Sinking Roots in Frozen Ground: How Jewish Americans Made a Home in Minnesota and Advanced the Cause of Civil Rights

By MNR News posted 05-24-2022 14:47

“Homeownership means rootedness in the community,” said Steve Hunegs, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC). “It’s at the intersection between the Jewish community and the greater community.” As the leader of an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and prejudice, Hunegs is keenly aware of what happens when people are discriminated against and prevented from becoming full members of a community. It is an experience the Jewish people have been intimately familiar with throughout history. Even the land of “Minnesota Nice” was not as welcoming as it is today.

When the first Jewish immigrants began arriving in the 1840s, Minnesota was not yet a state. Settling in the area that would eventually become St. Paul, they traded, set up shops, and prospered as the city grew. Coming largely from German-speaking central Europe, they learned English and quickly integrated into the expanding metropolis.

The next wave of Jewish arrivals, however, did not find Minnesota quite so hospitable. Starting in the 1880s, thousands of Jews fleeing violence, oppression, and poverty in Russia and Eastern Europe arrived in the Twin Cities, largely in Minneapolis. Many of them had little more than the clothes they were wearing. Existing Jewish charities, organized primarily through synagogues, were strained beyond their ability to provide aid. Eventually, these newcomers settled in the poorest areas of the Twin Cities, including the densely populated West Side Flats of St. Paul, where immigrants crowded into one and two-room shacks along muddy roads in a flood plain. Despite abysmal living conditions, new businesses sprang up, synagogues were built, and the community thrived.

