at the Alumni Reunion set for early October.

For Northeast newbies, a term that embraces several decades, Edison is a handsome building, a site for great theater and music, home of outstanding athletes, and the alma mater of friends and neighbors.

Celebration of Edison’s 90 years offers Northeasters of every era and every age a chance to reflect on the role that Edison has and continues to play in history and daily life of every Northeaster.

Ninety years ago the people of Minneapolis, many of them newcomers to this country, were eager to demonstrate their patriotism.  The names of public buildings and streets in Northeast reflect that national pride and the community’s rich heritage of new Americans in search of a better life for themselves and their families.  1922 saw a Post-WWI mood that buried the horror the War and ushered in the Roaring 20’s – as well as the first students at Edison High School.

Inventor, marketer and pioneer Thomas Alva Edison epitomized the American way.  His genius reflected a unique blend of the finest American traits – creativity, persistence, market development that involved creating, then meeting, customer demand for his products. Edison, who held that he found his great pleasure “in the work that precedes what the world calls success” set a tone that blended hard work with a spirit of hope that would inspire the young learners attending the high school set on the site of Long John’s Pond between Jackson and Monroe.

In a 1927 article reviewing the first years of Edison High School, two juniors in Mrs. Edith Gillies’ magazine class (Mildred Anderson and Tyrus Hillway) reflected on their experiences.  They boast of Edison’s athletic prowess, including the 1923 cross-country championship as well as success in “all fields of competition: typing, athletics, music, literature, many more.”

They also praised students’ involvement in shaping the new school by landscaping, decorating the building and establishing an extensive library “one more monument of student creation. It has steadily grown larger, until now it has on its shelves 5,400 volumes with the greatest school fiction library in the city.”  In five years, the young journalists report,   “some twenty active clubs have sprung up and prospered since the school’s first year.

Writing in May 1933 issue of The Parent-Teacher Broadcaster, Calman Kish, President of the Edison Student Council, measured the early success of Edison with a critical eye: “To teach students to live, how to co-operate, how to prepare themselves to take their places in the world are an essential part of the program of Edison High School.”  Kish went on to note that “a few months after the school opened its doors, the system of student government was firmly established at Edison High School by Louis C. Cook, first and only principal of the school.”

Cooperation, civic engagement and preparation for life are the hallmarks of Edison’s heritage, essential in a learning environment that has embraced waves of immigrant learners.  It is nearly eighty years since young Calman Kish wrote “the emotional, passionate blood of Italy, the sensitive refinement of France, the practical genius of England, the scientific mind of Germany, the steadying and sturdy influence of Scandinavia, the musical talent of Russia and Austria, the gayety and jollity of Spain – all blended and molded in the melting pot of Edison High School into characteristics truly individual, truly American. From Turkey, Roumania, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Portugal, Finland – from thirty three nations have come the parents of the students of our school, the most cosmopolitan group to be found in all of the high schools of Minneapolis.” (1933)

Though Kish’s characterization is no doubt political passé, his observations are prescient.  In the more recent past Edison has opened its doors and shaped the lives of new waves of new Americans – from Serbia, Laos, Mexico, Ecuador, Somalia and dozens of other nations.

One lasting tribute to the power of “unity with diversity” is the mural that surrounds Edison’s auditorium.  For two years Edison art students worked to paint 32-in-square “stamps” that represent many of the cultures in Edison’s student population.  Edison students and visitors stop today to admire and interpret the meaning of those murals.

Another lasting tribute to the spirit of Edison is the accomplishments of Edison graduates.  Inspired by learning in an environment rich in diversity, the arts, and a “can do” spirit. Tommies are innovators.  Practiced in participatory decision-making, they are leaders in the neighborhood, the city and the state political arenas.  Proud of their American heritage, they have served their country in war and peace.  Introduced at an impressionable age to the arts, literature, music and lifelong learning habits, they are informed, engaged, contributing members of their communities – for many that community remains Northeast Minneapolis.

 

WPA’s Legacy Shapes the Landscape of Minnesota and of Northeast Minneapolis

There’s talk these days that what this nation/state/city needs is a 21st Century Work Progress Administration (WPA).  It’s short-hand for what is, in fact, an incredibly complex story of a Depression era program of immense import to the participants and their families, to the economy, and to every American today.

Instinctively, mention of WPA conjures images of bridges, roads, buildings and other concrete (literally) memorials to the work of thousands of men and women who improved the physical infrastructure of the nation.  In part this is because those physical structures remain and the “WPA” stamp is an enduring reminder of who did the work.

