A year and a half ago, back when I had just started this blog, I wrote a post about Jews and African Americans in North Minneapolis. North Minneapolis is a neighborhood in my hometown with the fascinating history of two minority populations living side by side, although currently it is a predominantly African American area—Jews having moved out during the second half of the twentieth century as they made more money and ascended in class. The trouble was, when I went to write this post in 2013, I couldn’t find much information on that history. I dredged up a PBS documentary and a small book and wrote a brief blog post on it, but I’ve always known that there was more to the story—if only I could hear from someone who lived during that time. I wanted to know whether the two populations truly interacted and if so, what that relationship looked like.
So a few weeks ago, I went out on a limb and asked my Facebook friends whether they had any ideas, and thankfully, they did. A couple suggestions brought me to interviewing Earl Schwartz, an Assistant Professor of Social Justice, Religion and Middle East Studies at Hamline University in Minneapolis. Professor Schwartz is Jewish and grew up on the Northside. He had a lot to share about that time, particularly, about why there’s not very much information available concerning this history. I’m so glad I got to have this conversation with him:
Q: What is your background? How did you come to be familiar with this history?
A: My parents grew up in North Minneapolis, so essentially, except for my dad’s experience in WWII, neither of my parents ever lived more than a couple miles far from their birthplace. I and my brother and sister were also born on the Northside.
Q: I see, so your knowledge comes from personal experience. Do you still live on the Northside?
A: Currently, my wife and I live in Como Park in St. Paul. However, when our kids were young in 1993 and we had outgrown our tiny house in South Minneapolis, we put our house up for sale and it sold in 6 days, which really took us by surprise. My mother was still living in the house we grew up in—in North Minneapolis. So completely by good luck, we ended up spending almost the entire school year of 1993-1994 with my mother, in the bedroom I grew up in.
Q: Was the neighborhood different from how it was when you grew up there?
A: It wasn’t so dramatically different than the Northside that I had left in 1976 or ’77 [when I graduated high school]. And it wasn’t as if I was unfamiliar with the area because my parents continued to live in the house I grew up in. But having said that, it was significantly different than the Northside I grew up in as a child.
Q: What sources would you recommend for learning about the history of the Northside?
A: Well, there are a few sources of information. In the Minnesota Jewish Historical Society archives there are oral histories, and I did one of them. There was a brief synopsis published of those histories called Northside Memories, so that’s a straight up transcription. […] Another book is Jews in Transition by Albert Gordon. We Knew Who We Were is [a film on the topic] by Tom Lieberman. Dan Bergins’ Cornerstones film is the best.* A student at St. Cloud State Unviersity also interviewed me for his masters thesis, so that paper is available. *This is a source I used in my first blog post.
Q: I’m fascinated by the history of Jews and African Americans living side by side and I want to learn more about it. Apart from these archive sources you mentioned, why do you think there’s not very much information out there about the two communities who used to live together on the North Side?
A: The question about the degree of social integration is obscured by two crosscurrents. The first is that Jews throughout the post-war period, from the ‘50s and ‘60s up through the rapid disappearance of Jewish institutional life on the Northside were deeply invested in sustaining a sense of broad-based liberal attitude and behavior […] That made it hard to grapple with apparent contradictions of that self image.
If you read Jewish World in the 1950s and ‘60s, the degree to which the Jewish community supported Civil Rights during that era is really quite striking. The way the community wanted to be viewed was clearly and consistently as a liberal, open, progressive, sympathetic community. But the second question of class was an inconvenient contradiction. Attitudes being what they were, even a degree of identification with African Americans and their suffering as something we [Jews] were familiar with and a sense of common interest in opening American society–taking that all into account, as real as that might have been–there weren’t a lot of American American small businesspeople whose stores were patronized by Jews. But there were a lot of Jewish small business owners whose stores were patronized by American Americans. Similarly, there weren’t a whole lot of Jewish women who were cleaning the homes of African American families, but there were a lot of African American women cleaning the homes of Jewish families. There weren’t a whole lot of African American landlords who had Jewish tenants, but there were plenty of Jewish landlords who had African American tenants.
