MINNEAPOLIS (updated 8/1/2011)— In 1931, postal worker and World War I veteran Arthur Lee moved into a new home in south Minneapolis at 4600 Columbus Ave. — where he, his wife Edith and six-year-old daughter Mary faced crowds as large as 4,000 people protesting violently to the presence of the young black family in what had been an all-white neighborhood.
The Lees did not face this ordeal alone, however: Arthur Lee’s fellow workers from the post office, joined by fellow World War I vets, came to the Lee home to stand guard to protect the family from the mobs outside.
Left: Arthur and Edith Lee
Saturday, July 16, the south Minneapolis neighborhood where the Lee home still stands marked the 80th anniversary of these events: saying “never again” to the racial intolerance faced by the Lee family and celebrating the people who stood then — and stand now — against racial bigotry.
The Lee Family Commemorative Event began at Field School nearby the Lee home. A multi-racial crowd of about 500 people gathered. There, 80 years ago to the day, said event organizer Joe Minjares, a community meeting broke up when people opposing the Lees’ presence in the neighborhood “stormed out” of the school to follow someone who urged the crowd to “‘settle the matter right now.’”
A Field School student of today, Sydney Okeson, shared what she learned about the Lees’ story from researching her fifth grade school project. (She is the daughter of Bruce Okeson, member of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 9).
Sydney Okeson, who is white, said her best friend at school is black but 80 years ago “Kelsey and I couldn’t be friends.”
“We invite you to come to 46th and Columbus and settle this matter the right way,” Sydney Okeson urged.
Participants marched in a solemn procession east on 46th Street to the Lee home, led by Sydney Okeson holding hands with her friends, white and black.
When they arrived, they found members of Branch 9 of the National Association of Letter Carriers in uniform standing in a line in front of the Lee home, re-enacting how Arthur Lee’s co-workers from the post office came to his aid 80 years ago.
In July 1931, crowds reported at 4,000 people, throwing stones and shouting racial epithets, threatened the Lees and their supporters for weeks.
This year’s crowd outside the Lee home listened quietly as Arthur Lee’s grandson, Robert Arthur Lee Forman, 60, shared what happened in the same spot years ago.
“My grandmother and grandmother never really spoke of this incident,” he said. “This story unfolded to me like a puzzle.”
A few days after his grandparents and his mother Mary moved into their home in June 1931, Forman related, the neighborhood group approached the family with an offer to buy the home for a few hundred dollars more than the Lees paid for it.
“My grandfather assured them that he wanted to be a good neighbor,” Forman said, and the Lees declined the offer.
“The crowds grew to thousands,” Forman continued. “They threw stones. They threw black paint. They killed my mother’s dog, Buster. They poisoned him.”
Minneapolis police, dispatched to protect the Lee home, apparently did not or could not or would not disperse the crowds.
Lena Smith, the first female black attorney in Minnesota, who represented the Lees, “made a public plea through the newspaper, for anyone who knew Arthur and Edith” to come to their aid, Forman said. “World War I service veterans, U.S. mail carriers and service guards, primarily white, showed up to protect my family.”
“They literally surrounded the house, holding hands, to protect this house,” Forman said, and “avoided what truly could have been a horrific tragedy.”
The story is “not just about Arthur and Edith and Mary,” said Forman. “It’s about the World War I vets and U.S. Postal workers who showed up” and “waited out the crowds.”
Learning the story “made me proud to be a letter carrier,” said Cathy Burton, one of the eight NALC members standing sentry at the Lee home during the July 16 event.
NALC member Bruce Okeson, who lives just one block away from the Lee home, served as a member of the event’s organizing committee. Okeson said he got involved through his daughter Sydney and her school project.
“It’s kind of a unique story,” Bruce Okeson said. “You’ve got the white rioters who are trying to oust him… You’ve got the white postal workers who came to the aid of Arthur.”
Okeson said U.S. Postal Service records show Arthur Lee was a postal service laborer, who in 1931 was not allowed to join the then all-white postal workers unions.
“He had to reach out to somebody,” Okeson said. “He reached out to World War I veterans and postal employees.”
Okeson said that Arthur Lee’s daughter, Mary Lee Forman, was interviewed several years ago and recalled “postal people in the basement and surrounding the house.”
The July 16 commemoration concluded with the unveiling of a monument at the corner of 46th and Columbus, including a sculpture with a likeness of Arthur Lee, a plaque telling the story, and a quote from Arthur: “Nobody asked me to move out when I was in France fighting in mud and water for this country. I came out here to make this house my home.”
The Lee family stayed in the house at 4600 Columbus for about a year, then sold the house and moved, grandson Robert Forman said. For his grandfather, he said, that was “long enough to make the point that he was not forced out.”
The plaque now at the site notes: “According to Ann Juergens, attorney and professor of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, ‘since the Lees’ courageous stand, Minnesota has not seen white mob demonstrations against housing integration.’”
A week after the July 16 event, Robert Forman filled in more of his family’s story for the Labor Review.
He said his grandfather, Arthur Lee, continued working at the post office until he retired and received a post office pension. Arthur Lee died at age 91 September 2, 1985. He was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota April 20, 1894.
Edith Lee died five years before her husband Arthur, Forman said.
Robert Forman’s mother, Mary Forman, who was just six years old at the time of the 1931 events, grew up to work for some 30 years at the Minneapolis Public Library, where she was a member of AFSCME. His mother worked many years in the public relations department there, Forman said, eventually leading the department.
Robert Forman lives in south Minneapolis. He is currently a self-employed bookkeeper. Earlier in his working life, he said, he was at various times a member of the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, and Communications Workers of America.
Arthur and Edith Lee’s great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren also attended the July 16 event.
Visit www.julysixteenth.org for the website of the Lee Family Commemorative Event Committee.
If any readers know family stories about the postal workers or veterans who came to the Lee family’s aid, please contact the Labor Review editor at 612-379-4725.