But the wider population of the Twin Cities did not readily accept its Jewish neighbors. As the 19th century closed, anti-Semitism and racism toward African Americans, Asians, and other ethnic groups was on the rise. By 1910, the first racially restrictive covenants* began appearing in real estate deeds across the metro area. Although largely aimed at Blacks, many deeds included language that prevented Jews from purchasing homes in white, Christian-majority neighborhoods.
While these restrictive provisions were quietly slipped into real estate deeds, advertisements gave a more public face to racism and anti-Semitism. In 1919, real estate developer Edmund G. Walton ran an ad in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune offering prime properties at a “bargain” price on the Lake of the Isles. However, the ad stated that people of “Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian, Semitic, or African blood” were barred from purchasing any of the properties. For the leaders of the Jewish community, the ad epitomized decades of exclusion, derision, and inequitable treatment. In the words of Samuel Deinard, editor of the American Jewish World, it was time to “retaliate and hit back.”
Emanuel Cohen, a Minneapolis attorney, took the fight to the Capitol in St. Paul where he lobbied legislators to outlaw religious discrimination in real estate transactions. A bill based on his arguments became law in April 1919. Although it was a legal and moral victory for the Jewish community, it did little to ease or reverse deeply ingrained anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs. Even respected publications like the Minneapolis Journal published noxious editorials that pondered whether “Jews were psychologically unfit to be citizens of an Anglo-Saxon state and society.”
Across the ocean in Germany—a nation undergoing social, economic, and political turmoil in the wake of defeat in World War I—an especially toxic form of anti-Semitism took root. Eventually, the super-charged bigotry embraced by Hitler and the ascendent Nazi party found fertile ground in the United States during the Great Depression.
“Respectable pulpits in town with serious clergy would preach anti-Semitism,” Hunegs said. One of the more prominent pastors of that time was William Bell Riley of the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, who filled his sermons with anti-Jewish invective, and warned his large congregation to vote only for Christians in the upcoming election.
“Then you had the ‘street-preacher’ equivalents, people who were more agitators trying to create trouble on the ground level,” Hunegs added. Among the agitators was the Silver Legion, aka the Silver Shirts, a group of fascists that marched in the streets, published vicious anti-Jewish screeds, conspiracy theories, and threatened violence. The group’s activities were brought to wider public attention by Eric Sevareid, a young journalist, and future CBS correspondent.
The Jewish community responded by forming the Anti-Defamation Council of Minnesota in 1936, forerunner to the JCRC. It was led by Samuel Scheiner, an attorney who worked tirelessly to confront anti-Semitic activity. Among the offenders he exposed were real estate agents, landlords, and employers who continued to break Minnesota’s law prohibiting religious discrimination.
“There were still large swaths of the Twin Cities where Jews just did not live, even without the use of restrictive covenants. Realtors® would steer Jewish clients to certain homes in certain neighborhoods,” said Hunegs. “Plus, there was an economic component, too. In the 20s and 30s the Jewish Community still had rather modest means. So, the areas where people could afford to buy, were in the main where people lived—in the north side of Minneapolis and other areas like that.”
Despite the work of the Anti-Defamation Council, “hard-wired anti-Semitic attitudes” were difficult to change, Hunegs observed. Although many Americans were horrified by the genocidal anti-Semitism of the Nazis during World War II, an alarming number became even more bigoted against Jews. A national poll conducted in 1942 by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research showed that almost 24% of Americans were willing to participate in an ominously undefined “action” against Jews. Even in the wake of the war when genocidal atrocities of the Holocaust were revealed, many Minnesotans clung to fervent prejudices.
In 1946, the journalist Carey McWilliams wrote an article recounting the discrimination Jews still faced in housing, employment, and from local organizations and clubs. It was so pervasive that he dubbed Minneapolis “the anti-Semitic capital of the United States.” That distinction, Hunegs notes, was seen as somewhat exaggerated by the local Jewish community because this kind of bigotry was common across the nation in that era. Nonetheless, he concludes: “These conditions were a drag on people’s ability to fully engage with the greater community.” Ultimately, McWilliam’s story provided a snapshot of a world that was beginning to rapidly change.
“When Jewish soldiers came back from the war, they wanted to see a different world. They’d been to Europe; they’d been to the Pacific; some of them had seen concentration camps in Germany and Austria. They’d become part of the broader world. Having fought for our country, they weren’t going to assume any secondary status in our community,” Hunegs observed.
In 1945, Hubert Humphrey, the new mayor of Minneapolis (and future U.S. vice president) worked with Jewish allies to tackle discrimination against Blacks, Jews, and Japanese Americans by passing some of the first open housing and anti-discrimination ordinances. In 1948, the year he was elected to the U.S. Senate, he made a passionate plea for including a Civil Rights platform at the Democratic National Convention. That same year, the landmark Supreme Court case of Shelly vs. Kraemer outlawed racially restrictive housing covenants. The formal structures of segregation were eroding.
“My grandparents moved from North Minneapolis to St. Louis Park in 1949. Grandma wanted a larger yard. She loved her roses.” Hunegs said. “There was a great flowering in the Jewish American community at this time.” Colleges and universities, which had sharply restricted Jewish enrollment, suddenly opened up. Countless young people took advantage of educational opportunities, greatly expanding their potential for good, higher-earning careers. As the institutional structures of discrimination eroded, and incomes increased, Jewish people began leaving enclaves in places like North Minneapolis and moving to expanding suburbs in Golden Valley and St. Louis Park*.
In the decades that followed, advances in civil rights followed rapidly: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The former and the latter were authored and co-authored by Hubert Humphrey.
“It’s one thing to pass a law, it’s another thing to legislate morality,” Hunegs said. “It takes time for new attitudes to take hold.” He noted that communities like Edina, where very few Jewish families lived as recently as the 1970s, became much more open and welcoming. “Today, Edina is very respectful and solicitous of its Jewish community.”
Hunegs, who settled in St. Louis Park with his wife and children right around the corner from his grandparents’ home, reflected on the very special meaning of home for Jewish Americans in Minnesota and across the United States.
“In the beginning, homeownership gave Jewish people a concrete stake in the community. It was a place to live; a place that was safe,” Hunegs said. “It was a place where you got to know your neighbors. Where you could educate your kids. Where they could play Little League baseball. Where Jews and non-Jews, living side-by-side, were dedicated to the proposition that if you worked hard and were good neighbors, you could all give your kids a good start in life and build something even better for generations to come.”
*Learn more by visiting Mapping Prejudice, a project led by the University of Minnesota that documents the history and legacy of the structural racism that was institutionalized by the use of restrictive covenants. You can also read MNR’s review of Jim Crow of the North, a documentary on restrictive covenants produced by Twin Cities Public TV.
*For deep insights into St. Louis Park’s Jewish community during the 1950s and 60s, read Thank You for Being Late, by Thomas Friedman. Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and former St. Louis Park resident.