One remarkable aspect of the WPA initiative is the less visible but equally lasting impact on the lives of people who were struggling through treacherous economic times.  The goal was to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.  As one recorder of WPA activities wrote in 1942, “The Work Projects Administration helped to solve the problems of the family and the city.”

The WPA was authorized in 1935 under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the inspiration and guidance of his adviser Harry Hopkins.  Framed as an outgrowth of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration WPA focused on economic recovery and on the absolute commitment to the value of a real job.  Though critics charged that WPA was a government handout, the truth is that WPA workers improved the health and welfare of millions of Americans who learned new skills, tried out ideas, and left a positive imprint of solid construction and implementation of essential community services.

During WPA’s  eight years Americans invested $13.4 billion dollars. In Minneapolis 70,000 men and women found gainful work, education and creative opportunities through WPA. When WPA was dissolved in 1943 it was not failure of the program but a more robust economy buoyed by the harsh reality that American men and women had found defense-related employment.

One hallmark of WPA was that it was largely operated by state and local governments.  Local agencies which provided 10-30% of costs worked closely with and nonprofits and community organization that played a major role in developing and delivering services.

Begun as an economic development/employment project WPA shifted with the tides of time.  As American workers found jobs in industry, labor unions worried less about their members losing jobs to WPA workers; this opened the way for WPA to venture into vocational training.  As visionaries worried about the loss of creative talent and feared that writers, artists, musicians were given unskilled labor jobs, programs in the arts emerged.  Later, as War overwhelmed the nation, existing programs were repositioned in terms of defense preparedness.

The diversity, complexity and shifting direction of WPA programs is hard to categorize. Though they are variously grouped, the WPA programs fall generally into the categories of Construction and Community Service.

Construction

Minneapolitans live in a city built with the labor of WPA workers, working for no more than $8/hour and grateful to have a job to go to in the Depression era.  A shining example of their work is the Minneapolis Armory, built in 1935, probably the most important building constructed in the Twin Cities during the Depression.

The Armory is known as the nation’s shining example of Moderne style.  Its very existence depends to some extent on the fact that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Armory construction brought $300,000 into the local market while it employed over 400 tradesmen.  All of the materials for the building were produced locally, in keeping with principles of WPA projects – steelwork by Minneapolis Moline and Gillette-Herzog, brick from Twin City Brick, granite from St Cloud and limestone from Mankato.

The Armory is just one stunning example of the physical impact of WPA . Some basic statistics describe the scope:  WPA workers built eleven new city garages and reconditioned five new parks, 68 playgrounds and eight high school athletic fields enlarged and improved 14 branch and main libraries, built or repaired sewers, alleys, curbs and gutters repaired, repaved thirty miles of street and built ten new bridges.  They also installed nearly 65,000 street and traffic signs.  You get the idea.

Other construction highlights include these:

  • Columbia Golf Course, which dates from the early 1900’s,  is one WPA project with which most Northeasters are familiar.  Golfers enjoy the upgraded grass greens created by WPA workers.  The improved greens actually helped Columbia to continue to operate, though at a loss, during hard times.
  • Another local hallmark of WPA is John P. Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights which began as a WPA project at a cost of $649,407.  Originally known as Columbia Heights Field House, the hall served da community center for the people of Columbia Heights.  The first official event at Murzyn was the January 28 Birthday Ball to celebrate Washington’s Birthday in 1939. Murzyn Hall continues to serve the community as the site of countless dances and other activities and a popular locus for weddings and other important family and community celebrations.
  • Wold-Chamberlain, then one of the largest in the country, enjoyed a major rehab subsidized with $2 million federal funds and the labors of hundreds of WPA workers.  The construction include 30,000 feet of new runway, new hangers, grading for a new naval base and more.
  • Liberal grants of federal funds and WPA labor benefitted the Minneapolis Municipal River Terminal
  • The Minnesota Soldiers Home got a new power plant along with extensive landscaping and sidewalk construction.
  • The Longfellow House was rehabbed and converted into a public library, now a charming museum and reminder of an earlier Minneapolis
  • The “belt line highway” remains a major thoroughfare that still bears the mark of the WPA workers who provided a sixty-foot main highway 66 miles long, “flanked on each side by walks and service drives.”  The goal was to “enable motorists from the west to enter the heart of Minneapolis at the most advantageous point, with minimum confusion and maximum safety.”
  • The city’s proud heritage of beautiful parks owes a debt to WPA workers who established five new parks and reconditioned thirteen others. They built five new parks and added bath houses and landscaping to Lake Calhoun and Lake Hiawatha.  The beauty of Theodore Wirth and Minnehaha Park tells the WPA story writ large.
  • They remodeled the interior of the Minneapolis auditorium and rehabbed numerous court houses offices.
  • Workers reconditioned 22 municipal buildings including seven fire and four police stations.
  • General Hospital and the University hospital received assistance for a total of 155 WPA construction workers.
  • WPA workers worked in a quieter environment to conduct a geodetic survey of Minneapolis “to determine the precise locations of boundaries and geographic points so that the city’s future may be planned intelligently and precisely.”  The report of the survey is that the “geodetic maps are accurate within an inch and less. The project is closely allied to the U.S. coastal and geodetic survey.
  • Of particular interest to Northeasters are the five greens that WPA workers constructed at the Columbia Heights Golf Course.
  • The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are not exactly Minneapolis but as the home of the Great Minnesota Get Together the Fairgrounds belong to all of us – and to WPA we all owe a debt of gratitude to the WPA workers who built the swine and horse barns, the poultry building, the cattle barn ramp, the 4_H building, with improvements to the grandstand, parking areas and the grounds – all at a cost of $2 million federal funds.

