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ChangeMakers: Pamela Alexander, first black woman judge in MN, sees gaps and opportunities

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Retired Judge Pamela Alexander sits for a portrait.
Retired Judge Pamela Alexander sits for a portrait at MPR in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every weekday in February, MPR News is featuring black Minnesotans making history to celebrate Black History Month.

Retired Hennepin County Judge Pamela Alexander, 66, is a fourth-generation Minnesotan and the first black female judge in Minnesota. 

Her interest in law was sparked at a young age when she witnessed the rape of her best friend and testified in court. 

She was fascinated by the process and was treated kindly by the judge. Her mother found Joyce Hughes, a young, black lawyer who Alexander could shadow. She sat in on meetings with clients, swept the floor and took out the trash. 

After getting a bachelor's degree at Augsburg College, Alexander continued her studies under Hughes at the University of Minnesota, where she was a classmate of now-retired  Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.

She was appointed to the Hennepin County Municipal Court in 1983 as the first African-American woman and served until 2008. In 2013, former Gov. Mark Dayton reappointed her to the Fourth Judicial District Court in Minneapolis. She retired in 2018. 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to you to be a black Minnesotan?

The thing that is interesting to me about Minnesota is because we have such a small black population, you can actually grow up — if you're not a person of color —  and never really interact with people of color, which I actually didn't realize growing up because the neighborhood I grew up in was a very integrated neighborhood. There were lots of folks around. But then when I would ... go fishing —  because you know you can't be from Minnesota and not fish —  so we would go to northern Minnesota we'd actually run into people who had never seen black people before. That to me was fairly eye-opening.

I also did a church exchange when I was about 13 years old, where I went and stayed in Pipestone, Minn., and stayed on a horse farm with some lovely people. But we weren't allowed at that time to swim in the swimming pool there because they said 'no we can't have black people swimming in the swimming pool.' So I remember that I was like 'what?'  [It] caused a big uproar ... It's kind of interesting because Minnesota is known as being a very, kind of, liberal state. But then, on the other hand, they can do that because they've never really had a large enough population to really have to deal with all the different issues.

I think it was, it is, a great place to live and a great place with very cohesive communities of color, which has always been great. My dad grew up in the Rondo area [in St. Paul] and my mother grew up in South Minneapolis. The black community has always been very close.

What figures have shaped you into who you are today?

I would say that the person who had obviously the most impact on my legal life was Joyce Hughes, who was my mentor and the lady that I followed around and let me work in her office. She's fantastic. She was quite an influential figure in my life. 

The other person I think would be the biggest influence was my father. My father was an exceedingly avid reader. I think he read absolutely everything. At least two newspapers every day if not three, read lots and lots of books. And you know we didn't have a lot, I grew up in kind of a poor, working-class neighborhood. So we didn't travel a lot, but we were able to read about places through books.  He got me a library card when I was probably in second grade. Books have been a really huge part of my life and really a way that I've learned about the world.

What's your vision for the future of black people in Minnesota?

Now that the population's gotten bigger, I'm concerned about some of the huge gaps that we have here. But I'm also excited about the opportunities that are available for people to become a huge part of this community. 

I mean obviously, we were all thrilled when Mayor [Melvin] Carter  was elected. We were thrilled when Justice [Alan] Page got on the bench. I mean when I started I was the first African-American woman judge. Now there's a bunch of them. I'm happy about that and I think that there is an opportunity if you're prepared for that and can walk through the door and take advantage of those opportunities. 

But, I also think that we're not paying enough attention to our educational gaps. We're not paying enough attention to what we're doing with people who come out of the criminal justice system — to be able to reintegrate them back in and become productive citizens. People can actually really do that. 

I think we need to get rid of some of the collateral consequences and really, kind of put our money where our mouth is and say, OK, if we want everybody to have opportunities where we have to give those opportunities. 

And I think we ought to pay a lot more attention to our children. I think we're kind of letting them down and we need to really put some emphasis behind that. I think once that's done we have an extremely good future.