In the summer of 1967, Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis went up in flames.
Years of simmering tensions over racial discrimination and a lack of economic opportunity boiled over July 19-21, part of a wave of urban unrest cresting across the country that became known as the Long Hot Summer.
Minneapolis viewed itself as progressive on civil rights, although racially restrictive housing covenants and redlining practices kept city neighborhoods segregated. By 1967, African-Americans in Minneapolis were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed.
The unrest that year exposed those realities.
“We considered ourselves, historically, to be tolerant,” former Mayor Art Naftalin told Mpls. St. Paul Magazine in a 1984 interview. “In retrospect, it was an illusion. Our black community was hidden.”
The street violence lasted a couple of days. When it was over, at least 20 fires had been set along a half-mile stretch of Plymouth Avenue with damages at an estimated $1 million. No one was killed, but two people were wounded, one seriously.
Plymouth Avenue was transformed by the destruction.
Some called them riots. Others called it a revolution, uprising or rebellion.
“We said it could not be classified as a riot,” said longtime civil rights activist and educator Josie Johnson. “That was a misdescription. But it was a disturbance, and it was serious for us in Minnesota. Never had anything like that. Never been in a position to express that degree of anger and frustration.”
Plymouth Avenue had once been the commercial heart of a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood where most of the city’s African-Americans lived. It was also home to many Jewish-owned businesses. But even before the Long Hot Summer, the neighborhood was changing.
Jewish people had already begun moving in greater numbers to St. Louis Park and other suburbs. By 1958, only 38 percent of the city’s Jewish population remained on the north side, down from 70 percent in the late 1930s. The 1967 unrest accelerated the flight.
One of the first signs of trouble on Plymouth Avenue started on Wednesday, July 19, 1967, when Knox Food Market was set on fire.
Sylvia Borken ran the store with her husband, David, for two decades. She described the damage to The Minneapolis Star as a “total loss.” The Borkens were among the Jewish merchants who left the north side and did not rebuild.
Ethel and Irving Silver owned Silver’s Food Market at 1711 Plymouth Ave. After their store was destroyed by fire, they sued the city for damages, but the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected their case in an appeal.
In hindsight, Faye Krupp said the loss of her parents’ store was “a godsend.” Two months after the Plymouth Avenue disturbances, a 64-year-old shoemaker was shot and killed in a robbery a block away from where Silver’s had once stood.
“I've always believed that if it hadn't been for the fact that the store burned down my dad would have been working and they probably would have shot and killed him,” said Krupp. “Because I do believe that you're going to get more money at a grocery store than you are at a shoemaker’s shop.”
Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin asked Gov. Harold LeVander to send in the National Guard on July 21, after the conflict had gone on for a day and a half. Josie Johnson, an informal Naftalin adviser, credited the mayor for restraint.
North side resident Sylvia Amos, who had just graduated from high school, said it felt like an invasion. “You’re coming into our community. We didn't have a big piece of it. ... But this little piece is ours.”
To Faye Krupp, whose parents’ grocery store had been robbed at gunpoint more than once, the Guard troops represented safety “after a very long time of being afraid.”
A dance ‘saved the city’
On the night of Friday, July 21, 1967, The Way community center at 1913 Plymouth Ave. organized a street dance with a live band. Verlena Matey-Keke, who worked at The Way during those early years, said the dance “saved the city.”
She credited The Way’s director, Syl Davis, for his role in defusing tensions. “Those kids, man, if he or someone who they listened to had not stepped up and said something and did something to calm them down we would have had a much more volatile situation.”
The dance was held the same night that 150 Guard troops arrived on Plymouth Avenue, where they patrolled for the next four days.
The Way was a new voice and presence in the community. It embraced ideas about black pride and self-determination and also offered free black history classes.
“I think it was created to help us understand what the anger was about and to inform us that we had a right to be angry,” said Matey-Keke, now 75. “It was to teach our youth that they mattered that they were somebody and that they came from a glorious history.”
The Way shuttered in the 1980s. In 1987, the Minneapolis Police Department broke ground on the 4th Precinct headquarters — on the same site where The Way used to sit.
In the conflict’s aftermath, city leaders and north side community members created new institutions focused on health, housing and economic development. Two years later, black students at the University of Minnesota staged a sit-in, known as the Morrill Hall Takeover, which resulted in a new black studies department.
Still, 52 years later, Minnesota continues to live with some of the country’s worst racial disparities.
“We are just beginning to define that what was at work was white supremacy, and that’s still at work,” said Matey-Keke, who serves on the board of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. “That’s what we’re still trying to undo.”