38th Street revival rooted in history

Co-working cafe, museum space and center for racial healing among ideas for "cultural corridor"

Regina resident Coventry Royster Cowens, African American Heritage Museum and Gallery co-founder, hopes to see new life in empty 38th Street lots.

While researching historic African-American sites for an all-night bike tour, Anthony Taylor was struck by the former Dreamland Café, which opened in 1939 down the street from property he owns at East 38th Street & 4th Avenue South.

“When the café was first built, the city was extremely segregated. So when Lena Horne came to the Twin Cities to hang out, she couldn’t go downtown. So she went to the Dreamland Café,” he said.

After initially planning a bike shop at 3800 3rd Ave S., Taylor ran into expensive soil remediation costs and decided to take on a bigger project. Now he’s working with architects to develop the Dreamland Co-Café. He envisions a co-working space for entrepreneurs, similar to the “hothead dreamer kids” that worked toward racial equality in Anthony B. Cassius’ original restaurant.

“How are we going to build businesses that actually serve the greater good?” Taylor asked.

The project is part of a broader dream for the 38th Street corridor. Through community workshops led by two Ward 8 representatives — former Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and now Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins — local stakeholders envision a “cultural corridor” along 38th Street roughly between Nicollet and Chicago.

Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins hosts a February panel discussion celebrating black history at Funky Grits, now open at 38th & Chicago.
Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins hosts a February panel discussion celebrating black history at Funky Grits, now open at 38th & Chicago.

“Young folks don’t have a real historical sense of this neighborhood,” said Greg McMoore, a longtime area resident. “I’m a bit of a history person, so I believe in knowing where you came from, if you’re going to figure out where you’re going to go.”

38th & 4th was the center of the south side’s black business district from the 1930s to the 1970s, according to the Hennepin History Museum. And the city reports that today’s area businesses are still predominantly owned by people of color.

Fresh Cuts Barbershop owner Cameron Cook cuts Deron Howze's hair at 38th & 4th.
Fresh Cuts Barbershop owner Cameron Cook cuts Deron Howze’s hair at 38th & 4th.

At the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder at 3744 4th Ave. S., Tracey Williams-Dillard works at the same desk as her grandfather Cecil Newman, surrounded by his old books. Jenkins is exploring the idea of naming 4th Avenue in honor of the Newman family, and Williams-Dillard said she is “elated” by the idea. As the business approaches its 85th  anniversary this summer, she plans to refresh the building mural so passersby can visualize the history.

“Modern day, but it still feels like a community,” she said. “… It’s a nice feel to see things coming back.”

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder Publisher and CEO Tracey Williams-Dillard
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder Publisher and CEO Tracey Williams-Dillard

Serving aged-cheddar grits, cornpuppies and cocktails, Funky Grits is now open at 38th & Chicago, where “everyone is welcome, all the time, forever.” Owner Jared Brewington said he grew up in Minneapolis hearing stories about local businesses like Dreamland.

“I wanted to invest in that history,” he said.

Other local investors may include the mental health agency Kente Circle, founded in 2004, which purchased the vacant lot at 3800 4th Ave. S. for expansion, according to city officials.

The Center For Performing Arts at 38th & Pleasant is participating in the corridor discussion as well, recently reaching out to Kente Circle and artist Wing Young Huie as part of the monthly series ReClaim, which explores American identity.

Sabathani Community Center is working to build 50 units of affordable senior housing next to the property’s community garden, currently closing in on the final 20 percent of funding.

Operating in the former Bryant Junior High building, Sabathani is a fixture in the street’s history as well. A museum on the second floor features a Grammy earned by Sounds of Blackness, which still rehearses in the building.

The new exhibit Owning Up details historic discrimination in housing. A May 2 fundraiser would extend museum hours, currently open by appointment.

Another new idea would name 3rd Avenue for the late Clarissa Walker, honored as a constant presence at Sabathani. As a kid, Executive Director Cindy Booker thought the Sabathani food shelf was open all the time. It really wasn’t. But Walker lived across the street, and if someone knocked on her door, she would leave home and open the building as needed. Just last week, the office received a letter addressed to Walker seeking help re-entering the workforce after incarceration.

