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Edina's confused racial history, from utopian village to bleached suburb

By the 1950s, blackface minstrel shows were a common occurrence in Edina.

By the 1950s, blackface minstrel shows were a common occurrence in Edina. Photo courtesy Edina Historical Society

A hundred years ago, certain residents of the village of Edina (population 1,800) became fed up with the overwhelming influence of a certain kind of people.

Farmers.

In 1920, the people of Morningside, a neighborhood of 500-some people on the border with Minneapolis, seceded from Edina. The Morningsiders set about modernizing—building more paved roads, street lamps, and sidewalks—in ways their rural Edina neighbors wouldn’t.

This civic cleave would remain in effect for four decades (Morningside rejoined Edina in 1966), though other forces conspired to shove the two communities bounding down one path. Both Morningside and Edina exerted the same electromagnetic pull on city dwellers who sought spacious houses, new amenities, and the guarantee their new neighbors would be white.

To Edina, that last part was a new expectation.

Even before its incorporation in 1888, the village was a beacon of racial tolerance. This glorious inclusiveness—and the foul turn the town soon took—is detailed in a forthcoming research paper by historian Chad Montrie, a professor at the University of Massachusets-Lowell, now working on a book on the history of racial exclusion in Minnesota.

By the turn of the 20th century, Edina village had at least a dozen black households. They owned farmland, led orchestras and choirs, served in civic posts. One widowed black woman married a Swedish immigrant. If anyone disapproved of their mixed-race baby, there is no known record of it.

These children and grandchildren of Civil War veterans and ex-slaves were always a tiny minority in the village, but that mattered little. Not until Samuel Thorpe, Minneapolis’ most successful real estate developer, hatched his plot for a community around Thorpe Country Club (later the Edina Country Club), which opened in 1923.

Thorpe bought up surrounding farmland, parceled it into nearly 600 lots, and built eight “model homes” to give a glimpse of life in this “garden suburb.” He drew up an airtight landowners’ covenant, dictating what the neighborhood would tolerate in terms of trees, garages, paint schemes, and people. Namely: Nothing in the area could be sold, given, or rented to someone outside the “white or Caucasian race.”

The Country Club District swelled with homebuyers who sought to live among the “better class,” people who wanted their kids “more protected” than they would be in a “‘hit or miss’ city neighborhood,” declared the advertisements. In time, most of Edina’s black families moved to more welcoming communities.

Incoming whites felt comfortably ensconced, routinely putting on minstrel shows, singing Dixie songs in blackface. Over in secessionist Morningside, black disenfranchisement never made it into civic paperwork, but realtors followed its dictums.

In 1959, a black family tried smudging Morningside’s color line. Marion Taylor was a World War II vet working as a biochemist for Veterans Affairs. Wife Mary was a teacher. When the Taylors were forced from their south Minneapolis home by the coming I-35W interstate, they bought a lot on Scott Terrace, just across the city line.

Fearful Morningsiders agitated to have the lot preserved for drainage purposes. The city council balked. When the fight spilled into the open, the racists were outnumbered. Some 251 residents signed a petition in favor of the Taylors, and Mayor Ken Joyce hand-delivered letters to every mailbox, warning Morningside against becoming known as a “bigoted, prejudiced, hateful little area.”

The Taylors moved in, though not without incident. Their neighbors on both sides moved out. A gang of teenagers called them “niggers.” A BB pellet pierced their window.

The Taylors later divorced and Marion eventually relocated to Rochester, where Montrie tracked him down in spring 2014, finding Taylor eager and indefatigable one day shy of his 95th birthday. If there was to be a record, Taylor intended to set it right. Some 50 years later he was bitter about the years spent feeling like an outsider in his own neighborhood.

“Very clearly,” Montrie says, “[Taylor] understands he was right. He’s still upset about it.”

It might surprise Taylor to learn how quickly things changed. In 1977, Sandy Berman, his wife Lorraine, and their two kids bought a place in Edina. By Montrie’s reckoning, this Jewish man, with his black wife and their two black teenagers, were only the second non-white family (after the Taylors) to move to the area in decades.

“Actually, our family did not experience any turmoil, disturbance, or distress,” Berman says. “Part of that may have been due to our total innocence. We had no idea of the kind of history we were moving into.”

Or helping Edina move out of. It took five decades to bleach a perfectly messy, integrated village into a suburb white and crisp as a clean sheet. Lorraine Berman died a quarter-century ago, but Sandy still lives there at 83, and worries about whether the suburb is doing enough to welcome black residents, who still make up less than 2 percent of its population.

Montrie knows some in this area will read his work and revel in the chance to “go after Edina.” They will miss the point.

This isn’t an Edina story. It’s an American one. Samuel Thorpe’s covenant was modeled after ones in Baltimore, Kansas City, and Cleveland. Morningside’s gentler racism, with realtors and bankers quietly holding the color line, was enforced elsewhere in Minnesota, and in all-white enclaves from sea to shining sea.

We lionize our great liberals in the cause of progress, heroes like Hubert Humphrey and Roy Wilkins. But this, too, is Minnesota’s legacy.

“It becomes evident,” Montrie says, “that this is something that can still happen... even in a place like Minnesota, where you have a history of birthing people who’ve helped make advances in civil rights. Even Minnesota can’t escape it.”

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