You know St. Paul's mayor — now meet his dad in a new autobiography

Melvin Carter Jr. joined the St. Paul police force in 1974.
Melvin Carter Jr. joined the St. Paul Police Department in 1974 and served nearly 40 years on the force, initially one of only a handful of black officers among the ranks. The department initially had to waive its height requirement to let him on.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

Melvin Carter is out with a new book about his life. Not St. Paul's mayor, mind you — that's Melvin Carter III — but his father.

Melvin Carter Jr. is a force in his own right, a son of a son of St. Paul, Navy sailor, boxer, musician and for decades, a well-known St. Paul cop.

The book cover to 'Diesel Heart.'
The book cover to "Diesel Heart."
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

His new autobiography, titled "Diesel Heart," sets Carter's life as an inflection point, between America's often ignoble racial past and its most hopeful future.

It opens at a reunion picnic in Texas in 1954, when he remembers meeting his great-great grandmother. Clara May Smith was a woman, "so ancient that nobody knew how old she was," Carter said in an interview.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

She was old enough, however, to have been born a slave. Her family still picked cotton in fields nearby and Carter recalled pitching in to help as a boy while visiting his Texas cousins.

But his own roots were in Minnesota. His father, known as "Chick," was a railroad porter and jazz trumpeter, who met Carter's mother at a gig in San Diego. They married and raised their family in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, struggling with its own racial legacy. The family home on Rondo Avenue and the barbershop they owned next door were among the black-owned properties torn down to make way for Interstate 94.

"We moved off of there like 1958. But go to the library, get a copy of the 1936 St. Paul map, the whole Rondo area was officially assigned the title of Negro Slums. So you can imagine that didn't do the value of the property any good at all," Carter said.

Like many of their displaced neighbors, the family got virtually nothing in return for their property and Carter says his son still has a collection of the property records detailing the toll the interstate took on his family and St. Paul's black community.

Melvin Carter Jr. with his three children.
Melvin Carter Jr. with his three children, including future St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III, at home in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

But change was coming. Carter followed his father into the Navy, integrated since Chick Carter fueled World War II submarines and played his horn with a band of black sailors. The younger Carter served at communications station in Morocco and boxed in his spare time. A Navy doctor once told him his heart was like a diesel engine, giving Carter the eventual title for his autobiography. The book cover shows a photo of Carter in the boxing ring knocking down a member of Morocco's Olympic team.

Carter returned home after his military service and followed his dad into music, playing trumpet with his brother, Mark, in their band the "Show Pushers." They played gigs in front of Jackie Wilson, the Staples Singers and even Prince. Carter's future wife, Willetha "Toni" Parker, sang in another musical group.

When his parents kicked him out of the house, a neighborhood friend — future St. Paul police Chief Bill Finney — convinced him that a federal court order to integrate meant the police department had a place for him.

Carter said his own checkered past, including a few stints in jail, had left him with little appreciation for law enforcement. But he took the job. He said some of his police colleagues and even fellow St. Paul residents were unwelcoming. He recalled some crime victims and even perpetrators asking to wait until a white officer could deal with them.

Melvin Carter Jr.'s Navy boot camp photo.
Melvin Carter Jr. followed his father into the Navy in 1968. This is his boot camp photo.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

Carter quit at one point, but he said the pull to serve drew him back.

"You go back to the original intent of policing. It's intended to be intimate. Transporting children, delivering babies, finding children, assisting senior citizens. And when you call someone to your home, you need somebody to come there with respect — not just because they have a gun and a badge," Carter said.

He was eventually promoted to sergeant and a SWAT officer. He said he had struggles along the way, including a legal settlement and a high-profile misconduct complaint that was eventually disproven.

Carter retired in 2003 and founded a social service nonprofit. His wife became the state's first elected black county commissioner, and his son won election, first to the City Council and then to City Hall's corner office. Melvin Carter III is the city's first African-American mayor.

Melvin Carter Jr. and his family in 1962.
Melvin Carter Jr. at upper left, with his parents Melvin and Billie, two sisters and three brothers, in a family portrait in 1962.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

Carter says his book is a reflection of not just his own story, but of how African-Americans changed America, stretching back from the living legacy of his great, great-grandmother's birth into slavery, through generations of struggle to a new, still imperfect equality.

"As I went through various parts of this story, I thought of myself maybe in the context of Anne Frank. Here she is just this little girl way up in a building someplace, writing about what's happening right outside her window, at the same time, she's chronicling things that are impacting, and happening all around the whole globe. Very important, very significant things," Carter said.

The Minnesota Historical Society is celebrating Carter's work with a book launch at St. Paul's Hallie Q. Brown Center Wednesday at 7 p.m.