North Star Journey

New book puts history of racial exclusion in Minnesota in 'plain view'

Author Chad Montrie writes that white residents' efforts to segregate or drive out people of color have led to current racial disparities

An author photo and book cover art.
Chad Montrie is the author of "Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota."
Courtesy photos

For "Whiteness in Plain View: A History of Racial Exclusion in Minnesota," Chad Montrie, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, researched how white Minnesotans used legal and illegal means to prevent people of color from coming to the state, to drive them out or segregate them. 

Montrie spoke with MPR News editor Brandt Williams. The interview has been edited. 

Montrie: Whiteness, the way that I'm describing, is what is achieved from racial exclusion. And so I don't mean it in an abstract conceptual or philosophical sense, but the actual result or consequence of white people excluding African Americans, or at least keeping them contained in an area in a town or particular place in a city.

Is whiteness the same as white supremacy?

No, I don't think it's the same as white supremacy. But people's ideas about themselves as a race, I think, in the case of white people thinking of themselves as at the top of some kind of racial hierarchy is what motivates them or what's prompting them to practice racial exclusion.

How do you go from the history of exclusion in Minnesota, to the current disparities that we see today?

What that [exclusion] means for white people oftentimes is that they have certain privileges that come with it. They have access to better-funded schools, they maybe are more connected in terms of social networks that allow them to have some kind of social economic mobility. And they also can buy houses, which over a course of several generations means they're building up home equity, which is federally subsidized, and they're gaining economic mobility that way. And that means that they're going to have more wealth after that many generations in comparison to African Americans who are the people denied that kind of access to homeownership. 

With segregated neighborhoods, you have segregated schools, how did that impact the current disparities that we see in education?

Well, I guess maybe my way of connecting racial exclusion to disparities in education now is more like in terms of where people live and what kind of funding the schools get in the places where they live. And also what kind of wealth does a family have and what does that wealth mean in terms of enabling them to provide a better education for their kids or to survive or to get through hardships? So if somebody has a serious medical issue or health problem in a family, does that bankrupt the family? Or does the family make it through because they can draw on that wealth that they've acquired through time in terms of having a history in the generations preceding, of homeownership? 

What’s an example of how racial restrictive covenants were used to exclude Black people?

The Minneapolis suburb of Edina was originally an interracial farming village, sort of a rare example of African Americans and whites living together and not only just living adjacent to one another, but being actually integrated. Black people were involved in the Grange (an early farmer’s union); involved in schools, involved in governments, people socializing together. But as people sold off their farmland for suburbs, the Thorpe brothers who developed the Country Club district put racial restrictive covenants on all of their houses, which said that that property couldn't be sold to someone who was not Caucasian.  The only African American residents allowed were domestic workers for those households.

A blackface performance in a black and white photograph
A blackface minstrel show held at Edina High School in the 1950s.
Courtesy of Edina Historical Society

In the beginning of the book, you describe how violence determined where people of color could live. 

There are different examples where whites used violence to either remove African Americans who were there, and then also having used violence, having a reputation in that community that this is what could happen if anyone tries to violate the color line again. So in Austin, for instance, there's a railroad workers strike in the 1920s. White strikebreakers were there and white people didn't run the strikebreakers out of town until the Black strikebreakers showed up. The newspaper in Austin reports that people were saying to the crowd, “Do you want your town to be a Negro town?”   And so that is as much about removing African Americans than it is trying to support the strike. 

Are there other names of people that you came across that you feel like, 'more people should know about this person?'  

A family photo with five people
Matthew Carter (right) and his family, Tony (left) Bill, Kai, and Helen in a family portrait. Carter faced discrimination as he tried to buy property and build a house along the lakeshore in Duluth.
Courtesy Photo from Carter family

Matthew Carter in Duluth. And people will know more about him because he and his wife were part of an effort to desegregate an area along the lakeshore in Duluth. 

Carter, who moved to Chicago from Georgia, married his wife, and then they moved to Duluth. He was working on a lake boat.  They decided that they wanted to move from the apartment they originally moved to but they can't get anything to rent.  [White people] would just tell him, ‘No, I'm not renting my apartment to you.’ Or they would just not answer the door. 

Carter decided to buy some land that he liked. The guy that was selling the land, who was white, would not sell it to him. So then he got a straw purchaser, a local white minister to buy [the property] on London Road.  

Then he tried to get the permit to build a house on the land. The neighbor organized to stop him by saying it would cause ‘traffic problems.’

He persisted. People stole the plywood. That slowed him down a little bit. They finally built the house. And there were a couple of cases during the night in the next couple of years where whites came and spray-painted racist graffiti on his house. 

Are there people who pushed back to change laws or policies? 

A black and white photo of three people.
Josie Johnson as a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents during a meeting in 1972.
Courtesy of University of MN Archives

Well, the most important is Josie Johnson, who really is the reason why there was a fair housing law in 1961. There were people who had been organizing to get fair housing legislation in Minneapolis, as well as St. Paul, to have local municipal legislation. And that wasn't really going anywhere, mostly because the city attorneys were coming back with reports saying that if you said that someone couldn't discriminate on the basis of race or sell their property to whoever they wanted, then you are taking away their property rights.

And Johnson had allies in the state government. And she intervened and got the governor to also intervene with the Senate committee that's holding the [fair housing] bill. They moved the bill out and the state legislature passed it. 

In researching the book, did you come across something that astounded you?

I was doing my research in Edina. The archivist brought out an envelope and said, ‘you're gonna want to look at these.’  

It was a set of black and white glossy photographs of blackface minstrel shows being performed at the Edina High School in the 1950s. Just seeing these pictures, there's something really shocking about it.  There's a way in which I can get wrapped up in the storytelling I'm trying to do and I began to maybe think of it as an abstract thing. And those pictures made what was going on in Edina very real.