Exhibit explores early effort to desegregate Minneapolis schools

Two people near large graphics painted on a wall.
Co-curators Cindy Booker (right) and Heidi Adelsman pose for a portrait at the Hennepin History Museum’s Separate Not Equal exhibition, which highlights the impact of racial segregation on education in the city, on May 26, 2022.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Updated: 9:11 a.m.

When Heidi Adelsman was in fourth grade, her family told her she’d be going to a new school the next year. It was 1971 and Minneapolis was deeply segregated. Children attended public schools that were either mostly white or mostly Black, and schools with mostly Black students got fewer resources.

Adelsman, who is white, said her family’s home had been built with a racial covenant that legally prohibited anyone who wasn’t white from purchasing the property. She remembers not going to play in the nearest park because it was considered the “Black park.”

Two people near large graphics painted on a wall.
Co-curator Heidi Adelsman reads over an installment in the Separate Not Equal exhibition at the Hennepin History Museum.
Tim Evans for MPR News

“If you lived next to 35W, you couldn’t move south of the racially restricted areas,” Adelsman recalled. “We were living in an apartheid Minneapolis up until the 50s and 60s in some ways. People were very restricted as to where they could live.”

Adelsman is one of the curators behind a new exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum. “Separate Not Equal” tells the story of school desegregation and the pairing of Nathan Hale and Eugene Field elementary schools, which were less than 2 miles apart in south Minneapolis.

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But for Adelsman, the story is not just public history, it’s personal. She was among the white students bused from Hale to Field when desegregation efforts started.

“It was really a wonderful thing for me to go to Field and have classmates that looked like my family. For many of us, for myself and the family that I come from, from our values, it made a big difference in my life.” 

Two people near large graphics painted on a wall.
Co-curator Heidi Adelsman shows a photograph of former Minneapolis school teacher Bessie Griffin.
Tim Evans for MPR News

These were classmates who looked like her African American brother, and that was in addition to a diverse teaching staff and curriculum. Adelsman and her family were excited to be part of the desegregation effort. But she remembers other white families who were against it.

“People would see you in the store and walk away, call your house and say, ‘We’re coming into your house in the middle of the night,’” Adelsman said. “There were some very real threats. This is a very Midwestern form of racism that we don’t want to acknowledge. This is part of what perpetuates our segregation, white supremacy in Minneapolis, I’m afraid — is that we don’t acknowledge this history.” 

Two people near large graphics painted on a wall.
Co-curator Cindy Booker points out a map depicting how Minnehaha Falls served as an informal demarcation for racial segregation in south Minneapolis throughout much of the 20th century.
Tim Evans for MPR News

The exhibit documents pushback from white families, but there are also stories of success — school administrators navigating tricky situations and recruiting a more diverse staff with at least 10 percent teachers of color. And then there were the family and community interactions across racial lines that built new relationships and broke down racist stereotypes.

“There were stereotypes about Field being a ‘less than place,’ … this notion that the African American parents were uneducated at Field,” Adelsman said. “The African American parents at Field had very good jobs and were very educated … There is so much ingrained from white supremacy and racism that we can’t see other people for the human potential and the humanity that we are.” 

Adelsman isn’t the only exhibit curator who lived through the Field-Hale pairing. Cindy Booker, who is Black, was in first grade when her mom got her ready to go to a new school as part of the desegregation effort.

Two people near large graphics painted on a wall.
Co-curator Cindy Booker looks fondly at a photograph of former Minneapolis School Board Member W. Harris Davis, Sr., who played a large role in pushing for educational racial integration.
Tim Evans for MPR News

“My mom kept on saying, school’s going to be different, you’re not going to be able to walk with your brother and your cousins and you’re going to have to take the school bus,” Booker said.

For Booker and her family, the desegregation effort came with wins and losses. She got access to more resources at Hale, but she also spent more time on the bus.

“The white parents and the Black parents with Hale-Field, they came up with a consensus of compromises. Each group got what they needed, not necessarily what they want,” she said. 

Booker, who is one of the exhibit’s curators, said the process of learning the history of desegregation in Minneapolis has revealed important lessons that can be applied now. 

She was recently elected to fill a vacant at-large school board seat for Minneapolis Public Schools. She’s taking many lessons from the exhibit into her new work. Booker was impressed by past leaders’ commitment to design and follow-through on a program that breaks down stereotypes and racial divisions to get Minneapolis communities what they need. 

The exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum runs through the spring of next year.

Correction (June 6, 2022): An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote about busing. The story has been updated.

Correction (June 8, 2022): A previous version had a misspelling of Bessie Griffin’s name in a photo caption. The story has been updated.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.