The Parkway Theater and racism in South Minneapolis


The Southside of Minneapolis used to be a not particularly welcoming place for black folk to visit, much less live in. In fact, once upon a time it was downright ugly. For anyone at all who wasn’t white. Quite honestly, to hear southside resident, restaurateur and movie house owner Joe Minjares tell it, things can still use some improving for people of color.

Minjares, who is Mexican American, owns the popular dining spot and watering hole Pepito’s, going on 38 years now. He also bought the historic
Parkway Theater a few years ago and is in the process of expanding the movie house into a performing arts center. You can, by the way, go directly from Pepito’s, through a mini-tunnel, and catch a film after lunch or dinner.

He reflects that there was a time when segregation was the absolute law of the land and neither he nor anyone else of color would’ve been permitted to sit anywhere in the Parkway Theater outside the “Colored Section,” two rows on the right-hand side that were set aside for non-whites. Joe has, in fact, preserved that section, by upholstering those chairs differently from the rest of the house. Never having been one to brook bigotry, he states, “I don’t want people to forget the backward kind of mentality that used to hold
sway here when the place first opened.”

In 1931, that mentality fueled a race riot when the Lee family—Arthur, Edith and their daughter, 6-year-old Mary—dared to move out of their proscribed place. It was common knowledge, in those days, that if you were black you simply did not live below 46th Street. So, when the Lees and their little girl had the audacity to break custom and purchased a home at 4600 Columbus Ave., all hell proceeded to break loose.

It began with mere indignation, just the way it happened in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama “A Raisin In The Sun.” Then, the good folk of that southside area asked the Lees to sell the house to a neighborhood civic association. They were even good enough to offer the family the profit of a whole $300 more than they’d paid for it. The unappreciative Lees turned this bargain down, deciding to stay put.

That’s when things got nasty. White people, after getting wind of their new, uppity neighbors, began holding a vigil—literally by the thousands—loitering in front of the Lees’ yard to harass and intimidate them into resuming their place, north of 46th Street. In a time-honored practice, like white folk used to do Down South and, for that matter, Duluth in 1920, they made a festival of hating blacks. Just like you could go to a lynching and enjoy lemonade and ice cream. They basically had a community picnic. Vendors set up shop for the mob outside the Lee home. Cops, of course, conducted traffic to ensure that all this community spirit was observed in a reasonably orderly fashion without disrupting life on the street anymore than was necessary.

You could hear each evening in the air such calls as “Let’s go get him!” and “Burn them out!”

The Lee family and their supporters quite sensibly took these threats at face value and grabbed their guns. It was a standoff, with the mob throwing stones and splashing paint on the house, menacing those inside all night and all hours of the early morning. There were fights. Name-calling. For years. The Lees stood their ground and so did the mob. At length, the Lees figured they’d made their point and did move where they could be around other folk and didn’t have to put up with being harangued for using up perfectly good air somebody white could be breathing.

Things have changed a great deal since 1931. Racists no longer carry on like rabid dogs, raising hell at people trying to mind their own business.

However, one is cautioned from breaking into a refrain of “We are the world.” Minjares is not particularly impressed with the kind of social progress that simply makes it now politically incorrect to come right out and hate folk in the open. He remembers that when he started Pepito’s it took awhile for people in the area to accept that this was a Mexican restaurant owned and operated by, of all things, a Mexican American. “They didn’t like it,” he reflects, “but I stayed. Now, there’s five generations of Minjares with an investment in Pepito’s.” When he bought the Parkway Theater, it would have been unheard of for the area’s business owners to protest it the way those citizens did in 1931. But, Joe relates that they weren’t crazy about it. They simply didn’t confront him. Which was smart, since he used to box professionally and has never used a bouncer at Pepito’s.

Anybody gets funky and Joe—or his son Joey—will come from behind the counter and personally toss them out on their ear. People just talked behind his back. “People went to the previous owner and said things like, ’Why did you sell out to that belly dancer?’ ” This despite the fact that Joe can not be mistaken for Hungarian and it’s highly unlikely he does much belly dancing. To this day, he gets sniggling comments behind his back. Joe’s attitude is “forget them.”

The Lees stayed until it just didn’t make sense to stay anymore. Joe Minjares stayed, period. And still isn’t going anywhere.