Beyond Sabathani, major landmarks stand on the surrounding blocks. South of 38th Street between 3rd and 5th avenues are the Tilsenbilt homes, constructed between 1954 and 1956 as part of the nation’s first federally-supported commercial housing development open to homebuyers of all races, according to the city. The houses were developed by Archie Givens Sr., an up-and-coming real estate agent who became known as Minneapolis’ first black millionaire, and Edward Tilsen, a Jewish immigrant who had abandoned a St. Paul project when he couldn’t find a bank to finance integrated apartments.

IMG_8660One of the Tilsenbilt blocks also features the home of Lena Smith, who sued the Pantages Theatre after she was physically removed from the white section in 1916, an action that eventually led to desegregation of the theater. As the first female African-American lawyer in Minnesota, Smith also fought to keep Arthur and Edith Lee in their home at 4600 Columbus Ave. S., according to the National Park Service. The Lees stayed in the white neighborhood from 1931 to 1933, sleeping in the basement, watching police escort their daughter to kindergarten, refusing high purchase offers and enduring splattered paint, thrown garbage, signs with racial slurs and mobs of up to 4,000 people.

Lee house
Arthur and Edith Lee House

Jackie Thureson visited the Lee house and Tilsenbilt homes in November as part of a tour with Judson Memorial Baptist Church. She once lived about two blocks from the house near 48th & Chicago, but said she never fully grasped the history until recently.

“It’s this nice little house in a nice little neighborhood,” she said. “When you think of the crowds of people gathering there, it’s horrifying.”

Another Judson member, Monica Lewis, plans to volunteer to comb through deeds with the Mapping Prejudice project, which works to map racial covenants that once shaped who could buy homes.

“If I want to be involved in making race relations work … I am part of the story,” Lewis said. “… I’m not enjoying my lifestyle or what I have because it’s on my own merit. I come from a long line of privilege. To understand that in today’s context is hard.”

Lewis traveled to Memphis with about 50 other church members last year. She stepped into a cellar where people hid along the Underground Railroad, and met Hester Moore, a Harriet Tubman storyteller so powerful that Judson Church invited her to Minneapolis. Moore will perform at Judson on March 10 at 4 p.m., followed by a community meal.

Moore will also appear March 11 at the Hennepin Theatre Trust in a fundraiser for the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. Before the museum opened last fall, Minnesota was one of the few states in the country that didn’t have an African-American museum. Co-founders Tina Burnside and Coventry Royster Cowens opened the museum initially relying on private donations. The museum holds a two-year lease at 1256 Penn Ave. N., and the 38th Street corridor is one possibility for a permanent site, Burnside said.

Members of The Link visit the museum in February.
The Link visits the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery in February.

Museum_3On display is a Green Book, a travel guide published in the 1930s-60s listing businesses that served African Americans. There is a Buffalo Soldier uniform belonging to Jack Sidney Rainey Sr., a Central High School graduate who served in one of two African American Army combat units during World War II. The museum also prints the court testimony of Eliza Winston, a 30-year-old enslaved woman who was granted freedom in Hennepin County Court.

Museum 3

“Although Minnesota was a free state, it did look the other way and allowed people to bring enslaved persons into the state,” Burnside said.

The museum recently collaborated with the Hennepin History Museum on a history harvest, encouraging people to bring their memorabilia and tell their stories for the historical record. Black history is often lost when elders pass away, Burnside said. A March 24 Fireside Chat will feature a panel of people with pieces in the exhibit.

Tina Burnside (center) is co-founder of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery.

Council Member Jenkins recently invited filmmaker Daniel Bergin to present a segment of his new TPT documentary Jim Crow of the North, which covers housing inequity and the Mapping Prejudice project. Jenkins said the story is important to share, but it also triggers emotional pain.

“It really does sort of lift off the scab, and that’s just looking at the past,” she said. “Every day, communities of color are bombarded with all sorts of tragic, traumatic experiences. Whether it’s vicariously, just looking on social media, or personally being harassed in coffee shops, which I personally have experienced very recently. The black community is under a lot of post-traumatic and current stress.”

That’s why Jenkins would like to see a 38th Street space dedicated to racial healing. She said the space could incorporate meditation, or acupuncture, or talk therapy, along with spaces for real and authentic dialogue and permanent space for African-American artists and heroes.

“We’ve been dreaming, but now it’s time to actually plan,” Jenkins said. “I really encourage the community to get involved.”