In 1930s Minneapolis, not just anyone got to be white

Housing covenants restricted “Jews,” “gypsies” and “Bohemians,” along with anyone of Greek, Spanish, or Italian descent.

Housing covenants restricted “Jews,” “gypsies” and “Bohemians,” along with anyone of Greek, Spanish, or Italian descent. Star Tribune

The history of the United States is one of newcomers arriving to find hostile natives, and then doing the same thing to the next guys who show up. In the early 1900s, this ethic was so strong you might not even be white enough to live in certain neighborhoods.

In 1910, the first racially restricted deed in Minneapolis appeared on 35th Avenue South. It stipulated that the premises “shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent."

Henry Scott, who sold the property, would eventually become the president of a real estate development company and put similar language in thousands of deeds all over the city, ensuring properties would not be touched by anyone who was not “full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race.”

But the definition of who could be properly considered white was in the eye of the beholder. 

“Southern Europeans were also not considered to be white in the early 20th century,” Cynthia Gomez says. She and her colleague, social studies teacher David Boehnke, had her high school English classes at PYC Arts and Tech High School research Minneapolis’ housing history.

Her classes found many racist housing covenants in south Minneapolis, but those in north Minneapolis, particularly in the Camden neighborhood along Lyndale Avenue, were of an even more vigorous variety. They restricted “Jews,” “gypsies” and “Bohemians,” along with anyone of Greek, Spanish, or Italian descent.

At the time, the United States was seeing an influx of those immigrants, who were fleeing poverty in Europe. But they were seen as different -- read: inferior -- from the northern Europeans and Scandinavians who arrived before them.

Madison Grant’s 1916 book, The Passing of a Great Race, claimed that these newcomers couldn’t hold a candle to their skilled, thrifty, hardworking predecessors. The media portrayed them as lazy, superstitious, inclined to steal, and violent.

A popular book published in 1907 stated that “immigrants from eastern and southern Europe are storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock.” There were even suspicions of terrorism. Many associated Italians with the spread of anti-capitalist anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

By 1919, it became technically illegal in Minnesota to turn applicants away because of religious faith or creed, but Jews were still rebuffed by property managers and funneled into the one place they could get a loan. The area was redlined as a “Negro Slum,” before most black people even lived there.

“North Minneapolis was a Jewish slum, if anything, in 1936,” Gomez says.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Minneapolis gained a reputation as one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the United States. It would persist until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the census started counting more southern Europeans as “white.” Housing restrictions loosened up and Jews, along with white people from the “wrong” parts of Europe, were freer to move to places previously reserved for Caucasian “full-bloods.”

As the anti-Semitic practices waned, Jewish North Minneapolis residents got housing and job opportunities still denied to their black neighbors. Tensions simmered between them until they boiled over in the 1960s. After an incident of looting and arson on Plymouth Avenue, Arthur Naftalin, the first Jewish mayor of Minneapolis, acknowledged a lack of opportunities for the neighborhood’s black residents. He promised change.

A year passed, and nothing did. In the summer of 1967, a group of young black people, tired of treatment by police and Jewish business owners that they saw as racist, launched what became known as the Plymouth Avenue Uprising.

Some vandalized and looted Plymouth Avenue stores while hundreds of National Guard troops stormed the area. One rioter threw a Molotov cocktail at the home of Joe Greenstein, a Jewish city council member. Silver’s Food Market and Knox Food Market, both Jewish-owned businesses, were reduced to ash.

After that, Gomez says, Jews fled to St. Louis Park, eventually cut off from North Minneapolis by highway construction.

Gomez wants her students to know these things because they are mostly black, Latinx, Hispanic, and Native American. Their neighborhoods are still being affected by the deep channels formed by separating people into different sections of the city. These days, she says, people of color and immigrants are increasingly having to seek lower housing costs in the suburbs, priced out of neighborhoods they were pushed into decades ago.

The people of the United States have changed a lot over the years. Their attitude towards those who are new and different has not.