Minneapolitans who walk, drive, fly, learn, play sports or just enjoy the beauty of a city park or other public space have a WPA worker and a progressive administration to thank for the vision that merged the economic vitality of the community with the needs of a family for a steady, if minimum, income and a worker who is proud of day’s work well done.

Community Services 

One chronicler of WPA notes that, “everyone can watch the construction of a new school or a bridge in his community, see the men at work, and recognize the value of this work to himself and his fellow man.  The value of this [community service] work aimed at the educational, recreational, and cultural needs of the people as well as at their physical health and well being, is more difficult to determine.”  Still, the reporter observes, it is essential to record “what this work means in time of peace and its increased possibilities in time of national emergency.”

A quick survey of the community service programs of WPA offers a superficial hint at the truth of this observation:

1) Education.   High on the list of programs is adult education, broadly defined.  Americanization classes were a key “defense activity.” Governor Stassen observed that “such classes are a distinct aid to national unity – they help to extend the friendly hand of a free people to those who desire to become one with us.”

Other adult education programs focused on literacy assistance geared to “making Minnesota the most literate state in the union.”  Assistance went to local school boards to establish “Junior Extension colleges.”

Vocational courses such as shorthand and typing, navigation and life boat practices, first aid and safety, dressmaking and dramatics also got WPA support.  Vocational courses included foreign languages, radio code, diesel engineering and just about anything related to national defense.

There were courses in practical skills such as public speaking and parliamentary law as well as special programs in handicrafts for “shut-ins” who learned skills to create products to sell.  Homebound teachers reached children with disabilities who had never been to school

Numerous other programs came under the broadly-defined education activities:

  • Nursery schools were another priority.  By 1941 over 1000 “under-privileged children ages 2-5 were enrolled in 29 nursery schools in 22 communities including several Indian reservations.
  • Children’s health was a major concern as WPA provided yearly examinations and other health measures including smallpox vaccinations, diphtheria inoculations and Mantoux tests for thousands of children.
  • The women’s WPA sewing project employed nearly 500 women in Minneapolis.  The efficient manufacturing organization was a model of efficiency, so efficient that it was threatened because the women had produced enough clothing to serve the relief department’s distribution needs for up to seven years.  At one point it was rumored that the clothing might go to England as part of the lease-lend program.
  • WPA played a significant role in the extension of public library service to a million unserved Minnesotans.  WPA opened 167 new book stations, served nearly 3000,000 Minnesotans without nearby libraries and registered 37, 117 new borrowers.
  • Under the supervision of Gratia Countryman and working at Trudeau School 183 WPA workers indexed the Minneapolis Star Journal from its beginning and microfilmed the Minneapolis Journal for the years 1878-1939.  The project also provided braille textbooks and texts in large print.
  • WPA workers were visible in school libraries.  Though many were placed as librarians in the schools, others restored thousands of damaged books and magazines – everything from repairing book bindings to erasing finger smudges from the margins.
  • Over 900 WPA workers served recreation projects serving 200 communities in 76 Minnesota counties throughout the state.  Again, emphasis was on long-term recreation programming couched in terms of national defense.

2) Arts.  The most lasting of the WPA community service are programs in the arts – visual arts, music, writing and museums.  The impact of these programs is evident and powerful sixty years later.  The Federal Writers Project and the WPA Artists Project clearly have lives of their own.

Federal arts Project:  In Minneapolis the imprint of the Federal Arts Project is pronounced.  WPA-supported visual artists created paintings, sculpture and murals in public buildings as well as easel paintings and graphic arts for public agencies.  Artists worked in realistic styles and chose familiar subjects such as cityscapes, farm scenes, people at work and play to create a portrait of Minnesota life in the era.  The murals at the Minneapolis Armory are perhaps the most evident. The Armory houses two of the few remaining examples of Federal Arts Project murals, large frescoed murals by local artists Elsa Jemne and Lucia Wiley. In recent years both the Minnesota History Center and the Weismann Museum have mounted exhibits of Federal Art Project works.

