38th Street dreams

George Floyd’s killing amplifies mission to lift up Black lives on the corridor

Anthony Taylor at the site of Dreamland on 38th, a project to build a gathering space for African Americans to launch small businesses. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Before a police officer killed George Floyd, 38th Street was already known for Black history. 

The corridor was home to a barrier-breaking Black business hub starting in the 1930s, Prince’s junior high school and the state’s oldest operating African American newspaper. The city of Minneapolis was poised to designate 38th Street from Nicollet to Bloomington as a cultural district this year, working with residents to draft a 10-year vision for community-owned development that uplifts the cultural identity and keeps it intact for years to come. 

Floyd died at 38th & Chicago, the center of the district. 

“The reasons to continue with this work have only been amplified,” said Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins. “We need to now think about a permanent memorial to commemorate this moment, to acknowledge and recognize the site of a global movement focused on racial equality.”

The permanent memorial is still under discussion. Meanwhile, Black-owned businesses are pursuing other big ideas that will shape the street. 

Construction may start next spring on Dreamland on 38th, a project to build a cafe and Black business incubator at 3800 3rd Ave. S. It’s inspired by the namesake Dreamland Cafe that served celebrities like Lena Horne and Frankie Lymon as a rare social center for African Americans when it opened at 38th & 4th in the late ‘30s.  The project is a partnership between the nonprofit Cultural Wellness Center (CWC), which co-owns the Midtown Global Market, and property owner Dr. Freeman Waynewood, CEO of KingField Family Dental at 38th & Nicollet. 

Waynewood grew up attending segregated Texas schools and remembers only a handful of businesses owned by people of color, including a hotel, a service station and an insurance agency. Waynewood invested in the early ’80s to help purchase the state’s first Black-owned railroad, the Minnesota Valley Transportation Co. in southern Minnesota.

“That was the beginning, but I’ve always supported Black entrepreneurs in whatever way possible,” he said. “Support, I think, that’s the key thing. Encouragement.”

Waynewood said there are budding ideas to redevelop the Kingfield dental office as well.

“We’re at the western end of 38th Street, and with the George Floyd issue, with the potential for a memorial of some sort, I can envision this corridor as being a unifying as well as an identifying point in the city for people of color,” he said. 

Dreamland and CWC Associate Anthony Taylor will lead “Slow Roll” bike rides down 38th this summer to historical sites, which now include the site where Floyd was killed. 

“Communities west of 35W, they can’t imagine that someone would do that, because their lived experience is inconsistent with that. This filming of it, unceasing, unflinching, watching a man die in plain sight, stretched what people imagined and therefore believe,” he said. “People really are deeply impacted because it absolutely did not allow you to look away. You know that corner.”

Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Living in a protest site

A few doors south of Floyd’s memorial, Gloria Burnett said she wants 38th & Chicago to remain closed, as it is now. She pointed out a street sign where someone had pasted over Chicago Avenue to rename the street George Floyd Avenue. 

The intersection is finding a daily rhythm, said Rashad West, owner of the Dragon Wok restaurant that relocated in March from Kingfield to 38th & Chicago. In the morning, visitors come for reflection. Later in the afternoon, people start grilling and singing and dancing.

Rashad West, pictured in 2015.

It’s been a difficult time for the business. West released May 25 surveillance video showing Floyd not resisting arrest, announcing that the restaurant stands in solidarity with the neighborhood and the Black community.

“It’s bigger than us,” West said. 

And in the midst of COVID-19, West worries about his friends at other restaurants adjusting to a business model based on takeout and delivery. Dragon Wok is still delivering to the same customers in Southwest, even walking curbside pickup orders a few blocks away upon request. Businesses that make it to the other side of the pandemic will benefit from all the innovation, he said.

“We’ve just got to keep putting up a fight,” he said. 

“38th Street is different, but it’s quieting down substantially from the last two to three weeks back,” said Tracey Williams-Dillard, publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the historic Black-owned newspaper with offices at 38th & 4th. She said it felt like the newspaper was initially reporting in a war zone, hearing low-flying helicopters and seeing the National Guard stationed behind the building. 

“I grew up in that building, my grandfather started the paper in 1934. And at the age of 8, I was going in there doing whatever I could do. To pull up in front of a building that had never been boarded in my lifetime … just hit me really hard,” she said.

In November, the city renamed a portion of 4th Avenue South “Launa Q. Newman Way” after Williams-Dillard’s grandmother. When Launa Newman’s husband, Cecil, died, there weren’t many female publishers, and a competitor moved into the building, expecting to take over. But Newman continued running the paper, standing in front of a grid sheet manually pasting up articles until a family member introduced computers to the office. She ran the paper for 30 years before turning it over to Williams-Dillard in 2007. 

The newspaper hosted a virtual town hall July 2 titled “Call to Action: We Are Not Okay (And That’s Okay).” 

“The Black community is dealing with two different pandemics. We’re dealing with the COVID pandemic and we’re dealing with the George Floyd pandemic, and it’s just a double whammy on our community,” Williams-Dillard said. 

As advertisers pull back dollars during the pandemic, the paper is taking donations and selling subscriptions. Knowing that African Americans are disproportionately dying of COVID-19, the paper is heavily focused on health education. 

 “It’s been a struggle at times. But then at the same time it’s been a joy, because I’m seeing the difference the paper makes in the stories we do in the community,” she said.

“History is unfolding right in front of our eyes, and we have to make sure that we document that history,” said Tina Burnside, curator of the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum.

Long-term plans for the museum include relocating to a site on 38th Avenue, perhaps at Sabathani Community Center. 

The museum is currently slated to reopen Aug. 4 at Plymouth & Penn on the North Side with new exhibits featuring protest photos by John Steitz, preserved plywood art and video performances by LaTanya Cannady, Joe Davis, Nico Moore and Drea Reynolds. Sixteen artists will paint a Black Lives Matter mural on the Plymouth Avenue roadway July 18. 

Photo of Trish by John Steitz

Another new exhibit details the 1920 lynching of three African American men accused of a crime without physical evidence in Duluth. A mob of people dragged Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie out of their jail cells and lynched them from a light pole. Burnside said it’s important to understand the context for Floyd’s death.

“Everyone has this view of Minnesota as being a progressive state, and lynching only happened in the South. But no, it happened here in our own state,” Burnside said. “And now 100 years later, we have the killing of George Floyd, uncovering the veil from police brutality and systemic racism and racial violence against Black people.”

Burnside is among those calling for a change in ownership at Cup Foods, suggesting raising money to buy the building and open an affordable grocery store at 38th & Chicago. 

Other new ideas are coming from the Bryant Neighborhood Organization, which voted to establish a George Floyd Empowerment Center, envisioned as an anti-racist training institute, a memorial and a free community event space.

In a recent online call, more than 160 community members joined Council Vice President Jenkins to talk about ideas for a permanent memorial at 38th & Chicago, which include a garden or a sculpture. One idea is a roundabout, although some advocated for closing the intersection, disliking the idea of driving over the space. 

Jenkins noted that Chicago Avenue carries the most-used bus route in the state.

“We have lived for the past 40 years with a major street in our city that was closed down — Nicollet Avenue. It really disrupts the entirety of the whole city,” she said. “If we disrupt that route, we disrupt a lot of Black and Brown people’s livelihoods.”

A public hearing Aug. 3 will take up a proposal to establish the commemorative street name “George Perry Floyd Jr. Place” at 38th & Chicago. Jenkins also hopes to rename Columbus Avenue in the future.

On the call, Jeanelle Austin asked for the community’s blessing to start composting dried flowers at 38th & Chicago for reuse in community gardens. She started tending the memorial shortly after Floyd died, straightening the flowers and sweeping the streets. Her guiding principle is: “Everything is somebody’s offering. Throw nothing away.” Even the dirt is reused, said volunteer Regina Marie Williams. 

Volunteers tend the flowers at George Floyd’s memorial at 38th & Chicago. Pictured (l to r): Jemette Owens, Regina Marie Williams, Toby Hettler and Jeanelle Austin. 

Living three blocks away, Austin arrives each day around 6 a.m. while the intersection is still hushed. She returns home in time for meetings at her startup, the Racial Agency Initiative. Austin is a racial justice coach, helping churches, corporations and individuals answer the question: “What can I do?” 

She advises everyone to address racism wherever they are, whether it be at work, at the dinner table or in the mirror. If everyone does their part, change could come fast, she said. She recommends reading history written by Black authors and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in its entirety.

“Everyone loves to say these things take time,” she said. “It only takes time because people don’t want to change. When people want something, people will make it happen.”

Beginning the work

“I think this moment of solidarity that we see is important. And now we begin the work,” Taylor said.

The proposed boundaries of the 38th Street cultural district are Nicollet Avenue to the west, 36th Street to the north, Bloomington Avenue to the east and 40th Street to the south. 

The draft plan, dubbed 38th Street Thrive, calls for celebrations of arts and culture, a minority small business relief program for shops at risk of closure, a Black Heritage Land Trust to help African Americans own homes and commercial space, a capital fund to leverage low-interest construction loans, and a solar cooperative on Sabathani’s roof.

Kente Circle, which focuses on serving people of color, plans to expand the therapy office at 345 E. 38th St. Serving about 700 clients annually, Kente Circle is working to meet higher demand and create a cultural healing and training center. The City Council allocated a $24,500 forgivable loan in December to help cover predevelopment costs. Image courtesy of City of Minneapolis

To keep housing affordable in the area, one suggestion would give tax relief to longtime homeowners who see property assessments increase by 15%. Landlords would be encouraged to participate in a city program that offers property tax reduction in exchange for affordable units.

Sabathani Community Center at 310 E. 38th St. plans to build 48 affordable senior apartments in a three-story building at the vacant northwest portion of the site. To help finance the project, the Planning Commission Committee of the Whole approved tax increment financing for the parcel on July 9. Image courtesy of City of Minneapolis

Another idea would launch the Clarissa Walker Homebuyers Club, named for the woman who spent 39 years as a constant presence at the community center. The Saturday morning breakfast club could cover topics like credit repair, house maintenance 101 and down payment assistance. An upcoming CWC project would map the area’s historical African American land ownership and look at how wealth did or did not transfer forward over time. 

Given the current crises, community meetings on 38th Street Thrive are delayed. At the moment, Jenkins is focused on safety. She was devastated by the news that a pregnant woman had died of a gunshot wound inflicted at 37th & Elliott, while her baby was placed in intensive care. 

“We have to get some control over the safety in our communities,” Jenkins said. “Safety at the intersection of 38th & Chicago is of utmost concern now.”

But she still envisions a stand-alone Center for Racial Healing, to give Black people space to heal from everyday trauma. 

“Hope is what keeps me going,” Jenkins said.