In fact […] within just a couple weeks of his assassination, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last public addresses was to a gathering of Conservative rabbis. In his address, he quite frankly laid that distinction out. [He explained that] African American interaction with Jews is complicated by the fact that in terms of political activity and common interest Jews have been mostly supportive of our efforts. But the way the majority of African Americans meet them [Jews] is in their stores.
What all this means is, it’s really hard for Jews to tell the story.
So Jews left the northside when threatened because they could. And that says two things. First, it says something about the reality of that upward mobility. It also says something about the relative vulnerability of the solidarity that Jews tended to believe they were expressing. It says something about the vulnerability of the community as well. If we loved the intimacy of the Northside community so much, why was it dismantled so quickly?
Q: Do you think suburbs like St. Louis Park (a community near Minneapolis with a large Jewish population) have basically recreated what the Jewish community had on the Northside? Or is it different now?
A: It was a different time. The upward mobility that Jews experienced leading them to the western suburbs was a little different than what had been happening on the Northside. St. Louis Park was much more a driving [car-based] community than the Northside and there never was a density of Jewish commercial presence. North Minneapolis is quite small, but the area is tightly hemmed in. There was parkland to the west, and neighborhoods to the south and north that were not hospitable to the Jewish residents. And then there was downtown to the east. When people talk about the closeness of the Northside, it was literally very dense.
Q: Did these communities of different race and class living in north Minneapolis mix or mostly stay separate?
A: I think there were a whole range of relationships and associations between Jews and African American and it depends on the era. Let’s say the 1950s and 60s. The African American population on the Northside included some middle class African Americans and that middle class status was reassuring to Jewish and non-Jewish white neighbors alike. There was, I think, a degree of warm and hospitable and productive interaction, once again, facilitated by the absence of class difference. But that was a relatively small proportion of the African American population on the Northside.
The data you’d want to have—and this data is gone—is, how many times did a Jewish family go over to an African American family’s house for dinner or vice versa? That kind of cooperation and interaction was relatively rare […] It’s one thing to say, “When I was in class in 1961 I had an African American friend.” It goes undefined what a friend means. In my time, my group had two African American friends. One of them had a Jewish mother. The other had parents who were professionals; one was a professor at the University of Minnesota. We had a surprise 15th birthday party at our house for him. Fifty years later, we’re still friends. But that was characteristic, I think, of a very late period in this story. Those impulses to want to have that kind of positive mutually supportive relationship are very real. But the concrete social realities that both Jews and African Americans faced during that period — structural and psychological– are as real as those aspirations.
I can tell that Earl has pondered this history quite a bit. His insight is invaluable.
Here are a few things I found particularly interesting in our conversation. First, of course, was Earl’s revelation that the Jewish community is quite possibly painting over a history that they are ashamed of, a lack of social integration that they publicly strived for but personally did not practice. And this is why I wasn’t able to find much information on that history when I first went to look.
Second, I found Earl’s comments on the tight-knit community of the Northside—and subsequent loss of that intimacy after the community relocated—illuminating because those experiences have happened all over the country. When our nation transitioned from a walking-centric lifestyle to a car-centric lifestyle, the strong sense of community within many neighborhoods evaporated. Particularly for a religious group whose more orthodox members still necessitate walking on the Sabbath, I know that the move to a suburban area that, on many streets, lacks sidewalks has been a challenge. I have seen this first-hand. I attended St. Louis Park high school so most of my friends during my teenage years lived over there, and I distinctly recall that any Saturday when I went to hang out with them, I’d have to be very careful driving in their neighborhoods because there were always Orthodox Jewish families walking in the street on their way to the park or to Shul. I also know from experience that the Jewish community is still very close-knit in the Minneapolis area. Everybody knows everybody. However, Earl is right that that relationship is different now that you can’t just walk down to the kosher grocery store or take a stroll over to a friend’s house whenever you’d like. When a car is required for any interaction, those interactions become more limited and less frequent.
I am sincerely thankful for the opportunity to speak with Earl Schwartz, and most of all, for his articulate honesty in explaining this history.
If there’s any history in your town that you’re curious about, I urge you to try and find someone who lived through it. These are stories that will be lost if we don’t seek them out, and they can help us understand why our towns are the way they are today.
All historical photos from Wikimedia Commons. Current N Mpls photo from Flickr. Top photo from Hamline.