The program also included free classes for all age groups and rotating exhibits of national and local art works.  At the Walker Art Center scores of workers conducted art classes and activities for hundreds of children and adults.

Federal Writers Project.  In Minnesota as in other states the emphasis in the Writers Project was to communicate the state’s history, folklore, stories, culture and more to the written page.  Writers collected manuscripts and plumbed the memories of pioneers.  They recorded and organized thousands of stories that live today in books, libraries and particularly in the American Memory Project sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Of particular interest to Northeasters is one of these books, The Bohemian Flats, first published through WPA in 1941.  It’s the story of a small, isolated community that lay on the west bank of the Mississippi, tucked underneath the Washington Avenue bridge  From the 1779’s to the 1940’s the village was a home to generations of immigrants  – Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Irish, Polish and especially Slovaks.  The book continues to be published, expanded and read.

Another visible WPA project is publication of Minnesota: A State Guide, part of the American Guide Series and still in print.  A fascinating story about the Guidebook is the controversy it caused when right wingers charged that it and similar guidebooks from other states were actually community propaganda.

Hundreds of photographs taken by WPA workers are now digitized and online through the Minneapolis Central Library. Photographs of neighborhood churches, monuments, landscapes and more are an essential visual record of the city as it was in the late 1930’s.

Music project. Emphasis of the Minnesota Music Project was to bring the educational, cultural and entertainment values of living music to communities who could not otherwise had had these advantages.  The project included summer band concerts and music for community singing, band clinics for young musicians, and radio concerts broadcast over the University of Minnesota radio station.

250 musicians were employed oin twelve units throughout the state – one symphony orchestra, two concert bands, one “negro” chorus, a teacher’s project, a copyist project and six small bands.  In addition WPA supported an experimental project in music therapy at the University of Minnesota Hospital

3) Research and records.  Though the work sounds tedious, the impact of the research and records programs of WPA are used every day by Minnesotans.  The project included several elements focused on arranging, indexing or improving essential records;  neglected in boom times the records are of long-time importance for administrative and research purposes as well as to Minneapolis-born residents who want to find their own birth records or those of their forbearers.

One major records project was the Historical Records Survey designed for the use it gets today by public officials, attorneys, students of political scientists and researchers.  WPA workers surveyed public archives, the records and history of organizations, from churches and cemeteries to social organizations, objects and places, including monuments, historic sites, trails and Indian burials and mounds., manuscripts and more.  Today the Survey is a research staple.

Some 800 workers were employed at the state and county levels to refurbish, list, revise, extend, index and otherwise improve private records.  Workers also created a variety of maps for every incorporated village and city in the state, including maps of real property.  Today Minneapolitans can research their house history by referring to the WPA survey of Minneapolis homes and residents including the condition of the building and yard, the type of heating, whether the house had running water, sewer connections, mechanical refrigerator or ice box, the number of residents in the home, their ethnicity, nationality and occupation.

Minnesota’s Historical Records Survey identified and organized local public records such as the names of local officials, the function of each office and the records of historic buildings and sites.  WPA workers assisted in the development of research studies including surveys of the safest routes for school children, real estate activity surveys, income studies and the Minneapolis fire hazard survey which revealed and led to the correction of thousands of fire hazards.

Research was also a priority at public higher education institutions.  WPA supported technical undertakings, many related to national defense. The main and “farm” campuses of the University of Minnesota were at the forefront of WPA implementation.  Some 460 WPA workers worked on over one hundred project in the fields of science, history, medicine, technology and others.  Workers assisted in research several projects tied to national defense, including studies of sulfa’s use in treating wounds, burns and infections, elements of high explosives, the strength of aircraft materials.

Conclusion

Whether or not a WPA-type project is appropriate to meeting the economic and social challenges of today, the history of the initiative is a rich sources of ideas proposed, projects planned and implemented, concrete results that can be measured in terms of the degree to which they have met the test of time.

Note:  This article was written for and published in The Northeaster, the community newspaper of Northeast Minneapolis.  Much of the material in this article is based on reports by and to WPA officials.  Of particular value was the 1041 report to the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration, published by the Work Projects Administraton of Minnesota.    Also important was a 1939 report by the State Administrator, Linus C. Glotzbach, prepared for Colonel F.C. Harrington, director of WPA.  A 1942 guide prepared for Social Studies Teachers, prepared with the assistance of the WPA, was also very useful 

These reports and countless others are available at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections.