Famous footprints: Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young other Black greats’ steps in MN


Minnesota history has many Black famous sons who walked here, including civil rights activists Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins, for whom St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium is named.

Roy Wilkins arrived in Union Station of St. Paul (“a great homely barn of a station,” as he called it in his autobiography) in 1906. The family resided at 906 Galtier; he said there were only three other Black families nearby.

Wilkins’ father left Holly Springs, MS, when a White man said, “N***er, get out of my way” in 1900. His grandfather Wilkins, born 1851, took the plantation owner’s surname as theirs. In the summer of 1865, the owner said, “You’re free.” The family got down on their knees in thanks, but when they got up they reflected, “But now what?”

Engine Company #22, an all-Black fire brigade at Matilda and Front Street, was “just around the corner.” Tommy Gibson, the boxer who “got a crack at Dempsey in 1924,” trained in the loft of the firehouse.

“We played at a ball field at Rich and Lawson Street” Wilkins recalled. Their rival was Hancock School.

He mentions St. James A.M.E. Church at Jay and Fuller Streets, and the tall steeple of Pilgrim Baptist Church, Blacks residing near Rondo Streey and St. Anthony Avenue, and Rice Street as the “main business” drag in the North End.

Wilkins attended Whittier Grammar School at Marion and Wayzata Streets, “four blocks” from home near Lake Como; George Weitbreit Mechanic Arts High School, the “best high school in the city,” and the University of Minnesota. He rode the “Como-Harriet Line” to campus. At that time, the Rice Street Trolley cost five cents through St. Paul and five cents on to Minneapolis.

Wilkins remembered a St. Paul without segregated schools, public transportation or housing, but with segregated jobs, hotels and restaurants. Wilkins also remembers that a Catholic priest tried to stop the June 15, 1920, Duluth mob lynching of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton and Isaac McGhee, employees of the Robinson Circus accused of raping a 19-year-old Duluth woman on circus grounds.

Wilkins recalled that Frederick L. McGhee of St. Paul, the first Black attorney admitted to the bar in Minnesota, knew W.E.B. DuBois and was one of the Niagara Movement founders who denounced Jim Crow to form the NAACP in 1910. Wilkins was hired by the NAACP in 1931 and worked there 46 years, retiring as their executive director in 1977.

Wilkins, who died in 1981, was married but had no children; Roger Wilkins is his nephew.

Whitney Young, a friend of Wilkins, also lived in St. Paul at one time. He moved here in January 1946 to attend grad school at the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill and lived near Snelling Avenue. His wife Margaret (neé Buckner) worked part time at Hallie Q. Brown Center while Young studied.

His first field placement work toward his degree was with the Hennepin County Welfare Board; his second was with the Minneapolis Urban League.

He wrote a history of the St. Paul Urban League for his master’s degree thesis.

The St. Paul Urban League hired Young in 1947; he moved on in 1950, first to Omaha, then to Atlanta before becoming president of the National Urban League.

He drowned in a swimming accident during a conference in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1971 and was buried in Lexington, KY.

Minneapolis and St. Paul can take pride in another set of famous footprints here as well. During their theatre tour of Anna Lucasta, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee stopped off “to an after-theatre party at a restaurant in St. Paul” on Christmas Eve, Davis recalled in the memoir With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together. Davis said they danced all night. “When the sun came up on a brand-new, snow-white Minnesota Christmas day, Ruby and I were still dancing.

Only a little slower now.”

Davis and Dee’s speech, “In Other Words: A History of the American Minority Experience,” was sponsored by the Humphrey Institute and held at Northrup Auditorium on the U of MN campus in 1994. Their son, Guy Davis, recorded his blues music CD Skunkmello at the Red House Records in St. Paul in 2006.

On the historic tour of former governor Alexander Ramsey’s St. Paul mansion at 265 S. Exchange Street, the staff tells guests that the late Minnesota governor employed servants. When asked, “Were any African Americans?” the reply is yes.

Seamstress Martha (neé Clark) Hall “was the household’s sole Black servant.”

She was a single woman when he hired her in Washington, D.C., circa 1880-1890; she married after she came to Minnesota.

Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to ellisea51@hotmail.com.