“I cannot believe people were so racist back then,” said Okeson who is white, “because I know now that most people aren’t like that.”
In July of 1931, a peaceful World War I veteran’s family life was disrupted by thousands of angry neighbors demanding that his family sell their home and move out of white south Minneapolis.
Remembered now as heroes, Arthur and Edith Lee — with daughter Mary — stood their ground. Despite police, postal workers and other World War I Vets standing guard to protect the family, rocks and black paint were thrown at the house and Mary’s dog Buster was poisoned. To avoid the violent mob, police had to escort Mary to school daily under a blanket.
When Okeson found out what the racist mob did in 1931, she knew others needed to be told of it. Her neighbor, Jim Bush, had started planning some kind of a ceremony. “We had no idea what it (the ceremony) was,” said Bush, a resident of the area for 40 years. “But the more we talked to people, the more people said yes, something should be done.”
Bush teamed up with Pepitos’s restaurant owner Joe Minjares to do the organizing.
There needed to be a memorial to the courage of the Lees, who had stood their ground. There needed to be a march to recall the event. Okeson sold lemonade to help raise the money needed for the memorial and event.
More than 3,000 people showed up this past weekend to remember and learn from an ugly incident in Minnesota history.
Robert Forman, grandson of Arthur and Edith, participated in the events along with his family and recalled the history as he learned from his grandfather and later elaborated by recent investigations.
“Within several days the crowd grew to literally thousands,” Forman told the sweltering present-day crowd. “This is a very good simulation of the event because the streets were barricaded off. We have the crowd. We have the heat. The only thing we don’t have is the fact that they were selling ice cream and refreshments. They are absent today because of that.
“The crowd grew. They threw stones. They threw black paint. They killed my mother’s dog Buster. They poisoned him. And the crowd was here from early morning till late into the next morning.
“Now my mother was attending Field school at the time, but she couldn’t go to the school because of the crowd was too big. Police came out and did escort her to and from the school. They literally wrap her in a blanket to bring her from the home to the police car and they would escort her to school and they would bring her home, they would wrap her in the blanket and take her into the house.“Then one day my Grandmother looked at my Grandfather and said ‘enough Lee, this has gone on long enough’. So my Grandfather, being of sound mind, sold his home. But you have to remember, Grandpa went to work. Mom had a police escort to school. Buster had been poisoned. So my Grandmother, when the postal workers were gone, when the VFW workers were gone, my Grandmother was 4 foot 11, she was in this home alone, still receiving threats. She was scared beyond belief. But even she stood her ground.
“So today, I hope you can understand what this celebration is all about. It’s not just about Arthur and Edith and Mary. It’s about his brother Edward and Lena Smith that represented him without ever charging him a fee. It was about the World War I veterans and US Postal workers that showed up. It was even about the person who sold this house originally whether he realized what he was doing or not.”
In 1931 the police were involved and there were many stories in the newspapers. At one point, an attorney (the first African American female to practice law in Minnesota) threatened to ask the governor to call out the National Guard. Postal workers and World War I veterans, mostly white, volunteered to guard the home.
The 2011 evening began at the Field School, site of a 1931 neighborhood meeting that evolved into the mob rioting outside the Lees’ home. The attendees then walked down 46th St to 4600 Columbus Avenue, where the Lees lived. The crowd blocked the street and the police erected barricades, just as was done in 1931, except the temperament of the crowd was very different.89-year-old Pearl Lindstrom, who is white, is the current owner of the home at 4600 Columbus. It’s been her home for 53 years. She graciously allowed a monument to the Lee’s memory to be placed on the corner of her lot. The monument is a large block of limestone with an attached steel sculpture.
“The lord was my guide and he approved of it.” said Lindstrom.
The celebration moved to McRae Park at 46th and Chicago for song and speeches. The evening ended with the release of two white doves in honor of Arthur and Edith Lee.
The Lees’ grandson, Robert Forman, grew up not knowing about the incident. His mother and grandparents never spoke of it “because they didn’t want to taint how we looked at the world,” Forman recalled.
“And now, within the last few weeks it’s actually made complete sense to me. I did not realize that the events that took place at this house what they actually meant until about two weeks ago. I did not realize what my grandparents and mother, even the dog Buster, had done in 1931. What that represented.”
The 1931 race mob and the courage shown by the Lees and others was one small step in the march to eliminating racism in the United States. That march isn’t over. But when you listen to Field Elementary school student Sydney Okeson, you can hear that the battle is nearly won.“A bunch of my friends are black, like my best friend Kelsey. And 80 years ago we wouldn’t be able to be friends because now I live a block away from where the Lees lived. So 80 years ago, neither my friend Kelsey or my other best friend Frances would be allowed to be my friend.”